Dancing Hawks

Teens from the Venturers scout program in the White Mountains, NH. Photo: Tracy PowellAMC Outdoors, April 2008

Meet a group of parents who make sure children aren't left inside.

Children often learn to camp from their parents. But Barbara Dyer’s parents learned to camp from her. As a 16-year-old, she brought them out to sleep in the woods for the first time. And now, the 44-year-old teacher and mother of two is introducing camping to a new generation. She and her husband Paul, who live in Southborough, Mass., frequently plan family outdoor adventure trips around their two children, ages 8 and 10.

“My kids’ first experiences with hiking and camping were as babies riding in a backpack,” Dyer says. “I expose my kids to the natural world as much as possible and have done that since they were very young, always with the hope that they will in turn promote it to the next generation of conservationists.”

Dyer, an AMC member for 15 years and the former chair of the Worcester Chapter, is one of many parents, educators, pe­diatricians, and environmentalists who agree that spending more time outdoors improves children’s physical and mental well-be­ing, as well as their appreciation of the natural world.

Such advocates are encouraging more children to take part in outdoor activities, in a movement that has been dubbed No Child Left Inside. Their efforts are creating results nationwide. In 2007 alone, Connecticut organized its second annual state park scavenger hunt, which attracted hundreds of families; Massachu­setts launched a similar program called the Great Parks Pursuit; Texas undertook a public-awareness initiative linking kids’ sed­entary activities such as TV and computer use with health prob­lems; and in Washington state, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill to study how outdoor education affects academic success and personal responsibility. AMC is working with state and federal agencies and other partners planning No Child Left Inside initia­tives in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Many attribute the genesis of this movement to author Rich­ard Louv, whose 2005 book Last Child in the Woods warns of the consequences when children become increasingly disassociated from natural environments. The evidence seems undeniable. An oft-cited 2004 University of Illinois study found that spending time outdoors resulted in “significant symptom abatement” in a test group of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disor­der, and a report from the California Department of Education the following year showed middle school students improving their science scores by more than 25 percent after spending a week engaged in hands-on study of the environment.

Here we look at three examples of how AMC members and volunteers are demonstrating to children—their own and those with whom they are entrusted—the value of outdoor recreation. In doing so, they are not only giving the kids a chance to try camping and hiking—they’re instilling a passion for nature in the next generation.

Youth Opportunities

David English remembers how he felt when he attended his first AMC Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) training in 2006. “I looked around and noticed that I was twice as old as everyone else in the room,” recalls the 48-year-old father of four from Cambridge, Mass. “I felt a little out of place. But I thought, ‘I can do this. I’ve done harder things than this.’”

YOP, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, provides youth workers, teachers, counselors, and other adults training and certification to lead their youth groups on outdoor trips. The goal is to make the outdoors and the environment accessible and meaningful to youth from all socioeconomic backgrounds. To become YOP members and receive the program’s support services, adults such as English attend a four- or five-day training that covers the basics of first aid, orienteering, equipment use, and group management. More advanced training programs cover specialized topics such as winter travel, canoeing, and wilderness first aid.

English attended the YOP training to augment his work with a program called Venturers, a Boy Scouts offshoot for male and female teens. He had recently begun leading trips through Venturers and was concerned about the high cost of the pro­grams. Once he underwent YOP training, his groups could use YOP’s equipment for free and get reduced lodging rates at AMC facilities, bringing the cost down significantly.

Last summer, he took a group of 10 teens on a four-day backpacking and camping trip to Mount Cardigan; the group camped, stayed at AMC’s Cardigan Lodge, and went to High Cabin. “They all had a blast,” he reports. “I took my 16-year-old son along, kicking and screaming. I practically had to drag him out the door. But guess what? I’ve never seen him have so much fun in his life.”

Such resistance to the trip is something that English sees often among his youth group members as well as among his own four children. “A lot of kids from the city have a built-in preconception that when we head into the woods, we’re going into the great beyond and they’ll never make it back,” he says. “They think they’re venturing beyond civilization, especially when they find out we don’t allow them to bring any electron­ics along. The trick is to get them there and then keep them busy. As soon as we get onto the trail, I explain to them how to read the blazes on the trees. Keep them busy enough, and the next thing they know they’ve summitted a 5,000-foot-high mountain.”

English’s 16-year-old daughter Tsekai, who along with her twin brother has gone on many trips with her dad, concurs. “I’ve seen amazing views, pushed myself to new limits, learned about the outdoors and wilderness first aid,” she says. “I always love stopping to look back over the trail during a hike to see what we’ve climbed and where we started. Knowing that I can climb a 4,000-footer makes me feel like I can do anything.”

Stefanie Brochu, the YOP director for AMC, has witnessed this same transformation herself. “I’ll never forget the absolute astonishment on the face of a teenager from Lowell, Mass., when we arrived at Lonesome Lake Hut after several hours of hiking,” she recalls. “He could not believe that in the middle of the wilderness there could be a building where we would find warm food and cozy bunks. When the hut came into view, the whole group cheered, and the look on his face was priceless. It reminded me how much youth benefit from stepping into new environments and experiencing new places.”

Not that it’s always easy to get them there, but English, whose daytime job is managing a fleet for a bus company, has learned a lot about kids during his work as an excursion lead­er—as well as by raising his own children. “Kids are very resilient. They can bounce back from anything,” he says. “On some trips, there are days when we struggle, but kids seem to have a way of regulating themselves.”

And of course there’s more to the trips than hard labor. Tano Holmes, a 17-year-old Venturer who has joined English several times, recalls a seven-mile showshoe trek through two feet of powder. When the group arrived at the hut, “we went sledding down the extremely steep hill nearby on our avalanche shovels,” he says. “When David climbed that hill to the hut, he removed his hat, and steam billowed off of his head, to the amusement of all the group members.”

Ultimately, English explains, it’s moments of joviality like this one, as well as the leadership of their peers, that get young people over the hurdles. He recalls a trip last fall to the Berk­shires with a young participant who was on his first long hike. “He struggled a lot, but the other kids gave him some good pep talks. The hike took us a long time, but the beauty of it was that it was his peers and not the adults that really helped him get through it,” he says. “That’s really our goal: to see kids helping each other out. It doesn’t mean as much coming from me as from another kid.”

Photo: Tracy Powell