Living Well

Reconnecting today’s kids with the outdoors is critical to their well-being

lw kidsoutsideThere’s something ingrained in our DNA, something seared into our psyche that triggers a primal sense of harmony when we escape four walls and venture into the great outdoors. Olga Pader feels that euphoria every time she steps out on a trail.

“When you go out in the woods you feel good. You play. You discover. You feel peaceful,” said Pader, 70, a seasoned hiker from Franklin.

It’s a yearning Daniel Willis knows well. A paddler on the Nantahala River, Willis starts to go a little crazy if he can’t get a regular dose of outdoor activity. 

“I believe we as humans have a special connection to the outdoors. It is a natural desire we have to feed,” said Willis, the executive director of the Nantahala Racing Club.

Driven by their own passions, Willis and Pader are on the front lines of a growing movement to reconnect today’s kids with the outdoors.

“We evolved as part of the natural world. But today most children live in a totally artificial environment,” Pader said.

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Pader loves to watch what happens when kids are left to their own devices with a dose of unstructured outside playtime.

“You will see them just start running and going to the creek and looking at bugs — they revert to what they are supposed to be,” said Pader, a retired child psychologist. “We just have to encourage them to be free.”

It’s important for the body as well as the soul.

“They need to use their bodies to really develop properly. Movement affects cognition. We are a totality,” Pader said.

Willis has seen how a day of paddling can pay off all week long, helping kids focus in school thanks to a subconscious sense of fulfillment — both physical and emotional.

“Obviously it is a great outlet for the pent up energy within kids these days,” Willis said. 

Given the bad influences and diversions surrounding children, an outdoor hobby “keeps the mind and the body pure,” Willis said. 

A national movement to combat so-called “nature deficit disorder” has been building over the past decade. The phrase was coined by author Richard Louv in his influential book Last Child in the Woods, which sounded the alarm about the staggering divide between children and the outdoors, and touched off a rallying cry to action.

Western North Carolina has certainly answered the call, with dozens of initiatives and programs doing their part to encourage kids to get outdoors.

As president of the Nantahala Hiking Club, Pader is a foot soldier in the effort to introduce kids to hiking.

The Nantahala Hiking Club works with area schools to connect students with the outdoors, from building trails on school campuses — with the students’ pitching in — to leading hiking field trips, including map reading lessons. 

“As close as we are to the trails, most of the children have never been on trail,” Pader said.

On a recent fieldtrip to the top of Siler Bald, Pader witnessed the natural world spark a new sense of discovery for a group of girls hiking in her group.

“Every moss we went by, they had to stop and feel it and at the end one of them said ‘I am going to become a scientist,’” Pader recounted.

Meanwhile, the Nantahala Racing Club has launched a youth outreach program to get kids on the water, hopefully introducing them to an active outdoor pastime that will carry them through life.

The youth paddling activities range from family whitewater weekends to formal coaching for kids who want to paddle competitively.

The biggest challenge has been introducing kids to paddling for the first time.

“Once we get them in a kayak they are usually hooked,” Willis said.

Hoping to make paddling more accessible and less intimidating for newcomers, an after-school paddling club is offered for six weeks every spring and fall.

“Tons of kids can make it to soccer practice every week, so if we can make it more like that, we can grow the realization that this is a fun thing to do,” Willis said.

The Nantahala Racing Team landed a $25,000 grant last year from North Face, a national outdoor gear company, under a special fund aimed at “helping kids discover nature’s playground.” The funds are used to subsidize the after-school paddling club and make it cheap for parents to try a new activity for their child.

“The goal was to break down the financial barrier and make it as affordable and easy as possible,” Willis said.

Paddling isn’t just a conduit to engage with the outdoors, but a gateway to a healthy lifestyle, a critical element in an era of junk food and childhood obesity.

“Kayaking is a fun thing they can do other than run or pump iron in the gym to lose weight,” Willis said.

Outdoor adventure sports — from mountain biking to paddling to trail running — are steadily growing. As they become more and more prevalent, accounting for a larger share of the recreation spectrum, they’re finding their way onto the formal docket of parks and rec programs.

The Waynesville Recreation Center and Jackson County Parks and Rec have recently hired staff to develop outdoor adventure programs that complement the traditional lineup of “ball sports” — offering everything from kids’ paddling classes to guided hikes.

“It is important to know how to enjoy the outdoors and recreate by yourself,” said Jennifer Bennett, the outdoor recreation director for Jackson Parks and Rec. “We want to instill in kids that it is just fun to be outside.”

If outside is merely a venue where soccer or baseball is played, what happens when they outgrow those organized sports?

“Engaging youth in a diverse array of outdoor recreation, not just organized team sports, helps them develop lifelong recreational skills,” Bennett said.

Two weeks from now, families have been invited to pitch tents on the field of the Jackson County Rec Center for a family campout on June 19.

It’s a perfect environment to introduce families to camping out in a supported environment. The rec staff will host an evening cookout, build the campfire for s’mores, and fire up a camp stove for pancakes the next morning.

“For a lot of people it would be an introductory camping experience for families to spend time outside together in an easy environment,” Bennett said.

Kids are naturally drawn to the outdoors if given opportunities to connect with nature, but therein lies the rub.

“The younger generation has all kind of attention getters right now in their lives,” said John Edwards, a wildlife advocate in Cashiers.

Edwards believes kids’ innate fascination for wildlife is the key to cultivating the next generation of stewards for the natural world. And he decided to take matters into his own hands to make that happen.

Edwards, the founder and director of Mountain Wildlife Days in Cashiers, has amassed a coalition of youth educators with science and nature organizations who are equipped to put on traveling programs in schools, from a live reptile and amphibian show to raptor handlers. The Mountain Wildlife Outreach programs go in to schools at no cost to the schools, reaching over 1,300 students at 11 schools this past year alone.To Edwards, instilling children with a love of nature is critical for the well-being of society at large, which depends on a healthy planet.“They will be our future caretakers,” Edwards said.


Learn more

In the mountains, there’s dozens of outlets for youth to get in touch with nature and the outdoors. 

  • TRACK trails
  • Woodsy Owl
  • Nature Nuts and Eco-Explorers
  • Junior Ranger programs
  • Wee Naturalists
  • Highlands Nature Center camps
  • Arboretum camps
  • Nantahala Kids Club

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