Getting Kids Into The Outdoors

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Take a young person on your next scouting mission and safeguard elk country for the future.

For me, getting my kids outside was easy. My interests were in the great outdoors, and I included them in my activities since they were babies. With a favorable weather forecast and an abbreviated mission, my wife and I would take the kids on weekly adventures. More than a few included hunting. I called a tom turkey within 10 yards with my then 2-year-old son sitting quietly beside me. Our weekend coyote hunts always ended with a ride down a big hill in the red sled. If the weather didn’t cooperate we’d postpone the outing. There was no reason to freeze when a nice day would arrive further down the calendar. The main idea was always to make it fun.

Like sports, music lessons and the like, we introduced our kids to hunting in small, but regular doses throughout their childhood. We didn’t overload, overdo or force the immersion. Instead, being outside was routine; it’s just what we did. We made the outing fun and comfortable by packing plenty of snacks and equipping our kids with proper gear. We also had balance with other activities. And perhaps most importantly, we got them started young. You can’t start them in baseball at 6 and then decide to take them hunting when they turn 12. But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what my 16-year-old son Cole had to say:

Some of my earliest memories are those of hunting with my dad. Whether I was standing by as an extra set of eyes on a coyote stand or with one of his big whitetails, hunting was always something I looked forward to as a kid. My dad made a point of bringing me along on outdoor adventures any and every time he could. He engaged me in the excitement and taught me about the sport. In doing so, he created a lifelong hunter.

He made hunting fun for me by including me. Almost every winter morning that I didn’t have school, we would load up in the old, black Chevy (mine now, by the way) and head to one of our “secret” coyote stands. Though I wasn’t the one with the rifle, I always enjoyed myself because my dad made an effort to teach me about why he used the calls that he did and what natural sound they imitated.

He also kept me engaged by pointing out the coyotes that we had called in and other wildlife in the area, as well as letting me blow on the calls once in a while.

Come springtime, we would take to the river bottoms scouring the timber for whitetail sheds. Competing amongst ourselves for the biggest or most sheds became an addicting pastime, which by now has surpassed the point of obsession. These experiences piqued my interest in the outdoors and made it a priority for my free time at a very early age. These outdoor interests took priority over sports and several other extra-curricular activities. Obviously, the approach my dad took to get me outdoors was a successful one, and I believe that it has merit for others who intend to get their kids into hunting and other outdoor activities.

From my standpoint, I’d say engage your kids in the action. Explain to them (while in the field, of course) the different aspects of pursuing your quarry. Engaging them is important to keep them interested and to make them feel like they have an important place helping you in the field.

Finally, the most important thing you can do to get your kids involved is to simply get them outdoors from an early age and keep them interested by doing the aforementioned from there on out. I know that because today I am eager to go on opening morning of whatever season it may happen to be.

Hunting Trends

Let’s start with a look at the trends. Currently, the public overwhelmingly supports hunters, according to a 2013 survey released by Responsive Management, an internationally recognized research firm. The survey shows that adults 18 years and older approve of hunting by a margin of 79 percent. That’s up five points from 2011. Only 12 percent disapprove, while 9 percent are neutral.

While the data indicates we are in positive territory for building hunters and shooters, that wasn’t always the case. If you review US Fish and Wildlife Service survey data from 1991 to 2006, there was a significant downward trend. During this period the number of hunters declined by 11 percent. Big game hunting held solid, but small game hunters were down, and that should be cause for concern.

Many young hunters begin pursuing cottontails, squirrels and other small game before going after whitetails and elk. Look back at your own beginnings. I started by chasing ringnecks and mallards, not whitetails and elk.

It’s good to know hunter participation is on the upswing, but it’s no time to take a coffee break. Introducing young people and others to the sport allows us to explain the hunter’s role in conservation, and that is a never-ending responsibility. Here’s why.

Baby boomers and generations prior had ties to rural America where hunting was as common as red barns in green pastures. Today, the landscape is different. Rural residents are dwindling and suburbia is bulging. A whopping 81 percent of the US population is now categorized as “urban.” Americans are increasingly losing that link to the outdoors. Visiting “Uncle Jim’s” farm isn’t an annual event for most families today. Although Americans still recreate in the outdoors, they don’t have a personal link that introduces them to activities such as farming, ranching, fishing and hunting.

You shouldn’t wait to give someone an introduction to hunting, particularly youths. The modern world has more distractions than an elk herd has escape routes. Think about your own family life as it revolves around your kids. School activities, music lessons, sports, weekend tournaments, club meetings, fundraising—the list goes on.

Just try to get your youngster interested in hunting at the age of 10 when all of their friends are on a ball team and have been for four or more years. Peer pressure is a powerful rival. A survey from Rutgers University revealed that 68 percent of hunters who begin hunting before the age of 14 are still hunting after five years. Of those that start after 14 only 38 percent are engaged after the same five-year-period.

The digital world is another foe you’ll be up against. Just visit a local restaurant and note the customers engaged in some digital device as their friends and family sit across from them.

To compete with these diversions, you need a proactive approach. Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone. States are quickly dropping the age at which young people can begin hunting and are establishing mentor programs. A number of organizations also offer youth programs designed to encourage outdoor interests, promote shooting and spur excitement in hunting. The organization represented by the magazine you’re reading now is one.

In 2013, the RMEF launched a youth membership category for girls and boys age 17 and under. Youth members receive six digital issues of Bugle, e-newsletters, a RMEF logo hat, decals, contests and gear discounts. Most importantly they have access to social media created specifically for them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a RMEF blog for them to share stories and photos. But keep in mind that these are hardly substitutes for actually getting outdoors.

My son is an Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts (BSA). Camping, first aid, community duty and shooting sports all combine to improve the character of young people and encourage their interest in the outdoors.

Another leading youth organization I’ve witnessed firsthand with both my son and daughter is 4-H. You don’t have to live on a farm or ranch to join. It offers a wide spectrum of programs from arts to animals. It also serves up one of the finest shooting sports programs around. 4-H creates an atmosphere of firearm respect, but fun in competitive peer settings. Local sportsman’s clubs often host the 4-H shooting clubs, so youths are exposed to the air rifle, .22 rifle, handgun, shotgun, archery and muzzleloader categories provided. An interest in shooting will lead a few on to become Olympic hopefuls. At least as important, it will lead thousands more to discover the pleasures and satisfactions of being in elk country filling the freezer.

You may also have a respected program already ongoing in your school district, and if not, you could with a little urging. The National Archery in the Schools (NASP) program is a partnership between state departments of education and wildlife to provide archery instruction to students from grades 4-12. Introduced via physical education curriculums, NASP has been deployed by more than 10,000 schools, and reached an impressive 7 million children in all 50 states, plus five countries.

Yes, the news is good right now for hunters. But will the headlines continue to read: “Increase in hunter participation”? Fostering and mentoring the next generation of hunters is a charge we all must take seriously, and you can start now. Take a young person on your next scouting mission. That simple introduction to the woods could plant the seed and create a new hunter, helping to keep our hunting heritage alive well into the future.