The British newspaper The Guardian recently ran a storyheadlined, “Three Quarters of UK Children Spend Less Time Outdoors than Prison Inmates.” Funny how the land of English novelist George Orwell (1903-1950) is so good at forecasting how far America can fall if we’re not careful enough to prevent propaganda and misinformation from destroying the welfare of our free and open society.
As sportsmen, we’ve fought for and embraced youth hunting seasons and have long loved bringing the next generation into the field. This isn’t an effort we can stop—not that we would, as it is part of us. We began with our fathers, grandfathers, friends and more. Now, more than ever, our mothers, aunts, wives and daughters are getting involved in the hunting heritage. Still, only about 6 percent of Americans hunt today. While hunting has been a mostly stable demographic over the last decade, it has not grown as the shooting sports have. Part of the reason is that it’s becoming more and more difficult to pull children away from their “screen time.”
So what’s the solution? The key is finding activities that don’t give instant gratification (and shouldn’t, as the outdoor sports reward hard work that builds character), but introduce and involve young boys and girls in the outdoors. Here are a few ways to do so.
1. Start with a Nature Walk. “If this sounds boring, think again,” said retired Green Beret Greg Stube. “The mystery of unknowns is the birthplace of too many mishaps.” Stube, who has a young son himself, works with young boys and girls to grow them into leaders by helping them master necessary skills in the outdoors.
“My ideas for getting young people more involved in hunting and shooting have evolved with increased contact with them through Ready for Life,” said Stube. “In a word, it’s about science. Not the kind that feels like a memorization burden in school, but the kind that grabs the curiosity and wonderment of a child. The kind that makes them proud of their own grasp on the why and how of natural and man-made things.”
If they are going to hunt deer with you, take them in the woods and show them rubs, scrapes, deer tracks and more. Put out trail cameras and check the photos with them. This is an active and inclusive way to teach things that will further their interest in the outdoors.
“When kids understand more about animal species and habitat, and can explain these things,” says Stube, “it puts them in the right place to want to hunt and promote conservation principles—rather than simply killing something. Kids want to earn respect. They want to learn to be good stewards of conservation.”
According to Stube, the same goes for teaching them to shoot. When they understand more about how firearms work and have a general grasp on the concepts of ballistics, they have a much stronger awareness and appreciation for what they are handling. “That understanding makes them safer and brings an intelligent approach that is far better for everyone than shooting just because it’s ‘cool.’”
2. Give Them Active Projects. Upon arriving at Camp Compass, an after-school program that introduces the outdoors to middle and high school students through hunting and firearms training, I immediately noticed the kids playing with turkey calls. John Annoni, a sixth-grade teacher at Trexler Middle School in Allentown, Pa., and founder of Camp Compass, was walking around assisting the kids when needed.
“These kids were never exposed to hunting,” said Annoni, “but by tying flies, shooting both on a simulator and at a range and learning to grunt like a buck and call like a wild turkey, they are now. All these kids can’t wait to go out and try their skills.”
I sat at a table with a few students and asked if any of them had ever hunted before attending Camp Compass. They all said they hadn’t even thought about hunting before the camp, but after learning more about it, are eager to go.
Jay, a freshman in high school, said she had no idea what an elk or antelope was before getting into the program. She’s been involved since she was in sixth grade. “Now I know gun safety and how to shoot,” she said. “I have respect for wildlife because of hunting. I’ve also learned a lot about science. When I got my first deer, I couldn’t believe how much its parts really looked like the scientific drawings I had seen.”
“Did you eat your deer?” I asked. “Yeah,” she said, “venison is tasty!”
When I asked if anyone at home hunts, they all say “no,” and Jay added, “My mom is afraid of guns. At first she thought this was really weird to hunt, but now she thinks it’s cool.”
As I stood up, Jay said to a few girls beside her that she wants to kill a bear to put the bear rug in her bedroom, but that she could never wear fur. One of the other girls voiced that she felt what Jay said was contradictory and began teasing her about it. “How can you have a bear rug but be against wearing fur?” They all laughed and got the message.
Doing active things like learning to call ducks or turkeys is always a smart way to get a kid interested in hunting.
3. Take Them On An Active Hunt. Too many young hunters’ first hunting experience involves being told to sit in a treestand on a frozen day in late fall. They sit there getting colder and colder, start to fidget and ultimately reach for their smart phone to play a video game or text a friend.
It’s better to begin by taking a young hunter on an active hunt, such as a duck hunt in a blind with others or on a spring turkey hunt, where you know it is likely a few gobblers will talk at dawn. The reality is that this generation is used to instant gratification. Start by opening the outdoor world to them and teaching them—in an active way—about the game they’ll hunt, then have fun with them as they learn to shoot a bow or work a duck call. Then bring them on an active hunt as they walk behind a dog looking for pheasant or move toward a gobbling tom. They’ll be enraptured by the deep, wild connection hunters know and love about the outdoors. Many states offer NRA-backed apprentice hunting licenses enabling new hunters to go afield with an experienced, licensed mentor before completing their hunter education course. All of the above is what makes good stewards of our wild world.