Teens and the outdoors: A Scraped-up Interview

I’ve been thinking about teens and the outdoors again, a topic that I last tackled a while back. It’s a challenging issue, and one that I feel doesn’t have easy answers. We know that teens need to be outdoors just as much, if not more, than younger kids. We know that the things that are important about the outdoor experience, like reducing stress, connecting to your surrounding environment, and getting healthy exercise, are even more important in this age group. However, more and more the lure of technology, combined with increasingly packed schedules for teens, lead to less and less outdoor time.

So what can you do about it? As always when I’m stymied, I brought in an expert.

Debra Deal is the Executive Director of Camp Beech Cliff on Echo Lake on Mount Desert Island where she has responsibility for developing camp programs and infrastructure, managing the budget and fundraising activities, and supervising personnel. She has more than 20 years of experience in the non-profit sector, managing programs at camps, outdoor education centers, and other recreational programs for youth and adults. For the five years just preceding her joining the CBC team in 2006, Debra served as Director of Camping and Recreation Services for AHRC, one of the largest social service agencies in New York City. She has also directed camps and an outdoor education center for urban, disadvantaged youth in Washington, D.C. and on Long Island, and helped to start a new camp in Rhinebeck, NY for girls from 20 different countries to promote multi-culturalism. She earned her B.A. from the University of Richmond, Virginia, and her Masters in Education from Harvard. Debra lives on MDI with her husband, Rogier van Bakel, a freelance writer and photographer, and her three daughters, aged 6 to 13.

Clearly, she has significantly more experience working with teenagers than I do. And I don’t want to spoil the interview or anything, but: she has really great things to say about what teens need at this time in their lives and how the outdoors fits into that. Take it away, Deb.

Debra Deal

What is your work history and interest in teens?

Right out of college I started working with teens and have been, in some capacity, ever since. I’ve been a youth counselor at a youth center in Manchester, MA, a group home in inner-city Washington, D.C., and a school-based clinic at a high school in Boston; I was a director to all kinds of clubs and events for a large community college in Maryland; and I’ve run several different type of sleep-away camps for 15 years prior to moving to Mt Desert. I’ve been the Executive Director of Camp Beech Cliff for the past 11 years.

I’ve always felt that the teen years can be the most formable years because they set the course for a person’s life. I had a rough go at it with my family when I was a young teen and there were a couple of important people who helped me get through those years; I have never forgotten how important they were in my life. Coming out of college, I wanted to be that friend to teens and I found that it was easy. Like most teens, I was energetic and enjoyed all kinds of activities and music. But what I found to be most important over the years is being a good listener and not being judgmental; I really encourage them to be themselves. Once I started working at camps, I realized that I had my place in life. I really believe that giving a young person a camp experience can make a huge difference in the lives. As Camp Beech Cliff’s motto goes: we are giving them a chance to connect with nature, each other, and aspire to be their best selves.

What are some of the things you’ve learned about teens and the outdoors through the years? What constants do you see in this age group?

Over the years, I’ve watched teens land on different points of a pendulum. On one far side, our American society is putting enormous pressure on teens to be the very best in academics, sports or some other extracurricular; these teens are staying crazy busy with the hope of having an advantage to getting into a good college or job. In addition, many parents now are overly protective of their children, and don’t allow their teens to explore on their own or to fail. It doesn’t always go so well – the pressure can lead to high anxiety or depression. The other extreme is watching teens quit or fail with all of this and they languish. Sometimes the parents throw up their hands and don’t get involved in a meaningful way because they don’t know how or they are being totally rejected. It can be a really difficult time.

Regardless of the where a teen is with all of this, getting outdoors seems to be a low priority for most. I have found that it is also next to impossible to require a teen to go outside, especially in this digital age. I know this first-hand with my own teenager who would much prefer all the comforts of indoor life.  These days what I see is either kids have a strong affinity to the natural world and are involved in all kinds of outdoor activities, or they are not interested at all which is what is happening in a big way for most teens. They can be a tough audience and figuring out how to reach them with this type of healthy living is a big challenge.

