No Teen Left Inside

Attracting Teens Into Outdoor Programs

By Kelli Anderson

When the United States Congress passed the No Child Left Inside Act in 2009 (a law influenced in great part by Richard Louv's influential book, Last Child in the Woods), our nation was finally saying "yes" to the environment and "yes" to the importance of a child's need to be in in it. As many recreation directors will tell you, however, getting children outdoors is one thing, but getting teenagers to sign up for the outdoor experience? Much more challenging.

Five years since that act was passed, there is encouraging news. A growing number of recreation facilities and organizations have discovered how to tap into the mindset of a new generation of teenagers, who are answering the call to outdoor activity and environmental service with enthusiasm. And in those cases, even in the face of shrinking state and federal funding for recreation and the environment, those who properly understand teens are not just seeing their parks improved and teens and programs growing, but are seeing revenues grow as well.

The Millennials

So, who are the millennials? According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are those born from 1982 to 2000, ages 14 to 32. And like every generation they have a distinct personality. In the case of millennials, these characteristics, if understood and addressed, can work to great advantage in gaining their attention and even enthusiastic dedication to engage the environment and outdoor activities.

"Millennials are collaborative, positive, tech-savvy, adaptable and connected," said Courtney Templin, chief operating officer with JB Training Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in millennial mindset, and author of "Millennials 3.0: A Millennial's Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management." "They love teamwork and group work or projects so they enjoy doing things together. When interviewing hundreds of millennials for our book, we continued to hear the word 'connected.' Millennials want to be connected—connected to their job, friends and family, and they want to be connected to purpose, passion and people. "

The Big Picture

A growing number of recreation facilities and organizations have discovered how to tap into the mindset of a new generation of teenagers, who are answering the call to outdoor activity and environmental service with enthusiasm.

Templin underscores an important key to motivating millennials: tapping into their desire to make a difference in the world and their community by showing them how they can collaborate, connect and contribute. Inherent in this process, however, is their need to understand the "why" behind everything—the big picture—in order to gain their buy-in. Those who succeed in gaining their trust, testify that their participation and contributions are nothing short of amazing.

For park districts, state programs and environmental groups, this comes as great news, given that many environmental projects require group cooperation (that connecting, communal quality millennials love). Not to mention the fact that such projects are usually full of environment-saving and community-enriching reasons to explain why they are needed to make a difference in the world we live in.

"What's attractive to them is to have something they're feeling involved in, give them something to believe in and buy into," said Angela Summers, aquatic supervisor in the Parks and Recreation of Henderson, Nev., about their popular teen lifeguarding program, Junior Pool Partners. "In parks and recreation, they get that they are part of an important team."

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.

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).

Breaking Away

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.

Sneaking in nature experiences to help rally the troops isn't just for staff. It turns out, it's also a great way to get the attention and keep it in teen programs that aren't necessarily outdoor-oriented.

When Nolan was first tasked by his director to focus on the third pillar of the NPRA (conservation ethics) in their programming, it meant looking for opportunities for service learning. Something they discovered was that by adding an unexpected element—say, kayaking or a service/learning project in the woods—that this kind of break-away from the norm often captures their attention in a way that nothing else does.

"We have an opportunity to expand existing programs and tweak them a little bit to incorporate nature into it," Nolan explained. "A lot of kids have never been kayaking or we do an overnight where many have never been camping. It's great to expose them to that to something they might not normally be able to do."

His focused approach usually begins by looking at an existing program to ask how he can raise a teen's awareness of their surroundings so they are more likely to pay attention, to try to build on and keep their curiosity and, hopefully, develop a passion for being outdoors and in nature. According to him, this progression has worked the best, and especially so when it's a surprise element of a typically indoor activity.

Great Expectations

Another way to get teen attention is to appeal to their future. In Henderson, the kids know participants in the Jr. Lifeguard program have a pathway to a paying job.

"When they come to be part of the program, provided they put in their hours and do a good job, they're guaranteed a job with us when they turn 16," Summers said. "Not only are they interested in being part of a team and working, but they look forward to the end result of being able to work for us."

This also has been a great way to reduce the need for recruitment. By using teens already in their system, they have the advantage of hiring those already trained to their specifications, who are invested in the program long-term and who already know their staff.

Banks, too, has found that helping teens see their service to the parks as a gateway to real jobs and career training has been a good incentive, attributing their 88 to 90 percent retention rate in part to their commitment to helping teens see a brighter future for themselves.

For the past three years, in fact, their programming has included working with older teens out of school and partners to do career counseling, GED training and to develop crews to do work projects when a teen shows an interest in a particular career. This year they will even be working with a local university to take on teens for a forestry academy that will earn the participants college credit.

"We want to make sure we are preparing these kids for a career in their field," Banks said of their goals. "They will come away with a certificate, training and will have built skills levels. There will be a difference between those who come through the CJC and the kid who comes off the street."

Others have found that tapping into local graduation requirements (service work) is a great way to attract teen interest in environmental service and a great opportunity to educate them not just about the environment, but environmental careers and to leave their programs as more educated voters for environmental needs.

The advantages are also monetary. "In my section alone in aquatics last year, over 10 weeks we staffed junior lifeguards and saved $56,000 and had the highest grossing revenue year—almost over a million," Summers said. "That's because of their assistance, we can take more people into our pools, increase our participation and have additional eyes. Plus, we have help with check-in and really a lot of areas they can assist with extra supervision, so it's a great resource for revenue generation and for savings."

Banks, too, said that the Department of Natural Resources in Maryland has been the beneficiary of the hard and dedicated work they have seen from their CJC participants, resulting in a budget that is 1.5 million dollars in the black.

According to Banks, one of the biggest mistakes they made was underestimating the amount of work their teens could do. "The first two or three years, we didn't have enough for them to complete," he said of their formerly low expectations. "But when the CJC raised the bar for these kids, many got up at 5:30 in the morning to get to work in heat, rain and with bugs and reptiles. They blew the lid off the projects so fast."

Although it's still early to tell the impact that working in the environment has had on the CJC participants, Banks knows that they are making a difference. "Once you put them in a place where they use different senses, muscles and parts of their minds, we see a difference in kids," he said. "We see a change in self-esteem and how they carry themselves and we teach them how to be a steward of the environment. That's the foundation of where we're going as a program."

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