Across California and around the country, young people are spending less time outdoors and more time in front of a screen than ever before. As a result, more and more young people are disconnected from the natural world. This disturbing trend has implications for their health and well-being, academic success, civic engagement, and their future interest in both public lands and the environment. In 2011, the Breaking Barriers Project undertook a year-long, action-oriented, research project designed to increase understanding of what prevents and what motivates youth to participate in outdoor activities.
The goal of the project has been to strengthen outdoor programs and strategies for engagement. Breaking Barriers comes at a critical time for outdoor-focused and youth-serving organizations; given the current economic climate and the ongoing change in population demographics, providing culturally relevant, engaging opportunities for youth in the outdoors will prove essential for the health of individuals, communities and the environmental, both today and tomorrow.
The major findings of the Breaking Barriers Project include:
Familial and cultural traditions are the primary factor for engaging youth in outdoor activities.
Secondary engagers are community (friends/social connections) and emotional reasons such as connecting to nature and stress relief.
One of the largest barriers to participation in outdoor activities is a range fears that include lack of confidence, fear of animals, fear of the unknown, concerns for safety, and fear of crowds.
The second most prominent barrier is the role of other life priorities and interests; adults feel that outdoor time requires planning and energy, while youth find conflicts with homework, school sports and other activities.
Youth culture, in particular, can often have conflicting values with program providers and other adults. Adults want a framework, organized activities, structure, and community support, while youth want freedom, less rules, and time to just “hang out.” They desire support, but not structure, and adventure versus the safety many adults crave.
As evidenced throughout the Breaking Barriers project, there aren’t simply just three barriers that one can remove—such as transportation, money, fear—to increase youth participation in the outdoors; the issue is far more interconnected and complex. Communities want to see their culture reflected in the outdoors. Individuals and organizations who work with youth need to not only gain knowledge of the cultures represented in the communities with which they work, they need to translate this knowledge into program offerings and an inclusive institutional culture.
We welcome your feedback to this community forum report, and invite you to add other topics to the discussion within this online forum. Please feel free to post your comments and add topics you feel are relevant and can help us break these barriers to connect youth to the outdoors, empower them to be future leaders and stewards of the forest, and to live healthy lives.