It Takes a Village to Raise an Outdoorist

A new approach to funding fun, joy, and learning outdoors promises to create more than one-and-done adventures. See how the Outdoor Foundation, Patagonia, VF Corporation, Wolverine Worldwide, REI and Thule hope to create a nationwide outdoor habit for all Americans.

By Kristen Pope April 18, 2019

For decades, researchers have studied and proven the benefits of spending time outdoors. It is shown to increase energy, reduce anxiety, boost creativity, improve concentration, help the immune system and even improve eyesight. One study even suggested that some repeated forms of outdoor education had some benefits over a traditional indoor classroom.

Some people believe getting outside is far more than just a nice-to-have objective—it’s a biological imperative. Biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” in the 1980s, describing humans’ natural instinct to be outside and embrace nature. Yet studies show that kids in the United States today spend an average of just 4-7 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play compared to 7 hours of daily screen time. So it’s no surprise “nature-deficit disorder”—a term coined by Richard Louv—has become part of the common lexicon.

“Kids need nature; people need nature. It really is a basic need, and it’s something that we’ve gotten away from as a culture and a society,” says Corrie Colvin Williams, a researcher with expertise in evaluating the impacts of time in nature on academic, social and emotional learning and on youth development.

But this isn’t a new phenomenon, believe it or not. We started abandoning our innate connection to nature long before iPhones and Minecraft. The gradual shift away from nature and recreation goes back a century or more and is linked to and compounded by a host of cultural determinants, including urbanization, population growth, funding deficits and more. Now more than ever, the barriers to an outdoor lifestyle are insurmountable not just for some individuals but often for entire communities. It is a cultural drift we can’t reverse overnight, but it is one the Outdoor Foundation’s hopes to reverse it within the span of a single generation.


In the past, the Outdoor Foundation funded several relatively small ($200–$30,000) grants every year in order to support programs that take kids on meaningful outdoor excursions. In most cases, those were isolated, one-time experiences that, though meaningful and inspiring for the kids, didn’t address broader cultural barriers that might prevent them from becoming lifelong outdoorists.

Now, under the leadership of new Executive Director Lise Aangeenbrug and four dedicated board members, the Outdoor Foundation has a new focus that aims to improve outcomes not just for individual kids but for entire communities. The Foundation’s new vision: “We all thrive outside.” The goal is to ensure that, within a generation, everyone experiences the fun and joy of the outdoors once a week. The Foundation wants to fuel the movement by supporting communities that weave an outdoor ethic into their culture, thus providing accessible, repeat and reinforcing outdoor experiences not just for the individual kid but for his or her entire village, so to speak: parents, guardians, siblings, peers and extended networks. Doing so, the Foundation hopes, will create a lifelong love of outdoor recreation that permeates entire communities.


To meet this aim, the Foundation changed its funding model and created a new program called Thrive Outside Communities. With funding support from VF Corporation, Patagonia, Wolverine Worldwide, Thule and REI, four diverse pilot communities across the country will each receive up to $410,000 and other assistance and shared learning opportunities over three years, starting in 2019. The money will help the communities build the capacity of their organizations and networks to provide perpetuating outdoor experiences for residents and to cultivate future generations of outdoorists.

Marc Berejka, director of government and community affairs for REI, explains why supporting Thrive Outside is so important to his company. He points to startling statistics about how infrequently people go outside, and he hopes the program can help turn those numbers around.

“At REI Co-op, we know in our bones that a life outdoors is a life well-lived,” Berejka says. “At the same time, we’re very much aware that Americans are on the verge of becoming an indoor species. On average, we spend 95 percent of our lives indoors. And the figures for kids are even more daunting. The typical child spends only 4–7 minutes a day outside playing. Screens are consuming our time, their lives. It’s particularly important that we work to bend this trend back for the upcoming generation.”

A backbone organization in each Thrive Outside community will lead the work, collaborating with other community partners to map the existing outdoor recreation programs, to identify opportunities to pool or share existing resources—such as gear libraries, for example—and to pinpoint barriers or gaps in the community’s outdoor assets. Then they will develop and execute a plan to address the community’s identified gap. In the process, they’ll strengthen the community’s network of accountable stakeholders.

The Foundation is modeling its strategy off of other examples of collective impact by many organizations.  One such collaborative is Colorado’s Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO). The Foundation also looked closely at the work of the Pisces Foundation, which funds “purposeful networks” engaging in environmental education efforts across the country. “Our vision is one of people and nature thriving together,” says Pisces Foundation Senior Program Officer for Environmental Education Jason Morris. He explains that his organization works to focus on the “connective tissues” between programs and the infrastructure required to support them. Thrive Outside’s model is similar.


A key component of the Thrive Outside strategy is its emphasis on repeatable, close-to-home experiences—something Pisces has learned is effective. “What we know is that, as powerful as any one experience can be, it’s not one experience that instills in children the know-how to exist and solve problems in a challenging environment,” Morris says. “And [we also] know that it takes multiple experiences over time, both in school as well as out of school. You know, summers, weekends, afternoons, in addition to what happens inside the four walls of a school classroom.” Outdoor Foundation Board Chair Sally McCoy agrees that the same reality applies to outdoor recreation. Repetition is crucial for cultivating a life-long relationship with the outdoors. “If you have multiple reinforcing experiences that are positive, it’s more likely [that you will] make the outdoors part of a habit for yourself,” says McCoy.

