Losing Touch with Nature
In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv drew attention to the growing disconnect that is occurring between children and nature. Louv even coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder" to describe this troubling social trend. Hunters intuitively understand the psychological impact that losing our connection to nature can have on both children and adults. While many of us grew up with the freedom to roam the fields, woods, and vacant lots near our homes (often with the strong encouragement of our mothers), the open territory that today's children have to roam is only a fraction of what it is was 25 years ago. Those of us who grew up with that freedom know how important it was in shaping our interest in nature, replacing fear with fascination, providing experiences that strongly influenced who we are, and contributing to our interest in hunting.
Research shows that the more interest children have in nature and the more time they spend outdoors at an early age, the more likely they are to become hunters later in life.
Research shows that the more interest children have in nature and the more time they spend outdoors at an early age, the more likely they are to become hunters later in life. In addition, unstructured play, including simple activities like turning over rocks just to see what's there and building tiny dams on trickles of moving water, is strongly correlated with a person's future commitment to nature and conservation. Unfortunately, today's kids may know more about the Amazon rainforest than the nearby creek. And structured activities like school field trips or participation in clubs do not have the same impact on a child's connection to nature.
Some of the reasons for this societal shift are based on misconceptions about the safety of our backyards and neighborhoods. A 2005 Duke University study showed that American children are now safer than at any time since 1975, but intense media coverage has fostered a sense that children are at ever-present risk outside the home. Understandably, many parents have restricted their children's outdoor activities because of safety concerns. Sadly, fear has indirectly affected the experiences that we allow our kids to have.
Research has also found that a lack of outdoor experience leads to other misconceptions about nature. For example, 30 percent of kids surveyed believed that "most wild animals are dangerous to people." The fear of the unfamiliar that exists among many parents and teachers is being transferred to our youth.
Introducing Children to the Outdoors
Nevertheless, children still have a strong, too often unfulfilled interest in nature, wildlife, and hunting. One survey documented that the overwhelming majority of youth have a high (41 percent) or medium (50 percent) interest in wildlife, and boys who enjoyed watching wildlife were three times more likely to hunt than those who didn't. Reassuringly for the continued future acceptance of hunting, a solid majority of today's youth—58 percent—approve of hunting while only 33 percent disapprove.
Perhaps the single greatest challenge we face is that fewer young people are being initiated into the hunting culture than in the past. One survey found that in 2005 only about 8 percent of children of any age were initiated into hunting, down from 12 percent in 1990. This doesn't necessarily reflect a lack of interest in hunting or a preference for playing video games or spending time online. Nineteen percent of youth surveyed said they were "very interested in going hunting" and another 25 percent said they were "at least a little interested" in the sport. And therein lies the promise for the future. Once kids had the opportunity to hunt, 56 percent said they "liked hunting a lot" and over two-thirds said they would like to hunt more often.
How do we explain the difference between hunting interest and participation among our youth? We can find the answer not through sophisticated scientific surveys or statistical analyses but simply by looking in the mirror. We are the problem. The good news is that we are also the solution.
First, it's important to understand the pattern of recruitment among young hunters. Those who begin hunting at a younger age tend to be more dedicated and active hunters later in life. Less than 20 percent of hunters have their first hunting experience before age 10, but initiation ramps up quickly as children grow older, reaching 40 percent by age 13 and over two-thirds by age 19. Adults continue to join the sport at a slow but steady rate through their 40s, after which few people start hunting.
Parents, relatives, and mentors who take young kids hunting are crucial to the recruitment of young hunters. Having a family member who hunts is a better predictor of whether a kid will hunt than other factors like growing up on a farm or in a rural area. Almost 60 percent of hunters had a mentor who influenced their interest in hunting, and nearly three-quarters were taught to hunt by their father. In fact, kids interested in hunting said they would much rather go hunting with their father than with friends. And only 2.9 percent of boys hunted if their fathers did not. Clearly there is wisdom in the saying attributed to the legendary sportsman Herb Parsons, "Hunt with your son today, and you won't have to hunt for him tomorrow."
Ultimately, maintaining participation in waterfowl hunting comes down to ensuring that future generations have the same opportunities we had to enjoy the rich, diverse traditions of the sport.