A search of Instagram using the hashtag #naturekids will produce a bundle of artful, woodsy images of nature-blissed kids (and often their moms). They might be creating the most adorable and creative nature crafts, covered in mud from head to toe after a day of mud play or building a village of stick forts. Nature play is happening and parents and kids are on board. But not all kids. One group of kids missing from the picture —older kids.
As a parent, you know that getting your child outdoors to frolic in nature was no problem when they were little. A chance to run free, explore, get dirty, look for animals? Not to mention that they had little choice. They were little kids after all.
But all of this changes as your child gets older, wants to make their own decisions and (shudder) not always be with you.
If your older kid has started to refuse hikes with the family, duck out of weekend camping trips or even just refuse to go to the park for some fresh air, you’re not alone. As kids get older, they (gulp) actually start to withdraw from nature. It’s ugly but it’s true.
And substantiated by research. Researchers from the University of Derby, the University of Exeter, Natural England, Historic England, the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and The Wildlife Trusts looked at nature connection in older kids. They found that young people’s connection to nature drops sharply from the age of 11 and doesn’t recover until they are 30. Yes, age 30. The researchers warned that the trend comes with significant implications for a young person’s engagement with pro-environmental behaviors like recycling or buying eco-friendly products. This effect reaches all kids apparently. A study out of North Carolina State University and Clemson University found that middle-school students, even those living in rural areas, are spending more time indoors and less outdoors.
And while we all hope we’re raising pro-environmental future adults, there are other concerns. The truth is, as they get older, kids need the benefits of nature more than ever. Adolescence is a time of many developmental changes, shifting social relationships and confusion regarding a sense of sense and place in society. It’s a tough time. And we’re not handling it well as a society.
Teen mental health issues are on the rise. Major depression diagnoses are growing quickly, especially for adolescents. Yet we know that the outdoors can help make our kids happier, calmer, more focused and more empathetic. Isn’t that just the thing that kids over age 11 need as they struggle through the confusing time of adolescence? But while nature could help tweens and teens develop the self-regulation skills to get them through these life changes, most kids take a detour during this critical age, disconnecting from nature and connecting more deeply into the digital world.
An older kid’s rejection of nature is logical. If there is one thing we know about adolescents, if their parents like it, they have to reject it. Yep, a study provided the proof for that too. A University of Chicago-led study looked at how kids develop a relationship with the outdoors. This fascinating study found that while adults prefer nature to more developed or controlled environments, kids don’t. Kids actually prefer cities.
If we are forcing nature on kids, when they get old enough, they will not only refuse to cooperate, they will outright reject it.
Of course, the reasons kids withdraw from nature as they get older are complex. But doctors point to increased use of electronics as a cause, as well as a culprit for increased depression rates. Studies have found that increased media use and media exposure come with negative outcomes for adolescents, including decreased levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction. Low self-esteem is precisely what we need to avoid in adolescence.
There is hope. As a parent, educator or other caretaker of older kids, you can—no you must—play a role to ensure that nature remains closeby in a child’s life. With that aim, we've come up with a few ways to keep older kids hooked on nature.
Help from the friends
Adolescence is the time when kids want to be as far away from adults, and around kids their own age, as possible. Suggest that your older kid form an outdoor group with their friends. It could take the form of a running club, a climbing group or a hiking group—whatever floats their boat. The key is usually the right social chemistry to get your tween or teen outdoors on a regular basis.
Send them on a techno fast
One thing we know about adolescents is that we can’t tell them to do anything. We have to let them discover for themselves. Rather than insist on a techno fast and fighting it out, make them an offer they can't refuse. Have them choose an outdoor adventure camp—one where tech is not allowed. They’ll be doing outdoor activities each and every day. They might complain at first but a few days is all it will probably take for them to experience the freedom a screen-free nature-filled life is like. Is two weeks enough to help your budding tech addict? Studies show that adolescents participating in outdoor education programs with limited use of electronic media show immediate and sustained benefits in creative thinking.
Get a greener school
Chances are pretty high that your older kid doesn’t get a lot of outdoor time during their school day. Most schools don’t prioritize outdoor time for students, especially older kids. Once you get past grade five, the schedule gets so demanding that recess gets cut back and outdoor recess becomes rarer. Even if older kids are allowed outside for recess, the screen invasion means most of them will spend their time huddled around an iPhone.
