Published September 19, 2010, 12:00 AM

How to get kids back into the outdoors?

The problem is well-documented. Screen time is up. Kids are spending more time connected to electronics than they are to grass and sky and birds and deer.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

The problem is well-documented. Screen time is up. Kids are spending more time connected to electronics than they are to grass and sky and birds and deer.

They game, but far fewer seek game. They play, but their play world is often two-dimensional. They communicate, but they don’t commune.

And they aren’t just

6- and 8- and 12-year-olds. The leading edge of the first generation to abandon the outdoors is now in college.

Tim Bates, co-director of the Recreational Sports Outdoor Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, says the school’s hunting and fishing programs are getting more popular because many students are no longer learning those skills from family members.

About 40 key players in Duluth’s outdoor community gathered a week ago at the Duluth Retriever Club to take a stab at reversing this trend and getting kids — and their parents — back into the outdoors. The group was convened by Duluth conservationist David Zentner, with the help of UMD’s Bates, along with Ken Gilbertson, a professor of outdoor and environmental education, and Dick Haney, former director of UMD’s Recreational Sports Outdoor Program.

A look around the room revealed an impressive — and diverse — group representing educators, birders, hunters, anglers, naturalists, conservationists and others.

Mike Kurre, who directs the DNR’s mentoring program for young hunters and anglers, highlighted the challenges and outlined the mentoring approach as one part of the solution. But he emphasized that mentoring programs are only part of the answer.

“There is no silver bullet,” Kurre said.

Gilbertson moderated a brainstorming session in which participants offered their ideas about the scope of the problem and how to embrace the issue locally.

Pamela Page of the Duluth Parks and Recreation Department spoke poignantly about trying to get her son outside.

“As a single parent, it’s brought me to tears that I haven’t been able to take my 14-year-old son fishing,” she said. “It’s just overwhelming at times. I don’t know what the solution is, whether it’s transportation or scholarships or what.”

Several people suggested that parents, as well as kids, must be included in any mentoring efforts.

“We need that buy-in from mom and dad that the outdoors is a great place to be,” Kurre said.

Some participants, including educators, said kids must be reached through the school system, especially at young ages, in order to put the outdoors back in their lives.

“We need to get to the 3-year-olds and 2-year-olds,” said Tim Velner, science curriculum specialist for the Duluth public schools. “In the Duluth school district, I’d offer the Early Childhood Family Education and Head Start programs.”

Rather than teaching kids specific skills, they must simply be exposed to the outdoors, Velner said.

“It can’t just be guns and arrows and rods,” he said. “We need to get kids outside. We need to keep our eyes on the goal, and the rest will fall in place.”

It’s hard to say where the energy of that initial meeting will go. Clearly, it’s a daunting task trying to reverse a generational trend driven by dramatic societal changes. But a lot of good thinkers and dedicated people were gathered in that circle the other night, and they all indicated a willingness to be part of an ongoing effort.

It’s commendable that such a collection of talented folks was willing to spend three hours sitting inside on a September evening. They were there, I suspect, because they know the outdoors has shaped their lives in countless positive ways. And because they cannot imagine a world where that no longer happens.

We will see where it goes.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Follow him on Twitter at “samcookoutdoors.”