Creating New Generations of Environmental Stewards and Outdoors Enthusiasts

April 25, 2024, Department, by Julia Hurwit

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For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

Many adults currently involved in the environmental movement or conservation and outdoor-related careers can point to moments in their childhood when they spent significant and impactful time in nature. For some of us, our work continues that cycle, introducing more children and youth to the outdoors and building future generations of environmental stewards. With a worsening global climate crisis, however, more members of the younger generation have begun stepping up to advocate for themselves and their peers.

Some of the greatest modern champions of our climate have been youths, and it’s easy to see why. A 2021 survey found that 59 percent of children and youths were very or extremely worried about climate change. In that same survey, more than 45 percent of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. Climate anxiety is increasingly affecting children and youths as they face the daily reality of the climate crisis — massive wildfires, flooding, extreme heat and storms.

Partnering to Increase Access to the Outdoors

The Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) ( is a partnership of more than 120 organizations, all united with the same goal of connecting more children, youth and families with the outdoors. We were formed in 2010 with NRPA as one of the founding steering committee members. Our members are educators, healthcare providers, facilitators, businesses and conservationists.

One program that OAK has championed since its inception is the Every Kid Outdoors (EKO) program. EKO is a federal program that grants fourth graders and their families free access to federal public lands and waters. It is a way to give our children firsthand experience with our largest natural features right when they’re starting to learn about them in school. The program is currently scheduled to sunset in 2026, but U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) has introduced legislation that would permanently authorize it and expand the program to include fifth graders. OAK also has worked to advocate for similar state-level programs to make regional public lands more accessible as well.

Access to the outdoors is a multifaceted issue. Whether we’re referring to the national parks or the smaller but no less impactful local parks, there’s a lot of work ahead. Working together with more than 100 other organizations that share the same vision is the best way for us to achieve our goals of connecting more children and families with nature.

Connecting People to Nature

Spending time in nature has been proven to improve mental health, sleep and physical health. With climate anxiety and other mental health struggles causing an epidemic among our youth, time in nature can be a critical source of support and reprieve. But for many, cost, accessibility, transportation, experience level and other barriers prevent them from spending that healing time outdoors. Many OAK members’ work involves reducing those barriers, providing programming that connects more children and families with camping opportunities, safe playgrounds or affordable recreation programs. OAK also works to advocate for under-represented and disadvantaged communities to create a welcoming and inclusive outdoors for all of us.

Now, when climate anxiety is high and the climate crisis affects an increasing number of us, the work of NRPA and other OAK members is vital to providing our youth with an outlet and a more hopeful future. We also recognize the agency and role that young patrons deserve to have when it comes to issues affecting their futures. That’s why OAK has a robust and expanding group of youth advisors assisting and guiding the organization as we offer them experience in advocacy work. We brought dozens of youths to Capitol Hill last year during our annual OAK Week to speak directly to their representatives and advocate for the needs of youths and families, as well as for legislation that supports those needs.

SEE ALSO: Take It Outside: The Key to Engaging Young Children with Nature, Paula Jacoby-Garrett, Parks & Recreation, April 2018, Vol. 48, Iss. 4.

Julia Hurwit is Outdoor Alliance for Kids Campaign Manager.