A FEW MONTHS BACK—not long before Texas got its first taste of fall—an encouraging email hit my Inbox.
I nearly missed it, too. That address receives 100-plus emails daily, most of which are straight-up junk; I can’t hit the “Delete” button fast enough. Whenever my eyes catch mention of young people and the outdoors, I lift my deleting finger and take a closer look.
This time, those important words were high in a press release from a group called the Outdoors Tomorrow Foundation. This is a Dallas-born and Dallas-based operation that formed quietly in 1981 with the broad-brush goal of getting kids back into the outdoors.
Worth noting: Unless you count pagers and four-function calculators, there wasn’t much on the personal electronics shelves at Radio Shack. Portable phones traveled in briefcases carried by the wealthy, and the Internet was still a couple of years from birth.
Now, you know all about personal electronics. Yes, I recognize that social media and apps and new technology of all sorts can be invaluable to those of us who want to catch more fish or become better hunters.
However, I’ve also read that teenagers are burning an average of nine hours daily with their impressionable eyeballs glued to screens filled with anything and everything—but educational or life-enhancing content.
My young son and I were at a family-style restaurant recently when four high school aged kids were seated two tables away from us. Within seconds of settling into their chairs, all four of them—all four—were staring at their phones and not saying a word to each other. They paused to order, ate one-handed while still looking at their phones and not speaking. Then, they got back to their two-handed toggling from one app to the next.
Maybe, just maybe, their high school will adopt the Outdoors Tomorrow Foundation programs. Maybe they’ll haul those kids outside for a proper introduction to fishing, shooting, and hunting.
Maybe they’ll also be exposed to boating, backpacking, archery, camping, mountain biking, outdoor cooking, first-aid, gun safety—and a dozen other skills that introduce them to an entirely new world.
So far, in fact, OTF has found its way into more than 500 schools in 34 states. OTF’s average enrollment is more than 100 students.
“It’s truly amazing and inspiring to see how this program is impacting the lives of younger generations,” said Sean McLelland in the email.
That 500th school, by the way, is a small one in rural New York. Its goal was a dozen students. Twenty signed up. The program OTF installs in these schools is fully accredited by the Texas Education Agency.OTF is a lot more fun than traditional physical-education options, such as volleyball and sitting on the bleachers for an hour.
One of my favorite features of OTF is actually a two-for-one benefit. It’s being offered to kids who are old enough either to drive themselves to the outdoors or phone a peer who can drive.
Too often, programs that introduce young people to the outdoors are cookie-cutter exposures to fishing. A weekend morning on a baited or stocked (or both) piece of water, and dozens of volunteers to help the kids catch a fish while their parents sit on the sidelines – and stare into their phones.
Afterward, the child’s enthusiasm often fades after the second, third or fourth time he/she asks a parent to take them fishing again and gets turned down.
OTF puts young adults in touch with the outdoors at a time early enough that the experiences might be their first, but late enough that they can enjoy their new skills without having to involve uninterested parents.
Good thing, too, because the generation that’s got children in middle and high school now includes a high percentage of folks (outside Texas, anyway) who grew up in homes and families that didn’t spend much time outdoors.
I get calls and emails routinely from parents in that age group who realize now that they missed out on something healthy and fun and rewarding. Their parents didn’t fish or hunt or even hike or watch birds.
The children of those parents, now parents themselves, are increasingly aware that being outdoors connects them to something important.
Walking or hiking or biking through the woods is a better experience than watching a documentary about the woods. Learning to catch a fish, baiting your own hook and casting your line or watching your cork—even if you release that fish rather than eat it—lights a primal, prideful fire in us.
If you hadn’t heard of OTF until now, take a minute to look it up online at gootf.com. They’re not the only group that’s trying to expose young people to the outdoors, but they’re one of the better ones I’ve come across lately. I’m all for any group that helps young people find their way outdoors even once. Some exposure and education certainly is better than none.
OTF has found a way to reach young people when they’re most likely to be trying new things. They reach kids who are independent enough to do so without asking permission or needing a ride.
They’ve reached more than a quarter million students already and are optimistic they’ll lose that “quarter” qualifier as quick as possible.
The same study that came up with those nine daily hours of electronics among young people also revealed that the youngsters knew that nine hours a day was excessive—but didn’t know what else to do with their time.
OTF gives them something else to do with their time. It teaches indoor kids how to enjoy the outdoors, safely, in any of a couple dozen ways. It’s something for everyone. Well done, OTF!
Email Doug Pike at [email protected]