My daughter burst through the doors of the school bus one sunny winter afternoon and ran straight in to my arms. “I fell off a log, and I have three Band-Aids!” she exclaimed cheerfully. On our walk home from the bus, she told me all about it: The kids in her kindergarten class had found a log, a fallen tree and spent their entire recess helping each other climb it. Then, they made it into a slide, and fell all over each other, laughing hysterically the whole time (and that’s where the bandages came in).
It was refreshing to hear how simple it was for this group of kids to spend time outdoors, in an unstructured activity they had created and directed themselves. There was no gear, no rules, no expectations; just kids having fun outside. I was so happy to learn about this part of her day, especially since it seems those opportunities are increasingly rare in children’s’ lives, despite the many benefits like improved physical health, well-being and quality of life.
Arwen Turner, the executive director of Come Alive Outside, a Rutland-based nonprofit that focuses on getting people outdoors, paints a grim picture: Today’s child is spending 50% less time outside than kids did in 1980, when I was born, and that’s important, because time spent outdoors is directly correlated with physical activity. Despite regular activity being an important part of physical and mental health, only 24% of today’s kids are getting the recommended daily dose. Kids are experiencing less unstructured play time and, amazingly, are spending as much as 7 hours per day on screens. It’s all led to what author Richard Louv has coined “nature-deficit disorder.” Kids just aren’t playing outside any more.
The primary barrier for getting kids outside is financial, says Mirna Valerio, an outdoor educator and advocate of equal access to the outdoors, known for her blog, Fat Girl Running, and a viral REI documentary called “The Mirnavator.” She was recently one of three panelists at a symposium, “Helping Youth Thrive: Overcoming Barriers to Outdoor Experiences,” coordinated by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and Come Alive Outside. The event was hosted Jan. 21 over Zoom, and the panelists discussed the barriers to getting youth outside, and what can be done to overcome them.
These financial barriers, says Valerio, can include the cost of gear and transportation needed to access trails or other outdoor infrastructure. Myra Peffer, program director for Come Alive Outside, and another of the three panelists at the symposium, agreed that many outdoor sports are simply inaccessible to youth and families because of cost.
Peffer says, being based in Rutland, there are ski resorts like Pico and Killington right in the area, “but that’s just out of a lot of peoples’ price range.”
Biking isn’t much better, she adds, and she experienced her own sticker shock recently while shopping for a new bike for herself. “You have this great system of trails for riding bikes around Vermont, but can you afford to have a bike?”
Affordability, and how it affects access to outdoor sports, was a significant concern for Jen Roberts, co-owner of Onion River Outdoors, an outdoor gear shop in downtown Montpelier, when she sat down to write her business plan three years ago. She set out with a goal to bring in lower-priced gear and clothing to make these items accessible to more people, but when she looked at the economics of adding them, she couldn’t make it all pencil out.
“You look at the reality of 3,600 square feet (of retail space) in downtown Montpelier, and then the number of customers, and to make rent and pay taxes and afford to pay a livable wage, the average sale amount has to be higher,” Roberts explains. “We either have to pay low wages, or sell higher-end stuff.” All of this is exacerbated by being in a rural area, she says; higher customer density would change the whole equation.
“If there were two times as many people (or customers), this wouldn’t be a question,” says Roberts.
And this is all incredibly unfortunate, she acknowledges. Schools around the state work to get kids outside, and exposing students to outdoor sports like cross-country skiing and biking, but families might not be able to support that at home, because of barriers such as cost, transportation and time.
“If families don’t have the funds or time in their schedule, how can they keep doing it?” asks Roberts.
And that’s another important point: Culture, particularly that of families and schools, is another top barrier to getting kids outside. Recess is a shrinking part of students’ school day around the country, and some families, particularly people of color, just don’t go outside to recreate, and so kids lose the opportunity to be exposed to the outdoors. It’s unfortunate, says Valerio, because research has shown that, when kids spend time outdoors at a young age, it sticks with them throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Yet another barrier to getting kids outside, which came up repeatedly among panelists at the symposium, is more of an image problem, or the “outdoor persona,” which can be intimidating and hard to overcome. It’s the idea that outdoor sport has to be a structured, performance-based activity, or else it doesn’t count.
“One of the barriers is having this notion of the outdoors being only one thing,” says Valerio. “Like, ‘I don’t do the outdoors because I don’t do Everest. I don’t kayak. I don’t go hiking, so I’m not an outdoors person,’ and so we have this very limited perception of what the outdoors is,” she explains.
Roberts says she encounters this problem frequently in her shop, too. “We hear all the time from customers, ‘Oh, I’m not hard-core.’ There is this image of outdoor sports being hard-core that some people adopt and love, and then others are cowed by it.”
Valerio says we need a broader definition of what it is to be an outdoors person, one that includes people who work outdoors, such as farmers and migrant farm workers, for example. “When we don’t acknowledge those people, then those people say, ‘Well, I’m not an outdoors person, so I’m not going to participate in this.’”
As for her shop, Roberts says she addresses the problem by hiring staff who are enthusiastic, friendly and approachable, and by coaching her staff to meet the customer where they are at. “Whatever people bring in the door,” says Roberts, “we are psyched about it.”
Thankfully, it’s fairly easy for most kids to just head outside. Although sometimes they need a little guidance and support.
“We can help kids discover the outdoors without it being about performance or a sport or activity,” says Valerio. The panelists all agreed: kids can choose and dictate their own activities outdoors, it’s in their nature; and imaginative play is free. Among the panelists, all of their best childhood memories of spending time outdoors included minimal supervision and maximum self-directed creativity.
“It can be really simple,” says Peffer about her work with youth at Come Alive Outside. “You can make your own adventure, and there are lots of ideas for cheap or free things to do right in your yard.”
Come Alive Outside’s Passport program, which grew from 400 kids participating in its first year in 2017 to 3,084 kids participating this year, aims to do just that: The program provides loads of ideas for kids and their families to do right in their own yard or close by, to help them understand what’s available. The bigger-picture goal is, of course, to introduce more kids to the benefits of leading their own creative activities in the outdoors.
Peffer encourages kids to build a snow fort or make a snow maze, make a pinecone bird feeder or a winter campfire, take a full moon walk, or go sledding. Kids can find a walking stick and decorate it with materials they have around the house, or take a nature sound walk to just listen. Kids can go on a bug hunt, or simply sit quietly and draw a picture of what they see.
It all made me think of my daughter’s own cohort, making an afternoon out of a log they found at the edge of the woods. I knew they were physically and mentally better off for their time spent outdoors, and I knew their shared positive experience made all of them more likely to return to the woods for fun and respite. When there are so many barriers to getting kids outside, like transportation, expensive gear, knowledge of where to go and learning a new sport, an image problem doesn’t have to be one of them. Getting kids outside can, very simply, just be heading outside.
Or, in the words of Valerio: “The outdoors encompasses more than one kind of outdoors. Acknowledging all experiences is a huge step in destroying barriers.”