When I was working on my latest book, National Parks With Kids, my wife and I encountered a young family scaling the Beehive in Acadia National Park. It's a short, but pretty challenging, climb, with precarious sections that long ago prompted the NPS to install iron rungs to help you scale some vertical sections.
But it wasn't too daunting for 9-year-old Sienna Lundeen or her 7-year-old brother, Evan, who brought their parents, Gail and Wayne, to Acadia to explore the oldest national park east of the Mississippi. How did the family, which hails from Minnesota, settle on Acadia? After much reading and researching that led them to the consensus that Acadia "was one of the most kid-friendly parks."
Standing atop the Beehive, Evan couldn't agree more. When I asked him what he liked best about Acadia, he quickly replied, "I like climbing the mountains."
Today that statement from a 7-year-old might be rare, as within the National Park Service and outdoor industry circles there's been much hue and cry that today's younger generations are increasingly detached from the out-of-doors in general, and the national parks specifically. In his wonderful book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv tackles this issue and points to many causes, ranging from the dwindling pockets of natural areas to the never-ended popularity and encroachment of electronics.
There are indeed many distractions today. But there are some, relatively easy, solutions. The biggest one is to introduce your kids to nature and the parks. Get them off the couch and away from the TV or computer, put them in the car, and get them to the mountains, or the forests, or meadows, or rivers, or coasts, or lakes.
Granted, if you live on the East Coast it might not be easy to visit Yellowstone or Yosemite, and, conversely, if you live on the West Coast getting to Acadia or Great Smoky might not be simple. But you don't have to go to a national park to introduce your children to the wonders of nature. Nor do you have to go to an officially designated "national park," as the Park Service manages hundreds of units that don't claim that title.
You do need to make the effort. The Lundeens made that effort. They took a three-week-long road trip to explore New England. They found friendly campgrounds, short hikes, and wonderful interpretive programs that not only held their children's attention, but captured their imaginations.
Another youth who's discovered the magic of national parks is Sam Maslow, a 13-year-old Brookynite who a few years ago discovered the Park Service's Junior Ranger Program and since has become firmly engaged with the park system. His hobby is collecting badges from Junior Ranger programs throughout the country. So far he has more than 260. You can learn more about Sam's hobby at his web site, National Parks Junior Ranger Site.
So taken with the program, and the parks, is Sam that he took the time recently to write to National Geographic Magazine in response to its October series on the national park system.
"The people who haven't been coming to national parks, or who come but looked bored, are young kids," wrote Sam. "Several years ago I discovered the Junior Ranger program, in which you complete a booklet and get a badge as a souvenir. I enjoyed it so much that I set up a web site to display my badges and inform other kids about the program."
Sounds simple, doesn't it? Take your kids on a hike, introduce them to the Junior Ranger program, and they'll fall in love with nature and the parks.
In many cases it won't be as easy as that. You'll have to persevere and plan such outings into your life. But it can be done. You can also work on the local level, by lobbying officials for more parks and open space, and by lobbying your congressional delegation for more funding for the National Park Service, not less.
It can be done. And we owe it to our younger generations to do it.