 Lise Aangeenbrug adds that proximity to outdoor spaces is also key. Even a great experience that gives a child some sense of nature and the outdoors is not likely to be repeatable unless it also includes something close to home, she says. And when it comes to achieving the benefits of long-term connections with the outdoors—such as physical and mental health, social and emotional learning, youth development, and social connection—Aangeenbrug adds, “we’re much more likely to…achieve those things by having repeat and reinforcing experiences that also engage mentors, the families and communities.”

Kids need their parents’ and family’s involvement to get outside, whether that means traveling to a national park or just going to the neighborhood park. Unless families are part of the equation, it’s unlikely that a child will develop a lifetime connection to the outdoors. “For a child, there is a much higher likelihood that they will have a repeat experience if a mentor, family member, or community member is able to help them have another experience or to provide the support,” Aangeenbrug says. “And for different cultures, family time outside is a more common way to experience the outdoors, so we want to make sure we’re including that.”


Thrive Outside aims to work with geographically, culturally and demographically diverse communities.

“We really want to be in places where getting outside might not be the norm but where there are enough organizations and community interest to figure out a way to make it a habit,” Aangeenbrug says.

Colvin Williams points out that, in many communities, access and inclusion are far bigger problems than lack of interest in or inclination toward outdoor recreation. “Historically, access to quality nature has not been available to marginalized communities located in urban, suburban and rural areas. And there are a lot of underlying…barriers related to gender, race, language, physical and cognitive disabilities, cultural use of space, lack of transportation and, quite frankly, very poor planning.”


Rather than sending a third party in to suggest what each Thrive Outside Community should do to improve outdoor access or break down barriers, the grant empowers the recipients to develop their own frameworks and ideas and to develop customized and unique programs that appeal to their respective residents.

“The local community knows what they want,” McCoy says. “It’s not a cookie cutter in each community—each community is self-directed. We’re not coming in and saying, ‘we think you should do XYZ.’ We’re just providing the support, the communication, the structure and some of the funding so they can do this themselves and then reach out in their communities and also get—whether it’s from community foundations or local people—donations to keep this community thriving.”

Colvin Williams concurs, saying it’s not as simple as ‘if you build it, they will come.’ “If it’s not meeting a need of the community, and it’s not being designed with and for the community, it’s going to fall short of its intention to connect kids to nature.”

The Thrive Outside model stands apart because it allows communities the autonomy to break down their barriers from the inside.


Though the network approach is new for the Foundation, several communities across the country have proven the concept, including one in Outdoor Foundation’s home state. In Colorado, the GoWild Northeast Metro Coalition uses a collaborative model that serves four diverse neighborhoods, including many students who receive free and reduced-price school lunches. The coalition works with numerous partners including federal, state and local governments; state parks; government agencies; nonprofit partners like the Boys & Girls Club; and even an urban farm to provide outdoor programming for local young people.

For years, many of these groups engaged in parallel efforts or intersected informally, sharing volunteers and collaborating. But when they decided to work together more formally, the results were exponential for the community. “We came into it using the collective impact model… We could all do good stuff in our own little silos, but what could we do for more people more effectively if we worked together?” asked Kate Kramer, manager of the Go Wild Northeast Metro Coalition. GoWild is a model for Thrive Outside.


Lisa Myers, senior manager of Patagonia’s environmental grants program, shares how Thrive Outside is in tune with Patagonia’s greater mission. “Patagonia has been known and is definitely an activist company,” Myers says. “But we’ve doubled down in that our mission is to save the planet.”

In order to do so, she points out how important it is to foster more than just a passing association with the outdoors; people must develop a deep connection. “Relationships take time—whether it’s with people or the outdoors—and I think that the more you spend time in the outdoors, the more comfortable you are, and the more engaging it might be,” Myers says. “Oftentimes it becomes a part of who you are, and those things to take time.”

But how much time, exactly? REI’s Berejka believes we have to spend time outdoors not just once in a while but every day. “If the next generation is going to overcome some of the challenges they face, and if they’re to grow up as lovers and stewards of our natural world, it’s important for them to develop, as best they can, a daily habit of spending time outdoors—to consciously understand the benefits and fun of time in nature and to seek it out regularly,” Berejka says. “If they develop a good habit like that, they’ll hopefully carry it forward into their adult lives, share it with others along the way and, when the time comes, share that love of our planet with their own kids.”

Is Berejka’s hypothesis correct? Do we need daily outdoor experiences? While plenty of data about the benefits of being outdoors already exist, we still have a lot of questions, such as how many experiences we need and how frequently we must get outside before we realize the benefits for ourselves and before we become passionate stewards and advocates who will pass our love to others.

Answering these questions is a critical component of the Thrive Outside program. Each Thrive Outside community will collect qualitative and quantitative data, which researchers will study to learn more about what creates an individual’s and a community’s outdoor habits and—perhaps more important—the short- and long-term outcomes of those experiences.


4 Ways You Can Help Communities Thrive Outside

 1. Donate

Contribute one time or set up recurring monthly or annual payments in any amount from $10–$100.

2. Stay Informed

Sign up to receive email updates about the four pilot communities, opportunities to engage with those communities, Outdoor Foundation programs and events, future grants, and outcomes from the Thrive Outside research.

3. Sponsor

Cement your organization’s or family’s legacy in the Thrive Outside movement by becoming a $100,000 partner. Contact us directly to learn more about sponsorship opportunities and benefits.

4. Attend the Thrive Outside Give Back Bash

The Give Back Bash brings together executives and industry leaders for a great event to benefit the Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside Communities. The event will include a live auction with great experience packages, brand curated packages, and our “kid experience” package. Help create our next generation of outdoor enthusiasts!