The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 28, 2021 1:00 am

Scouting the great outdoors

Fresh-air activities benefit girls and the women they become

Sharon Pohly

As temperatures rise and daylight lengthens, I am eager to head outdoors for some much-needed fresh air and sunshine. After a year of pandemic-induced social isolation, many of us likely feel more confined in our homes than ever.

Even as we start to venture out, the sad truth is that children today do not spend nearly enough time outdoors. When my sisters and I were young, we loved to splash through streams, overturn rocks and explore the woods near our Michigan home.

Those experiences helped instill in me a lifelong appreciation for the environment.

For many contemporary families, however, technology and structured activities leave less time to get outside and enjoy nature. Parents' work schedules, a lack of access to or comfort in the outdoors, and unsafe neighborhoods are sometimes also to blame.

Especially disturbing is that from childhood on, the amount of exposure girls receive to the outdoors in comparison to boys isn't always equal. While young boys are expected to be brave and get dirty while climbing trees and catching frogs, many young girls are not encouraged to pursue adventure in the same way.

A 2019 report by the Girl Scout Research Institute titled “Girl Scouts Soar in the Outdoors” indicates that this trend starts early. In fact, preschool girls are 16% less likely to be taken outside by their parents to play than boys their age. At a time when many gender gaps have narrowed, statistics such as this suggest we're still falling short.

Research by the Outdoor Foundation found that, on average, about 66% of males ages 6-24 participate in outdoor activities. Females' participation averaged around 55%, with both genders' rate of participation decreasing only slightly as they age.

Beyond young adulthood, however, that gap grows significantly wider. Research found that women's involvement in outdoor activities steadily decreased, from 55% at age 26 to less than 20% by age 66. For men, more than 60% report taking part in outdoor activities in their 20s, and more than 40% participate in their mid-60s.

Part of this dramatic difference could be attributed to women's greater responsibilities for home and family life. For women, whose many roles are constantly shifting, and who bear a greater burden of caregiving for our youngest and oldest citizens, it's more challenging not only to get outside during leisure time, but also to stay active outdoors as they age.

Since its founding in 1912, Girl Scouts has a long history of getting every girl outdoors. Many Girl Scouts say attending camp, for example, is one of their fondest childhood memories. At camp, girls can safely push their boundaries with activities ranging from horseback riding to rock climbing, archery to kayaking. They can take risks and conquer fears in a supportive, all-girl setting and develop leadership skills that will endure a lifetime.

Connecting with the outdoors is a major benefit of belonging to Girl Scouts. The Girl Scout Research Institute report showed that Girl Scouts is successful at exposing girls to new and challenging experiences in the outdoors, and in enhancing their outdoor interest, confidence and competence.

When girls spend quality time outdoors and increase their exposure to nature, they thrive physically, emotionally and intellectually. In addition, they:

• Discover they can better solve problems and overcome challenges.

• Develop leadership skills, build social bonds and are happier overall.

• Become team players and care more about protecting our environment.

• Become committed to environmental stewardship, which helps them respect and engage responsibly with nature throughout their lives.

In short, outdoor adventure enriches the lives of girls. With summer approaching, it's a great time to explore the many camp options offered to local girls, including those by Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michiana. From day camp to resident camp, community camp to weekend “build your own adventure” programs, there are dozens of opportunities to help close the outdoor gender gap.

As former first lady Lady Bird Johnson once said: “The environment, after all, is where we all meet, where we all have a mutual interest. It is one thing that all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.” 

Sharon Pohly is CEO of Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michiana.

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