There are more opportunities than ever for kids to commune with nature. Our list of national organizations proves that planning an outdoor family adventure doesn't have to be stressful or epic—or even cost a dime.
We know from recent studies about "nature deficit disorder" that the benefits of exposing young kids to the natural world are abundant and indisputable—from sparking more imaginative play to simply being healthier and less stressed. While mounting evidence doesn't mean we suddenly have more time and energy to make romping in the woods a consistent priority, here's a scary statistic from Raising a Wild Child, a new short film from the widely lauded Born Wild Project: The average American kid spends seven hours in front of a screen and just five minutes outside each day.
The good news is the following 10 nationwide organizations make it fun and totally feasible to plan an outdoor escape in your backyard and beyond.
The brainchild of legendary conservationist John Muir, the Sierra Club is the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States. Now more than two million supporters strong, the 124-year-old nonprofit provides a free community outreach program called Sierra Club Inspiring Connections Outdoors. ICO grants inner-city youth the otherwise rare opportunity to engage with the natural world through a variety of guided excursions geared towards elementary school students and older, from skiing day trips near Denver to three-day getaways to Yosemite National Park.
National Parks Service
The free Scout Ranger program inspires kids to visit and preserve National Parks—especially those overlooked ones close to home—with thrilling outdoor trips and cool badges that Girl and Boy Scouts can earn after a minimum of 10 hours of National Park service. Projects range from wildlife restoration to night sky exploration and even identifying fossils with a park geologist.
The next time you're browsing REI for camping gear, take a look at the store's events calendar. Each of the 77 locations across the country offers a wide range of classes and local outings, be it a free Hiking with Kids Basics course in Tucson or a Learn to Rock Climb class in Seattle for kids ages 5-7. Since the first REI opened in 1944, the company has gone well beyond just a retail operation, designing easily accessible trips and educational seminars for outdoor enthusiasts of all levels. REI's Family Adventures includes tours like a weekend of hiking in Zion National Park and kayaking in Washington's San Juan Islands.
U.S. Forest Service
The Junior Forest Ranger program teaches 7- to 13-year-olds vital outdoor skills for staying safe in the woods. To become a certified Junior Forest Ranger, participants must complete the JFR Adventure Guide, which involves checking off activities like measuring distances on a map and practicing proper outdoor ethics such as Leave No Trace. Plus, you'll win major #coolparent points when your little warden of the wilderness receives an official JFR pin and membership card that gives access to the digital JFR Clubhouse.
Hike it Baby
In 2013, Portland, Oregon mom Shanti Hodges found that reconnecting with nature and making friends on the trail could alleviate her postpartum depression—and provide an enlightening environment for her son. Since Hodges launched Hike it Baby, its volunteer-based community has grown to more than 300 branches in 45 states, offering more than 4,000 monthly guided hikes throughout small towns and big cities. With its motto "Raising kids to love the outdoors," HiB is ushering in a new era of adventurous families who value active offline experiences, be it an urban park stroll, a forest frolic, or a beach walk. Membership is $10 per year.
The world will seem like one giant aviary to your kids after you introduce them to the Audubon Society's engaging guides for budding birders. The site offers fun and functional activity ideas, including how to make bird feeders out of recycled materials, build an insect hotel, and design a feather-friendly yard. Spark your fledgling ornithologist's interest with this guide to the best birding trails across the country in every season.
National Wildlife Federation
Since 1967, NWF's Ranger Rick program has compelled millions of 7- to 12-year-olds to discover and protect the great outdoors through activity challenges, educational periodicals, and nature quizzes. The raccoon mascot, Ranger Rick, provides the tools, like printable nature notebooks and animal surveys, for kids to document and revel in every experience in the wild, whether they're spying on a deer through binoculars or tasting marshmallows around the campfire.
Want to get the kids playing outside and off Pokémon Go? Play PBS Kids games like Biodiversity Bingo, which challenges families or a group of friends to find and document diverse plant and animal life in their backyard or neighborhood. The scavenger hunt activities encourage children to identify local species—be it an oak, salamander, or blue jay—and enjoy a spirited discussion about each discovery.
National Wildlife Refuge System
National Wildlife Refuges comprise the world's largest network of conservation lands. Most of the 565 refuges offer free admission year-round, like Florida's birder paradise Pelican Island, which President Theodore Roosevelt designated as the first refuge in 1903. Families are inspired to visit refuges with NWF's wide range of online-accessible activities—from kid-friendly photography tips to a Neighborhood Explorers club to car bingo. You can even take a virtual walk (or swim!) in places like Crystal River, home to the largest assembly of manatees in a natural environment.
Discover the Forest
Your little ones will be eager to hug trees instead of screens once you introduce them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's forest database. The Discover the Forest site is not only an untapped wellspring of local and national outdoor activities, it's also filled with intriguing facts about the benefits of trees and the forest ecosystem that will get kids excited about delving into the woods near home—parents may even be surprised by how many natural playgrounds exist close by. Discover the Forest equips kids with skills like how to use a compass and recognize certain animal tracks; print out The Book of Stuff to Do Outside to turn the tasks into an educational game.