Connecting Youth to the Great Outdoors

BGCA’s Aprille Sonnier is here sharing a new exciting new guide to offering engaging outdoor learning experience that also build key social-emotional skills.

The Great Outdoors. Usually, those words garner images of towering trees, rushing rivers, and mountains stretching up towards the sky. But what about the natural beauty that surrounds us in our own communities? The bird nesting outside of your window, the wildflowers bursting into bloom along the roads and sidewalks, or a flurry of leaves falling from the trees as winter draws near. As small children, these experiences are captivating and full of wonder, but over time we slowly begin to lose our connection with nature until we no longer notice how truly “great” the outdoors can be. Today’s modern society is filled with countless barriers that can limit our interactions with the natural world, so how can we create opportunities to rebuild youths’ connections with nature?

Enter the Outdoor Social Recreation Playbook, a Club staff practices guide that was designed in partnership with L.L.Bean to provide youth with engaging outdoor learning experiences, while also encouraging the development of social-emotional skills that youth can carry with them throughout their lifetime. This Playbook includes promising practices provided by Boys & Girls Clubs from around the country that will allow you to create effective outdoor programs no matter where you are – be it urban, suburban, or rural communities. Here’s a glimpse at some of the amazing work we’ve already done with other Clubs! 

Boys & Girls Club staff have access to the entire Playbook now on But for everyone, here are three activities to get youth exploring, learning and playing out in nature, together.  

Bird Watching

Bird watching – or birding – is like real-life Pokémon Go! Whether you’re in a backyard or traveling somewhere new, birding allows youth to connect with wildlife around them as they try to “catch ‘em all” … Or rather, identify as many types of birds as possible.  

How to Bird Watch:

  • Birds can sometimes be hard to spot, but they are usually easy to hear. Have kids close their eyes and listen. Then, have them point to where the birds’ songs are coming from and imitate their sounds.  
  • While spotting birds can be easier with the assistance of binoculars or a camera, they’re not required to have a good time. Pick a spot with your child and focus on staying still, looking and listening for movements of birds (or any other animals!). 
  • Turn it into a game! Create a bird-watching bingo card and fill it with names and images of birds local to the area. DIY binoculars from household items, and if you’re struggling to find actual birds, look for signs they leave behind instead like nests, cracked seeds and pellets!

Nature Journaling

Nature journaling allows you to record your observations, thoughts and feelings as you explore or relax in an outdoor setting. It also creates space for nurturing creativity, while grounding emotions and achieving mental clarity.

How to Nature Journal:

  • Have kids collect a notebook, journal or stack of paper and a writing utensil. Then, encourage them to let their creativity run wild by DIY-ing their own nature journal. Have coloring materials like markers, pens or paint available or even fill a scrapbook with nature photography.
  • While nature journaling, find a comfortable spot and challenge youth to be present by focusing on their surroundings, listening and even smelling the world around them.   
  • Provide youth with guiding prompts such as:
    • I notice…
    • I wonder…
    • This reminds me of…
    • Or, have them simply draw, write, doodle and color as thoughts and feelings ignite their imagination.  

Building Bird Feeders

Designing and building bird feeders is a great way to welcome more birds and color into your outdoor spaces, and use up materials already on hand! The result is a beautiful decoration that simultaneously provides a food source for the local bird community – perfect for colder seasons.

How to Build a Bird Feeder:

  • Explore bird feeder guides online and find one that uses materials easily available to you, such as glass bottles, paper rolls or even apple cores. Here’s a list with lots of ideas, all fairly simple:
  • Gather your materials and bird seed to assemble the bird feeder and customize it with decorations.  
  • Make sure the bird feeder is clean and the bird seed is as dry as possible.   
  • Place the bird feeder in a safe location like in a tree or near other shrubs so the birds can feel safe when they visit. Be patient! It could take a few weeks for birds to discover the feeder. Feel free to experiment with hanging it up in different locations and spreading seed out around areas near the feeder to attract birds.
Foster Farms GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Boys & Girls Club staff can access the entire Outdoor Sports Recreation Playbook on The Outdoor Social Recreation Playbook was designed to be an entry point to creating high-quality youth development opportunities in outdoor learning spaces by presenting foundational practices for staff to implement on a regular basis.

What are your favorite ways to get youth exploring the outdoors? How do you incorporate learning about the natural world in your programming? We want to hear! Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

About Aprille Sonnier

Aprille is Director of Youth Development Programs, Special Projects. She is also a Certified Health Education Specialist with a passion for connecting youth to the wonders of the outdoors. When she’s not working on the latest and greatest in YD, you can find her exploring the parks and trails near home in Colorado.

2 thoughts on “Connecting Youth to the Great Outdoors

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  1. We love to take our kids out doors and paint the sunsets outside what ever we see we paint the kids enjoy a different paint setting area and it’s a great way to get them breathing the fresh out door weather.

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