Little boys hiking Little boys hiking Children learn to appreciate nature by hiking, camping, fishing and studying the natural beauty that surrounds them. (Photo: Vasilyev Alexandr / Shutterstock)

Youth programs encourage connection with nature

Kids and teens get fresh air and a fresh perspective with these outdoor groups.

Nothing compares to that childhood feeling of total awe in nature – the fluttering birds, the towering trees, the itty-bitty bugs – when everything seems like a new and exciting opportunity for exploration. But with children spending less time outdoors than ever before, some kids rarely have this opportunity anymore. The absence of nature can impact their health, creativity and social skills, educators say.

Michelle Howard, the development director for California's Wilderness Youth Project, recalls her youth spending time outside. She says biking around the neighborhood and taking time to explore the natural world around her left her with valuable skills she didn't realize she was learning at the time: how to navigate, how to judge when it will become dark outside, how to know the amount of food to pack for a day. "I got to know myself by getting to know my neighborhood, and, ultimately, I got to know my place in the world," she said. 

"Studies show outdoor time helps children grow lean and strong, enhances imaginations and attention spans, decreases aggression, and boosts classroom performance, according to the National Wildlife Federation. "In addition, children who spend time in nature regularly are shown to become better stewards of the environment." 

These quantifiable benefits are all good and well, but at the root of the conversation is one singular concept. "I think we all know in our hearts that nature is the natural habitat for children," she said.

Fortunately, there are programs all over the world that aim to channel kids' energy into productive learning experiences, planting the seeds for future conservationists while also helping to shape happier, healthier individuals.

Wilderness Youth Project

Girl in a fieldA member of the Wilderness Youth Program takes a closer look at nature. (Photo: Courtesy of Wilderness Youth Project)

In Santa Barbara, Calif., the nonprofit organization Wilderness Youth Project (WYP) engages hundreds of youth every year by blending self-esteem boosting with nature exploration from the coast to the mountains. According to, research has proven that spending time in nature can reduce the tendency for violence and stress in children, and it can even help children cope with symptoms of ADD and ADHD. WYP offers a variety of programs for each age group, from preschoolers to high schoolers, offering scholarships to families in need. Young children learn to appreciate peace and observe nature, while elementary school-aged children run around and explore. Middle- and high-school kids have the opportunity to learn survival skills in addition to finding their niche passion in the natural world.

International Young Naturefriends

This international organization based in Europe has more than 100,000 members. Programs include outdoor activities, art and environmental education. A branch of Naturefriends, which was established in 1895 in Vienna to offer outdoor opportunities to the working class, International Young Naturefriends (INYF) was founded in 1975 to connect young leaders in the environmental movement. INYF members organize events to reach out to peer youth, targeting those who have fewer opportunities, on both a local and international level.

Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's Orienteering Groups

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) works with local schools and also offers extracurricular activities for tens of thousands of children each year. Their orienteering programs focus on minorities and immigrants, encouraging growth in social skills as well as an appreciation for nature. 

"Environmental education is coupled with work in community gardens and the community at large," Danielle Berkowitz of SPNI told From the Grapevine. The hands-on project was designed "to create conscientious leadership with knowledge and passion, not only about environmental justice, but the broader ideas about social justice," she said. 

That means getting youth excited about the concepts of sustainable urban areas with access to nature and fresh produce, and improved quality of life.

"The ultimate goal of preserving and protecting the environment is to promote better lives for us," Berkowitz said. "SPNI's main mission is to improve the quality of life for all Israelis."

Wilderness Awareness School

Located near the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, Wilderness Awareness School offers camps and classes for young people of all ages. Monthly programs, weekly programs, day camps and summer classes teach children all about nature, conservation and survival. Their lessons go into depth about the basics of being in the wilderness, how to track animals, what plants are edible and which ones are poisonous. (Bonus: They offer these classes for adults, too.) 

The Nature Conservancy's Leaf Program

LEAF intern rock climbingA LEAF intern explores rock climbing in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York. (Photo: © The Nature Conservancy)

Geared specifically toward high school students, the Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program connects motivated teens with paid internships in nature preserves across the United States in 27 states. 

"By targeting urban youth from populations largely underrepresented in the conservation movement, the LEAF program is training and developing the next generation of conservation leaders," The Nature Conservancy's website reads.

Global Leadership Adventures' Environmental Conservation Programs

From Costa Rica to Fiji, students have the opportunity to travel and volunteer in the outdoors with not just conservation initiatives but community outreach as well. Global Leadership Adventures (GLA) has a number of programs centered specifically on conservation, including those that focus on marine life preservation and rainforest reforestation in Costa Rica, and sustainable community creation in the Dominican Republic. Service projects, learning opportunities and community partnerships are just a few highlights of these programs.

Natural Pathways

Natural Pathways offers family camps as well as wilderness programs for young adults in the U.K., focusing specifically on survival and wilderness skills. At family events, parents and children alike learn how to build fires, create natural shelters, track animals, identify edible and medicinal plants and more.

Research shows that spending time outdoors creates a happier, healthier person. If you're inspired, be sure to check out your local outdoor education groups.


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