More people afraid of outdoors, disconnect with nature blamed
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer didn't need shoes, let alone a guide, to get outdoors.
That's not how things are today.
Once upon a time, children grew up playing outside: fishing the local creek, riding their bikes or building forts in the woods. But “that's not the norm anymore,” said Ivan Levin, senior director of programs at the Outdoor Foundation. “People just don't open the door and go outside like they used to.”
That's because, now more than ever, they're afraid of what's out there. Experts around the country and here say it's fear as much as anything that's keeping children and their parents from connecting with the outdoors.
“You've kind of got a whole generation now that's isolated. They didn't grow up playing outside,” said Pat Adams, an environmental education specialist at Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County.
“So it makes sense those people would have some fear of the outdoors just because they're not comfortable out there.”
Fears come in all forms.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the things visitors to parks, forests and wildlife refuges express concern about are often dangers that aren't there.
At Great Swamp Refuge in New Jersey, for example, visitors have asked about the chances of encountering wolves and alligators, even though neither species exists in the state. Likewise, visitors to Tualatin River Refuge near Portland, Ore., have asked about the likelihood of running into zebras and lions.
Closer to home, Kris Baker, manager of Keystone State Park in Westmoreland County, said rangers frequently field questions about the presence of and possible risks posed by black bears. They get queried about snakes, too, he said, as well as Lyme disease-carrying ticks, West Nile-carrying mosquitoes, lightning, poison ivy and more.
Blame that on “information overload.”
Levin said that, in this age of instant information, a story about someone getting hurt while outside in California is available in real time to people the world over. People who haven't grown up outside assume such accidents are commonplace everywhere, including where they live, he said.
“The millennial generation has no memory before the Internet or Google or Wikipedia. One bad or negative experience suffered by one person in one place can ruin the outdoors for a whole generation,” Levin said. “We just know too much.”
Baker said he's seen that.
“Watch out for this, watch out for that, that's what we hear all the time,” Baker said. “But a lot of people, and especially parents, want everything to be framed and safe and, how should I put this, sterile, I guess.”
That's impacting how people use state parks and how parks are responding.
At Keystone, Baker said people use the park's paved walking path — which circles the lake, always within sight of a parking lot or road — in “droves.”
“You won't ever see as many people on a traditional trail in the woods,” though, Baker said. “Is that because people think it's safer, not as scary? I can't say.”
To combat that, outdoor educators are taking people by the hand — sometimes almost literally — to draw them out.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources earlier this year launched a “Kids in Nature” program. Backed by a website, panaturekids.org, it's designed to teach parents and children how to explore the outdoors. Visitors get tips on what to do outside, where to do it, what to pack for a day afield, which clothes to wear and more.
There's a whole section, for example, on how to take a walk in the woods “away from your car or other shelter.”
If some of the tips seem like the things kids and adults grew up knowing in years past, that's a reflection of today's world and what people are and aren't doing, department secretary Ellen Ferretti wrote in a recent op-ed.
“Many do not hike or hunt. Many do not fish, camp or snow or water ski. Many are afraid to enter the woods and waters of our youth. Many of these children's parents share the same dread …” Ferretti wrote.
Individual parks are likewise offering more programs overall and more basic programs in particular. Baker said Keystone, for example, offers guided “nature walks” on Tuesday evenings. They contain no “big, fancy educational” messages, he said. Instead, they're just designed to get families into the woods that wouldn't go on their own.
At Raccoon Creek, even some of the seemingly more advanced programs have a “hidden agenda,” Adams said.
The primitive skills weekend, during which people learn to make fire and shelter, among other things, is one example. Adams said its primary goal is really to help people feel comfortable in the outdoors. That's key to easing fears, he believes.
“I try to answer a lot of the ‘what if' questions. What if I get lost? What if an animal approaches me? What if the weather changes?” Adams said.
“My idea is, if you can build up their confidence in some basic skills, they're going to go outdoors a lot more and they're going to enjoy it more.”
Getting outside provides mental and physical health benefits and is key to developing a conservation and land ethic, Levin said.
Those things are at risk if people don't learn to enjoy, rather than fear, the outdoors, he said.
“There's not going to be an outdoor generation in the future if we don't take a stand now,” Levin said.