Sunday, July 31, 2011

New Research Suggests Early Family Influence Helps Get Kids Interested in the Outdoors

Sunday, July 31, 2011

    Even before Richard Louv wrote the national bestseller "Last Child in the Woods" (Algonquin) and coined the phrase "nature-deficit disorder," groups and government entities were attempting to fill a mentorship gap that has left a generation of kids with no one to kindle their connection with nature and teach them the skills needed to interact with it.
    An exhaustive new study by Virginia-based Responsive Management suggests that those youth mentoring programs can be effective in retaining and even enhancing a child's existing interest in the outdoors, but they're not as good at sparking an interest in kids with no previous outdoor experience.
    A joint project of the National Wild Turkey Federation and Responsive Management, the 2011 study was conducted under a multi-state conservation grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and administered by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Its goal was to document levels of interest and participation in hunting, fishing and sport shooting before and after involvement in youth mentor programs, and to identify specific, research-based recommendations and strategies that enhance interest in those activities.
    Nearly 900 pages, the study surveyed more than 40 hunting, shooting and fishing programs for youths and analyzed their effectiveness in connecting kids with nature.
Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, said he found some of the results surprising.
    "That there are so many programs doing this across the country -- over 400 -- came as a surprise to me," he said. "In recent years we've seen participation in hunting and fishing generally in decline, but one thing I found surprising was that there are so many kids in the pipeline who want to learn these skills, if someone will show them."
    The study found that participants in recruitment and retention programs:
• Tended to more readily identify themselves "as hunters, shooters and anglers after their involvement in the programs."
• "Came out with their interest in the activity either intact or heightened, and their support or approval for the activity either affirmed or strengthened."
• Increased their perception, in many cases, that "stewardship and conservation actions are highly important."
    "One of the things that struck me was how much money the programs were generating as a result of participation," Duda said. "Some of these people are buying $300 to $500 worth of equipment that they otherwise might not have purchased if it weren't for their involvement in the program."
Duda said one of the study's findings was very much expected.
    "It came as no surprise to me that these agencies and groups are doing a really good job when it comes to these programs with very little resources," he said. "The ratings by the kids and parents for some of these programs were very high."
    Among the nation's top-rated youth recruitment and retention programs was Pass It On Outdoors Mentors, an offshoot of the Wichita, Kan., Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Pass It On finds hunters and anglers interested in passing on their love of nature and outdoors skills, and places them with individual kids who lack that connection. Based on the ratings of young participants, Pass It On ranked second nationwide for increasing strong approval of hunting, second for increasing the likelihood of going hunting, second for increasing the likelihood of going shooting, and fourth for increasing the likelihood of going fishing.
    Pass It On's Mike Christiansen said the group's success is rooted in its connection with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
    "They've got tons of kids, and they love getting outside if someone will take them," he said. "We found that 40 percent of our kids did not have family members previously involved in the outdoors."
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Family Fishing Program was included in the study. But with a very low sample size (researchers conducted only seven pre-program interviews and five post-program interviews), the report noted that "statistical analyses using percentages was not statistically valid."
    One of many outdoors mentor programs active in the Pittsburgh area, Fish and Boat's youth program dates back decades. About six years ago the agency formalized its Family Fishing Program, which combines free instruction in safety, natural history, knot tying, tackle use, casting and mentored fishing, and a stipulation that children and adult family members have to participate together.
    Southwest Region outreach and education coordinator Dennis Tubbs said statewide, thousands have been through the program.
    "Locally, we're getting as many as 75 people at a hands-on demonstration and practice," he said.
Like many recruitment and retention programs, said Tubbs, the goal isn't simply to sell more fishing licenses.
    "It's awareness, to get people to understand," he said. "We want to get them out and have a positive experience on the water. When they read something about the water or about nature in the paper, they'll have that connection and be more informed, more involved."
    The Fish and Boat Commission will hold a Family Fishing Program 9 a.m.-1 p.m Sept. 3 at Raccoon Creek State Park, at the beach near the fishing pier. To schedule a free Family Fishing Program with your school, church, civic or social group, contact Dennis Tubbs at 1-814-442-0722,

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