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Dennis Anderson: Getting youth interested in the outdoors starts with parents [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: BC-OTD-ANDERSON-COLUMN:MS]

MINNEAPOLIS - This fishing opener was Saturday. Do you know where your kid was?

In an age when youth of all ages are preoccupied by countless distractions, including, but not limited to, the usual villains - cellphones, computers, the internet - it's no wonder it's increasingly unlikely that mom and pop, separately or together, spent Minnesota's most celebrated outdoor holiday - the fishing opener - together with their children, wetting a line.

It wasn't always so. Time was not that long ago that a significantly greater percentage of parents spent time with their kids fishing, hiking, hunting, paddling, boating or camping.

That's changed, for many reasons, chief of which is increased urbanization. In the process, life's pace has quickened, and time has compressed. Running to the store to pick up a gallon of milk takes a lot less effort in a small town than in a sprawling suburb. Ditto getting kids to school, to friends' homes and school functions.

Who, then, has time to load up the family and drive an hour or two to spend a day jigging for walleyes or other fish?

Short answer: The time has to be found - if parents hope to enrich their kids' lives, and their own, by introducing them to nature and nature-based activities.

As Richard Louv, author of the bestselling, "Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," has written:

"A growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature - in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies. As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature."

Unfortunately, parents often assume "nature" is "out there" in its many forms - water, woods, wilderness - and if a child is inclined to immerse herself or himself in it, she or he will do it on their own.

In certain cases, that's true: Some kids, by dint of genetics or personal inclination, will engage nature and nature-based activities by themselves, virtually unaided. Minnesota's polar explorer Will Steger is an example: As a young boy, he piloted a small boat down the Mississippi River, a la Huck Finn.

But to include nature and its many recreational offerings in their lifestyles, most kids need more of a formal, sustained, introduction, reminiscent of the kind they would have received when American society was more rural and agrarian - when ponds, woods, trails and wildlife existed "out the back door."

This means parents nowadays often must make conscience decisions to take their kids outdoors, from a young age, much in the same way they might introduce them to music lessons, ball sports or other activities.

These introductions, to be successful, in most cases have to be premeditated according to a specific schedule - just as parents would if they wanted to give their child a reasonable opportunity to be an athlete, musician, actor or good student.

The difference is that, while introducing kids to nature and nature-based activities, parents can't drop off their youngsters as they might for band or soccer practice. Instead, they must take an activist role and share the activity with their children.

In a time-crunched world, this can be a challenge. But the potential payoff is worth it: A family that learns to fish together, or hunt or hike, paddle or camp, is a family that can continue to do so as a unit indefinitely.

Whereas it's unlikely that mom, pop and the once-upon-a-time little ones will be getting together to play rugby when the kids are 30.

Specialists in the field say two critical child-rearing time frames exist for introducing kids to nature, 1-5 and 5-12.

In the former, it's important that the TV is turned off as much as possible, also electronic toys and games. Kids should instead be rolling in grass, getting their hands dirty and watching clouds drift by. Parks are everywhere in the Twin Cities. Zoos also provide great entertainment. And when choosing books to read to kids, favor those with animals, prairies, mountains, sky and water. And outdoor adventure.

Later, between ages 5 and 12, kids can be taken fishing, hiking, hunting and camping as part of family activities. The key is to make these outings fun, exciting and successful - meaning that, for example, while fishing, it's important to catch at least some fish.

Once kids reach their teen years, if they haven't developed an interest in shared outdoor activities, or even individual outdoor activities, the chance that they will declines significantly. Too many distractions pop up in the form of team sports and other school activities.

The author Bill McKibben, as Louv notes, wrote a book in 1989 ominously titled, "The End of Nature."

Maybe that's the future that awaits people - one without nature.

Louv, however, suggests another possibility, "Not the end of nature, but the rebirth of wonder and even joy."

But it won't happen by accident. People, perhaps parents especially, have to make an effort.

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