Feature Article - March 2014
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No Teen Left Inside

Attracting Teens Into Outdoor Programs

By Kelli Anderson

Experience Wanted

Contrary to stereotypes about teens in general and millennials in particular, this generation is not necessarily lazy or glued to their technology. Once their passions are ignited and they are given direction, they are usually hard-working and eager to seek out authentic, hands-on experiences.

This has certainly been Summers' experience. The teens she works with want authentic, retro experiences precisely because they are so inundated with media. This, she said, is one reason why they are attracting to the basics like archery and fishing. When it comes to networking sites and social media, she is noticing a change from the days when sites like Facebook were so popular. "They come out to the pools and aren't on their phones. They're just getting out and doing stuff."

A common mistake, in fact, is the assumption teens are into technology for its own sake. Look beneath that text-clicking surface, however, and you will find that what many millennials really want is at the root of the technology. Connection. To make a difference. And to have an experience.

Summers believes that part of their successful appeal to teens has been due to a concerted effort to understand their motivation and why their staff has focused on creating enjoyable moments, getting back to nature and experiencing the more classic days of recreation.

Of course, these characterizations are very general, but even with the significant demographic variables ranging from differences in ethnicity to socioeconomics, recreation program directors across the country are finding that the overall qualities of millennials tend to be true across the board. By tapping into this generation's strengths (while, of course, also identifying/addressing specific local hurdles), managers of teen programs are finding great success in attracting them to environmental causes, projects and outdoor activities.

Jumping Hurdles

There are definitely hurdles. Make no mistake. One hurdle being that millennials, for all their good points, do have an Achilles heel. They tend to be non-self-starters. Although theories abound to explain its origins, this generation's fear of failure nevertheless takes the form of fearing to try. To step out. To think outside the box. Or take initiative. As a result, they generally require more direction and instruction.

But for all their shared qualities, one size cannot fit all. There are definite differences between subgroups that need to be identified and addressed. For example, some hurdles can be cultural.

When Fred Banks came on as program director for the Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis, Md., in 2009, he inherited the responsibility of the Maryland Conservation Job Corps (CJC). This 1-year-old program and extension of the much older Civilian Conservation Corps, was designed to provide conservation service opportunities to disadvantaged youth to help connect them to the outdoors, create teen leaders and train for real-life job responsibility while working on environmental building and care projects.

However, it soon became clear to him that there was an inherent problem. The program was mostly viewed by the urban teens as a form of punishment, and resistance was even greater from the parents. As a result, participation was low and retention was difficult.

"My initial task was to move away from kids who viewed it as a punishment and to see how many kids were there out of a genuine interest in being outdoors," Banks said. "For the most part people in this field are not African-American or come from urban areas, so there is a natural apprehension about the work the kids would be doing and the stigma of working outdoors in the woods."

As a result, he and his team invested a good deal of PR time sitting with kids, parents, aunts and uncles to assure them and show a bigger picture of the program, including the kind of important projects they would be working on along with fun outdoor experiences like scaling a climbing wall.

Far from just busywork, the program reflects a great deal of effort and creativity on the part of its designers. "One of the things that makes this program successful and less of a recruiting challenge is rangers come up with outstanding projects that are imaginative and creative, and they do a good job of explaining the importance of projects," Banks said about the successful changes they made in their approach.

"It's not just picking up garbage in a parking lot or raking leaves or pushing a shovel, it's creating wildlife sanctuaries and aviaries. It's the sort of thing they come back to show parents the work they've done." In fact, three and four years later, Banks has found that former CJC participants who planted trees and built a pavilion are still coming back with their families to admire the beautiful forested areas and structure they created.