Although I do work in the videogames industry, I am a big fan of the outdoors and try to spend as much time as possible in the mountains surrounding my home in Washington state. And the more time I do spend in the outdoors, the more I realize how few children there are. In fact, it seems that with each passing year the average age of those you do encounter at National Parks or on the local trails is indeed skewing older.
There's an interesting article about why this might be so on the Christian Science Monitor. Not that I ever read CSM, mind you, but I saw a link to this and thought it was a pretty decent read. The author suggests that gas prices are a big reason for a drop in attendance at National Parks (having just spent roughly $500 on gas driving to and from the parks in Utah, I can attest to this being a hurdle) and that videogames and a general couch-potato attitude towards life is a big reason for the kids not clamoring to visit these special places.
I don't think it's that simple of an explanation. Sure, I agree that there are a lot of kids who come home from school and would rather play a videogame (hopefully with one of my guidebooks on their lap) than go outside, but from talking with parents it seems that many of them secretly prefer it that way. Let's face it; we live in a fear-choked society. Parents are terrified of letting their kids out of sight. They're afraid of them getting hurt, molested, kidnapped, doing drugs, smoking a cigarette, having sex, stealing something, getting beat up, causing vandalism, etc., etc., etc. Sure, parents complain about "how much television the kids watch" but in truth many of them like it. They know if the kids are home, they're most likely safe. Of course, when I hear this I think back to my own childhood days when my friend Shawn and I used to use lighters and his mom's Aquanet to scare each other with miniature flamethrowers. And we did this in a tiny crawlspace under his basement stairs... inches from exposed beams and plywood. We were at his house, his mom knew where we were, so we were safe. Yeah, right...
I live on a street with many, many children. And they are always outside playing (much to my work-from-home chagrin). But these kids are never outside of a 100ft radius of their home. In fact, they seldom leave the lawn. Our neighborhood has a small park with a playground on every street. I can't tell you the last time I saw kids at one of these parks unattended. If I had to wait for my mom or dad to escort me to the park as a kid, I would probably be about 100 pounds overweight right now and sure as hell wouldn't have been active enough to get a track scholarship to college. But parents are terrified, even in their own backyards of a relatively well-heeled neighborhood like ours.
So stretch that to National Parks. Now you have the additional fears that come from seeing so many strangers around (some likely unshaven from camping... and obviously dangerous!), the fear of the kids getting lost, falling down, getting stung/bitten by something, poison ivy, or, best of all, the "likelihood" that they will get eaten by a bear or cougar. Factor in the favorable odds that dad and mom are simply too soft and unprepared for a camping trip and it's no wonder you have so few kids visiting National Parks these days. It's not [just] because the kids are a bunch of little techies who don't know how to unplug, but because they're parents are too afraid to take them. And unwilling to make them. It's easier to come up with excuses why not to take them... especially if they can then blame not going on the kids' addiction to television and videogames.
Now, I'll be honest. Nothing ruins a trip more for me than the high-pitched shrieking of children at play. I'll admit it, I'm a selfish prick and I'm not very kid-friendly. I want solitude. I want peace and quiet. And when I visit a National Park or National Forest, I want to go for hours, if not days, without seeing or hearing another human being, least of all kids. That said, I also want these places to be around forever and the only way they will be is if every generation has a critical mass of people who care enough to preserve them; that care deeply enough to keep them free of unnecessary roads; protected from a forestry service at odds with preservation; to keep them clear of mines and oil wells; and perhaps most importantly, to keep them devoid of development. We need todays youth to grow up caring for these places so that they don't turn into tomorrow's strip-miners and clear-cutters.
I've sent letters to and answered questionaires for the National Park Service about improving attendance. In my very biased opinion, the biggest thing they can do is to re-designate certain lesser-used trails as multi-use trails and allow mountain biking. I know I would definitely increase my visitorship to National Parks if I wasn't forced to keep my mountain bike on roads. Hell, I live smack dab between three National Parks yet despite being a responsible tax-paying trail user, my bike and I are unwelcome. I would definitely splurge on an annual parks pass if each park had even just two or three pieces of singletrack we were allowed to bike on. But, more importantly, making the decision to open up a few trails to mountain bikes would also increase the desire for kids to come out and play too. Mountain biking is once again enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to the freeride movement. The National Park Service has to adapt to the times and at least try to tap into what makes kids tick these days. It ain't walking gingerly through a forest, I'll tell you that much. I'm not suggesting the Park Service build X-Games inspired jumps and crazy North Shore-style freeride trails, but they need to allow for a little more excitement and something today's little adrenaline-junkies can identify with. The problem isn't that that National Parks don't have videogames and television, it's that they don't offer a suitable replacement for kids of today. And big kids of today like me.
While hiking through Canyonlands National Park last month all I kept thinking about was how incredible it would have been to be on my bike. I think that almost everytime I visit a National Park. And also everytime I do encounter kids schlepping their way back to the trailhead with a bored look on their face. Mountain biking isn't going to make all the Park Service's problems go away but if attendance and revenue are a problem, then mountain biking could definitely be at the very least a partial solution.
Additional reading about the "No Child Left Inside" movement here.