Connecting Youth and Their Families to Nature

Mar 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I think a lot about the journey that led me to form a deep connection with the outdoors, and now see clearly how fortunate I was that my family had a strong connection to land and nature, and how my parents trusted institutions like the Girl Scouts, and our local recreation center to help me connect deeply with my environment. Had I not received this kind of support and encouragement from  home throughout my childhood, my interactions with nature might have been less relevant to my daily life,  and I would not have the lasting positive effects of nature I enjoy today.

Lately I have been having some lively discussions with colleagues about the trend to focus on youth in the outdoors. Most agree that connecting youth to nature is essential to creating a new generation of environmental champions, but too often programs do not consider the involvement of parents and caregivers of youth, who are essential to help sustain long term engagement with the outdoors, and who may have the need to connect meaningfully with the environment for their own enrichment.

Today, my own school-age children love nature and especially enjoy camping, but their relationship with nature evolved within the security of sharing outdoor experiences with me over time. At camp, under a canopy of a dark night and serenaded by the sounds of nature, I am near my children; sharing stories, soothing fears. With me in nature, my children always know they are safe and understood. And because of my own developed connection to the outdoors, I have the motivation and resources to lead them outside again and again.

Denene Millner and Family

Connecting youth with their families to nature can help address fears and perceptions and cultural relevancy, which are widely recognized in the field as important barriers to lower before a relationship to the outdoors can be built. From the perspective of some communities, sending children away alone for overnight outdoor experiences might be a no-go, but going together as a family might be a more inviting concept.

Family Camp has always been an important vehicle to help some communities feel more comfortable with the idea of sending their kids away by participating first together as a family. For instance, Y.E.S. Families is a program that enriches Richmond, California youth and their parents through camp. They believe that youth, and the adults around them need and deserve opportunities to develop deep connections and supportive relationships with one another; and experiences in nature, contribute to building developmental assets that enrich their relationships when families return home. They understand that nature provides families a space for reconnection and healing not typically found within hectic schedules in the urban environment.

Click to watch Y.E.S Family stories

Yes, it is important to get children and youth outside. But in order to move the needle toward increased and sustainable participation in the outdoors, especially among traditionally underrepresented communities, parents and caregivers must be central to the mix, and encouraged to create and define their own connections to nature that moves beyond permission slips to full participation.

Besides camp, what are some other ways might families participate in outdoor experiences together?

8 responses so far

  • Besides camp, what are some other ways might families participate in outdoor experiences together?

    By going outdoors? I'm not sure I understand the question...

    • Rue Mapp says:

      Activities? Programs? What are your specific ideas?

      • Go for walks, picnics. Go to the beach. See the National Parks or State Parks. Get together with another family and go as a group.

        I guess I mean that my experience (admittedly of being a kid, not having one) is that kids don't need a lot of structured activities to enjoy being outdoors. Maybe that's not universal?

        • Rue Mapp says:

          You are right, but culturally speaking, there is not a lot of community support for people to send their kids outside in an unstructured way anymore. I have actually had my kids "returned" to me when they were out being kids without me directing their every move. These attitudes are changing in some areas, and with the help of the Children in Nature Movement, but its not as wide spread as it was a generation ago.

          We now have a major disconnect between nature and some communities, and the point of the question is not to be prescriptive, but to encourage some creative thinking about how to foster more outdoor engagement for communities where it may not exist otherwise.

  • I didn't just mean unstructured for the kids - adults too! Nature is neat, you never know what you'll find. But thank you, I think I see the problem now (if not the solution).

    • Rue Mapp says:

      Absolutely for adults, but unfortunately many adults don't know where to start either. Structured programs are great for introductory experiences with the hope that people can be inspired to do more and on their own terms.

      Thanks for your comments!