Interior Secretary Jewell talks with Scouts about getting more kids outside

These days, too many young people can name more species of Pokémon than they can name species of plants and animals.

As the virtual world has become a child’s reality, his time spent outside has dwindled.

In her job as secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell wants to reverse that trend.

“The statistics aren’t great,” she said. “Young people between 6 and 18 spend about 56 hours a week in front of a screen.”

On Thursday in Washington, D.C., a group of Scouts met with Jewell to discuss ways to get young people away from screens and out into nature. The hourlong meeting represents a critical link between two groups with similar goals.

The Department of the Interior employs 70,000 people and oversees one out of every five acres of the nation’s lands, including national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands.

The BSA, with its iconic outdoor programs, has been helping to connect young people to those public lands for 106 years.

But Jewell wanted to dig deeper and ask the Scouts for their input on how her department can break down whatever barriers prevent young people from enjoying our public lands.

“Very, very few of your friends and neighbors of your age actually spend any time outdoors in an unstructured way,” she said.

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Unstructured play

Jewell, the former president and CEO of REI, has always loved being outside. She was a Girl Scout and Camp Fire Girl.

“What I learned as a child getting out into nature and the outdoors shaped everything that I’m doing in this job today,” she said. “And Scouting is a wonderful way to learn about the natural world.”

Getting young people out into that natural world is a big step toward reversing what’s been called “nature deficit disorder.”

Dan Ta, an Eagle Scout from the Orange County Council, told Jewell how merely exposing children to the outdoors can spark something in them. He’s living proof.

“For me, before I went camping, backpacking, all the outdoorsy stuff — I didn’t really appreciate Mother Nature,” he said. “Once you’ve seen it, you don’t want to forget it.”

But it’s not just going outside that’s important; it’s having free time just to be a kid. That’s why many organized sports — though they offer many benefits — don’t count as unstructured play.

“Most of the time in sports there’s an adult telling you what to do,” Jewell said. “Most people when they graduate from high school become spectators. Only 2 percent will keep playing.”

So unstructured activities, like many we enjoy in Scouting, are vital.

“Sailing, swimming, backpacking, hiking, skiing, ice climbing … going on trails, walking — these are things that are kind of becoming lost because so much of young people’s time is taken up by homework, organized activities and sports,” Jewell said. “And that’s one of the things that Scouts teaches is self-sufficiency and leadership and outdoor skills.”

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Serving in nature

For Hunter Jones, the meeting wasn’t about asking Jewell what she could do for Scouting; it was about asking what Scouting could do for our country’s public lands.

This comes as no surprise, considering that the Eagle Scout is National Chief of the Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s service fraternity.

“We’re over 170,000 strong,” he said. “What is something that we could do to really help you out?”

Jewell said the department has service project needs all over the country. Not only does a project help leave our public lands better than Scouts found them, it also helps those who participate become inextricably linked to that spot.

“[Service] connects you to a place more than you’re ever expecting it’s going to,” she said. “And when you go back to that place, whether it’s a familiar place in your neighborhood or a long way away, you look at it differently.”

She challenged the BSA to involve non-Scouts in our service projects. Some packs and troops do that already, and it’s a great way to engage our communities and to reverse nature deficit disorder.

“If you want to have the most impact, find a project where you can help lead other students and young people,” Jewell said. “It begins to feed that part of their soul that’s being missed.”

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Using technology for good

Jewell isn’t anti-technology. Resisting its encroachment is futile, and besides, she sees its potential to introduce young people to nature.

“How can we embrace technology in a way that inspires people to be outdoors, in nature?” she asked the Scouts.

She then shared one idea: a smartphone game built around competing to see who could locate and identify different plant, animal or insect species in nature. You’d snap a photo (or record an animal sound) and try to find more species and earn more points than your friends.

That same information could be anonymously uploaded to a scientific database to identify where invasive species are moving. The result: a harmonious blending of two seemingly warring worlds.

“Use the device to be outside, to look at nature,” Jewell said. “They invent all these characters, but we have all these incredible species that nobody knows about.”

What do you think?

How can we get more Scouts and young people into nature? How can we use technology as a tool to do so? Leave your thoughts as a comment below.

2015 Report to the Nation

Read more coverage from the 2015 Report to the Nation, happening Feb. 27 to March 3, 2016, right here. And see more photos here.


Photos by Michael Roytek and Randy Piland.

About Bryan Wendell 2881 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.