By Evan Coulson, Bro Professor

Conversations have been taking place across the country that question the decreasing amount of time that young people spend engaging in rich experiences in the out-of-doors. This decrease is concerning as research suggests that time spent at play in the outdoors increases a young person’s physical well-being as well as their emotional health. Studies support the value of outdoor experiences in the development of the whole child.


A very large percentage of young people spend less time outside than did children of their parents’ generation. What’s more, people born after 1995 are considered the first generation to be fully digital natives, with widespread internet use from a young age. It is easy to wonder if free-range outdoor childhoods have largely been replaced by fast paced, plugged in, over programmed mini-adulthoods. Sigurd Olson wrote of the dangers of such hurried lives for adults. Did he, however, foresee such disconnections and harried experiences for youth?

With the shrinking amount of time young people spend outdoors, there has also been a growing concern about who will carry forward the legacy of stewardship handed down to us by the likes of Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Sigurd Olson, and others. Jacques Cousteau, taking Leopold’s lead, reminded us that we “protect what we love.” If a generation slowly pulls too far indoors, away from backyard forts, mud puddles, bike paths, lakes, and portages, how will they, too, fall in love with wild places?

The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute has long recognized and promoted people’s connections with wildlife, wildness, and wonder. This coming summer, the SOEI is beginning the development of intergenerational outdoor education experiences aimed at bringing family members together to celebrate connections in and to the spectacular wildland resources that abound in our north woods region.

Intergenerational programming has been described as a social vehicle that offers older and younger people the opportunity and space to interact and become engaged in the interests, issues and concerns relevant to both generations. Such experiences have been shown to enhance socialization, offer a sense of belonging, increase emotional support, and create powerful learning opportunities for all involved.

These programs are designed to bring family members of diverse ages together to share in adventure and support each other through meaningful experiences deeply steeped in the natural world. Trent Stamp, writing in Forbes Magazine, suggested that intergenerational programs are not just nice, but a necessity. Stamp writes that young people may learn best from older adults. In such a program, young and older people alike share the roles of experts as well as learners. As companions and mentors in these outdoor adventures, grandparents can take an active role in their grandchild’s development by sharing knowledge, skills, interests, values, and passions.

Experiences such as these not only address the expanding gap between young people and outdoor experience, but also can strengthen the community of people passionate about our shared natural and cultural resources. They begin to answer the question: From where will our next generation of stewards come?

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