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Enjoying the outdoors

Associate Professor Brent LovelockSociety may have to rethink ways of encouraging children into enjoying the outdoors.

Participation in some forms of outdoor recreation is declining and University of Otago Business School, Centre for Recreation Research Co-Director Associate Professor Brent Lovelock believes an increasingly risk-adverse society may be limiting nature-based leisure.

Research suggests children and young people now lead more urban, sedentary, and technologically driven lives away from the outdoors; they may even consider traditional forms of outdoor recreation “uncool.” At the same time, parents limit access to the outdoors, concerned about risk.

Assoc. Prof Lovelock and his colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with adults who had retained a strong involvement in tramping, mountaineering, hunting, or freshwater fishing throughout their lives. From this, they identified facilitators and constraints that influenced their participation.

The key to children, adolescents and young adults taking part in outdoor activities now, is early exposure when they are young. Conditioning children in their pre-school and pre-teen years to be active is fundamentally important because it establishes positive attitudes to nature and the outdoors.

The traditional pathway into outdoor experiences when young has been in a supportive family environment, such as a Sunday walk or a family fishing trip. Schools are also important for providing skills in outdoor recreation.

However, Assoc. Prof Lovelock warns that both pathways are being challenged.

Traditional family channels are limited by changing population dynamics such as changes to traditional family structures and increased mobility for employment. At the same time schools and other child/youth organisations appear to be cautious about the risk of outdoor pursuits, with greater focus on safety and the perceived burden of responsibility increasingly affecting the experiences they are willing to offer.

Assoc. Prof Lovelock’s research found parents who are more lenient and gave their children some freedom to explore their neighbourhood environs, encouraged later involvement in formal nature-based recreation. Even in urban areas, “non-outdoorsy” families who encouraged their young people to explore and engage with the little pieces of nature that were available, instilled a sense of confidence.

He also identified the importance of on-going support in the teenage years, where there is opportunity for social organisations such as child/youth groups to take more of a lead.

He would like to see society discussing how best to manage risk and encourage outdoor activities.

“While young people now may not be able to enjoy the freedoms ‘free range’ children from previous generations had, we need to continue to offer opportunities for them to engage with the great outdoors, particularly given what New Zealand has to offer.”

Ironically this may involve new technology, as witnessed currently by the Pokemon-Go craze. Assoc. Prof Lovelock and his research team are keen to explore how technology may be used to help foster outdoor pursuits for kids.

His message? Take your children on outdoor experiences when they are young, allow them unstructured outdoor play, and encourage the organisations that support outdoor pursuits.

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