Feature Article - March 2014
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No Teen Left Inside

Attracting Teens Into Outdoor Programs

By Kelli Anderson

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Another variable that can require a more creative approach is understanding differences in gender. In the case of Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation in Maryland, a bi-county agency responsible for 44 community centers and 28,000 acres of recreational land, despite their efforts to create outdoor recreation programs that appealed to boys and girls, they tended to attract more boys. Then, two years ago, they started a program called Girls Excited About Recreation (GEAR).

"One of the things staff picked up on is that even though our offerings are open to whoever, that sometimes you really need to target it toward girls," said Anthony Nolan, chief of special programs division, who attributes possible success to the kismet timing of movies like The Hunger Games that have popularized outdoor adventure for girls. "It's been a great opportunity to provide additional programming like archery and nature hikes. GEAR provides a different environment for the girls to participate in."

Express Your Wild Child

Sometimes it isn't a different activity that a teen needs, but a focus on how to connect nature to their typically more indoor interests like the arts.

Noting the success of a Canadian competition started 18 years ago that required teen artists to submit art from their local natural surroundings and wildlife, Nolan's division kicked off an art contest competition last year called "Get to Know Your Wild Neighbor."

This year they partnered with a youth services art coordinator who built a staff of six local artists to take the program to teen camps and centers, resulting in 800 entries. "It was a really amazing effort and really seemed to generate a lot of positive feedback and definitely for the kids it acted as a needed incentive," Nolan said of its popularity. "The different categories of photography, music, art and videography all have a main parameter that each entry has to be of a natural subject in the wild."

Teens at risk are yet another subgroup whose habitat is often urban. One innovative program called "Camp Expressions" partners with a local 4-H center to let Mother Nature work her therapeutic magic on teens at risk who attend the weeklong overnight camp. Surrounded by mature woods and trails where they can find solitude and quiet, teens who struggle with difficult life circumstances are encouraged to write, paint and compose their expressions in natural surroundings to deal with personal conflict in a non-violent way.

"It's a very positive program where at the end of camp, the kids share their art in a very open and honest—sometimes raw—way that is very cathartic and powerful," Nolan explained. "Nature is both inspirational and therapeutic, something these teens are not normally exposed to."

Dance Partners

Whether it's working along side 4-H or utilizing skills of local youth services, there is one key ingredient to creating effective programming for teens in today's environment: partnerships.

"Partnership is key," Banks said, underscoring an element that has made their growing teen programs possible despite miniscule staff and shrinking budgets. "I think the most important thing is to get stakeholders together sitting at a table to come up with creative partnerships so that the brunt of the load doesn't fall on one agency."

According to Banks, they partner with more than 90 organizations that meet quarterly.

As a result, when they have needs, there is often a resource they can approach for help such as writing/obtaining grants, providing daily transportation from urban areas to remote park project sites, or finding placement for an interested teen to work in their field of interest. "We get lots of assistance from people with similar goals. We all want to help kids. We all want to help the environment. So how can we do this together so it doesn't all fall on one of our shoulders?"

Throwing Staff Out

Another vital element in attracting millennials is recreation staff. Enthusiasm and creativity need to be a solid ingredient in the makeup of those who interact with teens. Park rangers, for example, are a great resource, often happy to share information about local wildlife visitors might encounter with regard to their local parks and trails.

Ironically, even as we focus on efforts to get teens outdoors, sometimes it is the staff that needs to be coaxed out from the comfortable confines of the community center or indoor training facility. "Sometimes recreation staff is more reluctant than kids to get outside," Nolan acknowledged. Some methods he uses to reinvigorate his staff include outdoor team-building exercises and opportunities for just plain fun (kayaking, a boat tour of the river or biking on trails), in addition to using creative teaching videos presenting programs on nature to help them brush up on their skills (available online from the National Parks and Recreation Association).