Get Outside BC
Credit: Rammy Fong

"There’s nothing to do around here.”

To anyone with a teenager, this complaint is familiar. 

Robyn Anderson heard it all the time and couldn’t believe it. The 17-year-old from Kimberley, BC, knew she lived in a giant playground in southeastern BC, surrounded by rivers, mountains, forests and trails. Her peers just didn’t know where to look. 

“Today’s society is becoming more reluctant to go outside,” she says. “But establishing a connection with nature makes topics such as climate change and saving wild spaces more close to the heart. It’s really important.”

Several organizations in Canada agree and are now trying to reverse the same disturbing trend Anderson has noticed. For a host of reasons, young people spend less time outdoors than their parents, putting their health and the country’s wild places at risk. 

In a telling U.S. study, 71 per cent of today’s mothers said they recalled playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 per cent of them said their kids play outdoors daily. A 2012 David Suzuki Foundation report found 70 per cent of Canadian kids spend less than an hour a day outside — while the average North American child spends 7.5 hours per day looking at screens, according to a study by the U.S.-based Kaiser Family Foundation. Other studies have found links between more time spent outside with reduced rates of hyperactivity and obesity and better memory, problem solving and creativity in kids and young adults. Plus, outdoor time links people with nature, creating citizens who are more likely to take action for wild places as adults.

“We found that if [people] spend time outside when they’re young, they’re 20 per cent more likely to take part in outdoor programs or to explore nature on their own when they’re older,” says Leanne Clare from the David Suzuki Foundation.

That’s why the foundation started multiple initiatives to get kids into nature, including Connecting With Nature, free outdoor education lesson plans for kindergarten to grade eight classrooms, and a challenge to families to spend more time outside every day.

However, the biggest declines in outdoor participation occur as adolescents transition to adults. Between the ages of 12 and 19, 71 per cent of Canadian kids are at least moderately active, according to a 2013 Stats Canada survey. That drops to 60 per cent for the 20 to 34 age group. 

Outdoor Nation targeted this age group in the U.S., starting in 2010. The program brings together youth in weekend seminars to brainstorm and develop projects aimed at bridging the barriers youth face to spending more time outside. The best projects from each weekend — developing outdoor clubs, community gardens, women’s mountain bike clinics — win funding and further help with their projects. Now MEC is bringing Outdoor Nation to Canada.

“There are few programs that support this age group to be more active,” says Elyse Curley, the Outdoor Nation coordinator at MEC. “We want to help address the barriers stopping them from engaging, because the more young adults are outside and active, the better Canada will be as a country.”

The first MEC Outdoor Nation took place in Vancouver in September. Two more are scheduled for Toronto and Montreal in 2015. Eighteen- to 27-year-olds apply to take part in the weekend seminars and about 150 are invited. They camp together and spend two days listening to guest speakers, brainstorming and working together on the projects before voting on the best proposals. The top three projects split $30,000 in funding. 

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has a similar program already in place. Get Outside BC was founded in 2011 and then spread to Alberta and Ontario in 2013. It hosts summits aimed at empowering youth to find ways of getting their peers outside. 

“The summits encourage youth to develop events that they find interesting and make them and their friends want to go outside,” says Kate MacMillian, Get Outside BC coordinator. “They are the ones that know how to get their generation outside more.”

Back in Kimberly, Robyn Anderson attended a Get Outside BC seminar in summer 2014 with the goal of founding a youth outdoor club. 

“I want to help [the young people in town] to realize how amazing the outdoors are and all that it has to offer,” she says. “I think that a love for the outdoors can really go a long way, longer than an Instagram post or a tweet. The outdoors are healing and wonderful and I hope that our project can inspire youth to discover that.”

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2014 issue.