If you have some options, look for lots of outdoor time and green school grounds for your middle schooler or high schooler. Just being in greener school grounds can counter the trend toward decreasing physical activity as kids approach adolescence and have lasting effects. In one study, girls with access to more green space and woodlands, and boys with access to ball fields were more likely to remain physically active as they got older.
Join the scouts
The Scouts has been the traditional way that most adolescent boys learned the ropes outdoors. As they bonded with their troops, they learned outdoor and survival skills. Youth can join Scouts BSA until age 18 while Venturing and Sea Scouting are for young men and women at least 13 years old who have completed the eighth grade or are age 14 and not yet 21. Exploring clubs serve middle schoolers, aged 10 – 14, in sixth through eighth grades.
Amid controversies such as sexual abuse and bankruptcy, youth membership in the scouts has declined more than 26 percent in the past decade. So joining the scouts is a decision that might not be right for you. Or you might want to ask around about your local troop and see what others think. Also, check out alternative scouting organizations such as Camp Fire or Navigators.
Make the outdoors cool
If there’s one thing that nature is always ready to offer is an adrenaline rush. Older kids are finally old enough to try more physically demanding activities. Help introduce them to riskier, exciting hobbies like rock climbing, parkour and skiing. Risk-taking is still essential in helping kids to build problem-solving skills but they need to discover at their own pace. To learn, they must constantly push the limits of their own experience – in balance with changing stages of maturity.
Geocaching is basically a cool treasure hunt using GPS coordinates that tweens/teens can use an iPhone and a geocaching app to participate in. Caches are hidden all over the world by fellow geocachers. Some are easy to find while others may require a long hike. It’s an excellent activity to give older kids a reason to be outdoors and have fun as they search for hidden "caches" in your neighborhood or out on the trails.
From building critical observation skills to connecting with nature, birding is an amazingly rewarding hobby. It’s a year-round activity that only gets better as you get better at birding. There are about 10,500 species of birds in the world. Some are of course ubiquitous and easy to identify like a robin. But birding can be as much of a challenge as you make it.
For some kids, having a purpose and a task can help motivate them to be outdoors. Help your older kid get involved with citizen science projects like butterfly or bird censuses, bio blitzes or other types of online wildlife surveys. Local environment and nature groups are a great place to start to find out what projects are happening in your area and these projects often require little beyond good, thorough observers.
A great way to connect older kids to the outdoors is through nature photography. The hobby is accessible to most kids these days, with so many owning their own smartphones. Introduce your tween/teen to photography website and tutorials to pick up some technical tips and then let them have at it. Encourage them to share on social media if they want and look out for competitions that they might like to enter too.
Park, beach and schoolyard cleanups are a great way for an older kid to learn about environmental stewardship, be part of a team and do some good. Many organizations run such cleanup days or conservation projects such as bridge building or trail maintenance. The National Park Service has opportunities to volunteer to help care for US national parks. And you can check with your local parks or conservation organizations to find out where such events are happening in your area.
The preteen/teen years are an excellent time for kids to become responsible for their own patch of land to grow food on. Whether that be in their own backyard or a community garden, giving kids their own garden patch to tend is a great way to help them feel independent, responsible and productive. Some kids may be excited about reducing their carbon footprint and chemical usage by growing their own food. Just help them prepare for hard work and some frustration if rodents get to their bounty.
Help them go pro
It’s great to head out on nature walks as a kid and know the difference between a sparrow and a bluejay but you can help your older kid see that the natural world is an intricate and complex place with hundreds of species for them to learn in a single local hike. Help get them started on tree, bird or insect ID by pointing them to resources for IDing species in the natural world.
Or suggest they try their hand at animal tracking, tuning into clues that indicate something was once there. Tracking is an excellent way for an older child to learn about wildlife and ecology as the art of tracking consists of answering such questions as: Why would an animal be in any given area? When did an animal leave its sign? Where did the animal go? Where did it come from?
Take a nighttime walk
One of the privileges of getting older is the trust and freedom you start to gain. Take your older kid out on a nighttime walk, owl prowl or bat hike in a safe environment to help them see the outdoors in a very different way once the sun goes down. They'll feel more adult and will love using cool gadgets like headlamps.
Don’t nag them about it
If you nag your adolescent to head outdoors, they won't do it. Rather than get into a battle, just lead by example, showing them a genuine love of nature yourself. They'll eventually come around—but only if it's their own idea.