Do kids learn better outside? All signs point to yes.

Outdoor education teaches hard skills like environmental stewardship, backcountry navigation, wilderness first aid, and basic survival skills... but it also promotes personal and people skills like active learning, encourages physical and social development, and boosts self-esteem and confidence with authentic outdoor challenges.

As any adventurer knows, overcoming challenges instills empowerment. And what better teacher to empower her students – each and every one of them – than Mother Nature?

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That’s exactly what the nonprofit Out There Adventures (OTA) believes in and aims to do; empower queer young people through their connection with the natural world. This organization is committed to fostering positive identity development, individual empowerment, and improved quality of life for LGBTQ youth, using outdoor education as its catalyst.

Their mission is simple, powerful, and important: We believe every young person deserves the opportunity to explore their identity in a positive and affirming environment.

It’s easy to say that groups like OTA are an important educational and recreational opportunity for all types of youth, if it wasn’t for one jarring fact: They are the only outdoor organization in the United States that was specifically created to meet the needs of queer young people. Yet the benefits of outdoor and wilderness education for youth have been excruciatingly tested, and the results are remarkable:

  • Students involved in outdoor education programs score higher in reading, math, and science classes, according to National Wildlife’s 2010 report Back to School: Back Outside.
  • Especially for youth who don’t thrive in traditional classroom settings, like students with ADHD, multiple studies show that outdoor environments provide a more engaging and successful education than an indoors equivalent.
  • Researchers from the University of Essex reported that as little as five minutes of “green exercise” can boost mood, reduce the risk of mental illness, and increase self-esteem.

With such strong research and results that illuminate the need for these types of programs, how is it that there has never been an outdoor education platform specifically created for LGBTQ teens and pre-teens?

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“There’s a colossal disconnect between the queer community and outdoor industry,” according to Elyse Rylander, the Executive Director of OTA. “[Industry leaders] need to recognize that this next generation is going to look a lot different.”

Easy to say, difficult to execute, and yet somehow Rylander has managed to do both. After seeing and experiencing this disconnect firsthand, she single-handedly organized the papers to earn OTA’s nonprofit status in 2014. The following year, they kicked off programming with a handful of participants for a single expedition. In 2016, OTA launched their Queer Mountain School day program and saw upwards of 50 queer youth join their ranks.

By 2017, their third year running, Rylander had expanded OTA’s programming schedule into six different day school programs, two wilderness expeditions, a five-week long conservation series, and the country’s first ever LGBTQ Outdoor Summit. The summit, held in October – LGBT History Month – attracted 140 attendants from all over the United States and Canada.

Rylander’s brainchild continues to grow in 2018, with an orchestration of all-new program partnerships, Get Out There summer challenge, a summit mentorship program, and for the first time; adult-specific programs. Head over to OTA’s website to read their 2018 Program Catalog for more information.

OTA’s exceptional growth and outstanding success still begs the question asked earlier: Why haven’t we seen a program like this before? More importantly: What will it take to bring visibility to queer communities, especially how we engage with them in the outdoor spaces we already occupy and celebrate?

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Rylander addresses some of these questions, and more, in a recent interview with SNEWS on “How the Outdoor Industry can be More Inclusive of Queer People.” In it, she talks about the need for visibility in a way that isn’t tokenizing, saying:

“We need to put people from these communities out in the forefront, not because they represent diversity but because they’re great at what they do... We don’t have enough roundtables with people who are not white, cisgender dudes talking about their badass outdoor experiences. But we should.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about bringing these conversations into the mainstream and building relationships with the people and companies who can make a difference. Encouraging outdoor organizations to attend inclusive events like pride festivals, or challenging gear companies to offer gender-neutral colorways. It all starts, and grows, with activism.

Rylander’s advice for making an impact, big or small, on queer youth:

  1. Engage your local communities. Find out who’s doing what, and how you can help. OTA’s site lists some great resources for both youth and parents in the Pacific Northwest.
  2. Donate money, time, or advocacy – whatever you’re able to provide. Compensate people for their expertise, and thank them for their time.
  3. Be a better ally. Not just to queer folks, but to everyone in your space.

The outdoor industry is doing its part to chip away at issues of gender equality and bringing adaptive sports into the spotlight, making NOW the perfect time to focus on one of the largest neglected groups already sharing our own beloved wilderness playgrounds.

Learn how you can support Out There Adventures on their quest to empower queer youth today, from the Pacific Northwest to your own backyard.

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