I really enjoy this age group because they have such optimism and willingness to try new things. That has never changed over the years. I feel that if they are given the right incentives and opportunities, they will try a new outdoor experience and it will make a big difference in the lives.

What are some of the changes that you’ve seen–good or bad–in teenagers in recent years?

This is the digital generation and most don’t know what it’s like to be digital-free for a whole day. They are spending an average of 8 hours on a screen. That’s average – some are doing more, others less. I am one of those people who thinks that there is nothing wrong with being well-connected. It is part of our society and they are developing minds that can easily navigate that world. What’s important, though, is a balance in life and I believe that outdoor experiences should be part of that equation.

Here’s one significant way I see the digital age changing our young people: Camp Beech Cliff hires 65 staff in the summer with about 20 of them being older teens and another 30 of them in their early twenties. We are seeing a big need to teach this staff very basic forms of communication — looking people in the eyes when talking, having appropriate ways of expressing themselves in person, and learning how to deal with conflicts in person. So much of their communication is done digitally now and that doesn’t work in the camp experience, and it is likely to not serve them well in other areas of their life.

These young staff members are key to our successful camp. Campers get their cues from these staff. The staff are fun and engaging, energetic and creative, and have a lot of the attributes that we want to pass on to our campers. And, most importantly, these staff get the campers thinking that being outdoors is the most fun that they can have! No TVs, computers, or iPhones necessary – just great interactions among staff mentoring campers.

Creative Commons licensed photo

Photo courtesy Flickr user davebloggs007

This year Camp Beech Cliff is offering new camps just for teens. How did you design these camps to appeal to teens?

There’s been a lot of interest in our camp but it had always been from the younger campers. Last year we saw something new and exciting: the young teen camp sessions were full and had a waiting list. This was a first for CBC and not the norm in the industry. There were parents and teens asking us to do more, so we launched a new teen camp this summer called Acadia Teen Camps.

To figure out what to offer, our program directors went to the schools to interview and survey older students to see what they wanted. We learned that they want something separate from the younger, early middle school campers. Their interests for programs revolve around socializing, which is cornerstone in teen development, and they want to hang out with each other.

And here is something that caught us by surprise: Many of them said they want a week of camping. Can you believe this? So, we are trying a three-night camping program with low-impact outdoor activities and lots of time socializing with each other and with CBC counselors in beautiful natural settings, which will give them a way to explore and connect with the natural world.

Rock climbing, white water rafting, and island adventures were other interests of the teens surveyed; they also had ideas that we would not have come up with on our own. For example, Body Art Designs includes exploring self-expression through henna, body paint, and stage make-up. Actually, it doesn’t surprise me that they would create such a unique and attractive program idea.

Given the challenges, why do you think it’s still important to connect teens to the outdoors?

Most of us know that there are enormous health benefits to spending time outdoors and it effects the well-being of our body, mind, and spirit.  There’s the obvious — getting vitamin D, exercise, and taking in the beauty of nature can be relaxing. What concerns me the most about teens today are the stress levels, depression, and anxiety that come with being so busy, people having high expectations of them, and the peer pressure that comes from social media. The demands of teens and modern day lifestyles are complex in ways that older generations have never known.

How young people deal with this now will follow them into adulthood, and we need to equip them with tools and skills that will keep them healthy. This will serve them well into the future.  Camp can be one very important way to keep teens focused on a value system that is wholesome and revolves around the outdoors. It’s a safe place both physically and emotionally; we are encouraging them to try new activities and to be active, taking positive risks and allowing them to succeed and sometimes fail. It teaches them confidence, grit, how to get along with others, and leadership, to name a few important outcomes we see each summer.

Equally important, we are giving them great role models who can help them navigate life in ways a teacher, parent, or counselor cannot. And we do it all by having them outdoors all day without their phones!  I know camp is a good place when I hear the young teens themselves saying: “Camp allows me to be who I really am.”

Thanks, Debra. Wasn’t that amazing? 

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.