From 2006 to 2008, outdoor participation among the youngest of Americans, plummeted. Although these numbers are starting to see a reversal, thanks in large part to efforts by awesome non-profits across the country, simply put, the younger generation doesn’t get near the outside-time that their older predecessors did.
Out of distress, I went to Appalachian Trail Conservancy‘s community program manager, Julie Judkins, who works with the Trail to Every Classroom (TTEC) and the AT Community programs, to find out how they are being a part of the solution.
James Kennedy: Can you tell me a bit about what you do with these programs?
Julie Judkins: I’m the staff lead for our community program so I work trail wide within the 14 states that the trail passes to assist communities in becoming partners with our designation program. If they want to be designated as a trail community, I help them through the process. They build a committee and identify the ways they will help and protect the trail.
I also work with AT ambassadors, which is an initiative within that program. We have 17 ambassadors this year, and they are volunteer positions and we provide a small stipend and training to them to act as a liaison from the trail maintaining club and the ATC. Of course they work with the community to help them with the activities that they want to be doing.
For the TTEC I lead the trail wide communication for teachers to apply. Generally I focus regionally with the teachers in this program. My office is in Asheville, North Carolina and I work with the regional workshops that we have for them. The program is trail wide, and every year that we have the program we have 50 teachers from all over come and go through the program. Regionally I’ll work with 10 teachers from Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
JK: There has been a noticeable shift between how kids play today and how they played two decades ago. Why is the outdoors being abandoned?
JJ: I think it’s a variety of factors. We have increasing opportunities with technology and fun things to do that are inside. There is a fear for parents to let kids stray too far into the wilderness, or even into their neighbor’s yards.
We’re definitely finding that when we go to the communities that are by the trails, we assume that they know that they have the trail in their backyards, but actually a lot of them don’t.
JK: Society is teaching kids to avoid being in nature through things such as Google Earth Trails and in-depth videos of wild places. As cool as it may be to see all that nature has to offer on our screen, would we be better off if this weren’t the case?
JJ: I think that’s a tough question to answer. Part of managing the AT is managing for a trail experience. Part of that is connecting with nature, and that is not connecting with devices and technology. I also think that we can use technology to introduce people to the trail and to the outdoors. It can be a gateway for them to actually get out there and experience.
We need to be working on engaging a conservation aspect with the next generation, and if we need to use technology to introduce them to it then that is ok. Once you are in the wilderness, you need an understanding to experience it to its fullness by turning off your phone.
JK: Most kids that are active in the outdoors have parents that are also active in the outdoors. Is this the case when they are out with Trail to Every Classroom?
JJ: Yes, and I think going back to what I just said is that is one of the reasons we need those different methods for introducing a wider audience to the trails and the outdoors. Right now it is the parents or the teachers that have been introduced to the outdoors at a younger age, and they are getting their kids out. It’s a little different when you look at the inner cities that don’t experience the trails in the same ways. We need to be accepting and open to them. We need them to get excited about the outdoors, and this is a way to introduce them.
Another way to say this is to make sure the trail, backpacking and hiking remain relevant, and that might mean we adjust our way of thinking to other cultures.
JK: Children often fall short of recommended outdoor exercise if their parents are of Asian, African-American or Hispanic descent. What are your plans for reaching those communities?
JJ: To be honest, we’re primarily recruiting for the two programs in towns that are in close proximity to the trail. The trail runs mostly through rural America, so some of those populations aren’t as abundant yet. That being said, the trail does run right through New York and we have had great success in recruiting teachers from the Bronx and other places within the city, so that’s partially an answer. With our trail clubs, they have additional outreach programs.
Some of the rural communities are pretty under-served anyways, so to us it’s just as much a necessity to work with those communities.