A push to get youth outside spurs investment in higher quality kids gear.

By Courtney Holden

Talk to nearly anyone who earns their keep in the outdoor industry and they’ll wax nostalgic about trips camping with their family, fishing with their fathers or playing hide-and-seek with their siblings out in the woods. Whether we call ourselves hikers, bikers, skiers or anglers, most of us cultivated our love for getting outside when we still measured our age by half-years and ran around with bruised knees and dirt under our fingernails.

Fast forward to 2016 and a new baby-boom generation is arriving — the children of millennials, the grandchildren of the original baby boomers. But times have changed. Today screen time has become the equivalent of playtime, and kids face a constant siren song from Wiis, widgets and the World Wide Web.

“As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of the human experience,” wrote Richard Louv in the award-winning book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. “Yet at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical and spiritual health directly to our association with nature —in positive ways.”

The news isn’t all bad. There’s a mounting push against this propensity for indoor play. And that bodes well for our industry because as more parents head outside with their kids, they’re investing in the apparel, footwear and gear necessary to do so.

According to SSI Data*, kids category sales at retail have turned in a mixed bag over the past few years. Kids outdoor footwear sales jumped 20 percent in 2014, but are down 16 percent for the trailing 52-weeks, through April 9, 2016. Kids outdoor apparel sales were flat in 2014, and up
2 percent for the trailing 52-weeks. And kids outdoor hardgoods sales were up 5 percent in 2014, but down 15 percent for the trailing 52-weeks.

Kids category sales for outerwear, handwear, functional footwear, day packs, sleeping bags and paddlesports have shown the most robust gains, while socks, swimwear, climbing gear and bikes have seen declines.

Photo courtesy Osprey and photographer Dan Holz

Photo courtesy Osprey and photographer Dan Holz

A New Push For Outdoor Play
There’s a growing body of research that touts the benefits of getting kids away from the television, off their smart phones and out into the natural world. Among those benefits: better concentration and self-discipline; advanced coordination, balance and agility; improved awareness, reasoning and observational skills; and fewer sick days. With all the advantages to be had from spending time outside, it’s no wonder parents are beginning to prioritize outdoor play.

But with a kid in tow — not to mention the accompanying snacks, stroller and other necessities — these outdoor experiences are more mellow, standing in stark contrast to the sufferfests much of the outdoor industry propaganda promotes (think half-frozen figures perched on a jagged peak or a sun-kissed hard-body ripping a giant wave). The new mantras sung by Louv, Michelle Obama and the “Let’s Move! Outside” campaign encourage parents to simply get out of the house with their kids, whether that means catching lightning bugs in the backyard or taking a stroll around the city park.

“The exploration of playing outside is extremely important for life skills and development. It’s a basic way to learn how to explore and get dirty and fall down,” said Becky Marcelliano, marketing coordinator for Deuter. “And it doesn’t have to be anything epic; it’s just about that outside playtime.”
Helen Olsson, author of The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids, points out another, often-overlooked advantage of heading into nature with kids: developing deeper relationships between generations. “With the usual noise of life drowned out, camping with kids affords you the luxury to just be with your children. To marvel at a wildflower or stop on a trail, close your eyes and listen to the wind in the trees,” she wrote.


The Changing Face Of Parenthood
The majority of the rising tide of parents fit into the millennial generation— that often-derided group of roughly 15-35 year-olds better known for their self-absorption and social media prowess than any parental instinctiveness. “[Having kids] is quite a shock to a lot of millennials because they’re accustomed to having significant freedom,” said Gregory Miller, president of the American Hiking Society (AHS), who’s done extensive research on the demographic. “Historically, these people have done long hikes, big paddles and gone climbing. They can’t do that in the same way [with a kid], so they start looking for shorter, locally accessible trails … and repeatable outdoor recreational experiences. They do them with more frequency, but not for as long.”

And now there are national crusades and groups to help with trip planning. Miller’s own AHS presents the Families on Foot initiative, which encourages children, parents and families to take a hike and explore the outdoors. The “Every Kid in a Park” campaign gives fourth graders and their families free admission to national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and more. And Hike it Baby is a group-gathering platform that helps parents and caregivers plan hikes and walks.

In addition to time constraints, Millennial parents are also often restricted by cost. Many remain saddled with student debt and have run into childcare expenses that are higher than expected. As a result, they’re looking for activities with a low-barrier to entry in terms of financial investment. For these reasons, Miller said, camping and hiking in particular are two easy (and rewarding) ways to get outside with kids. Most cities have parks, trails and campgrounds within a reasonable distance; gear needs are relatively low — just a set of sneakers, backpack and perhaps a child-carrier of some sort; and the activities are safe for all ages.

“Parents today are seeking outdoor activities to share with their children to expose them to a wider world than the purely electronic one … a world that can engage them on a number of fronts — from boundless play space to an education in nature,” said Colin Butts, director of marketing for Chaco. “Local parks, camps, forests, and monuments offer parents an inexpensive, but rich natural escape.”


Smaller Sizes With Top-Notch Tech
When it comes to gear specifically designed for young explorers, there’s a wealth of trickle-down technology coming into play. “Products are kid-specific, but they are being designed with the same high-performance style and quality of materials that is demanded in adult gear,” said Julianne Ryan and Andi Manies, product managers for CamelBak. “Parents and kids do not want dumbed-down function or style.”

As a result, we’re seeing kids gear cut from the same cloth, sometimes literally, as the adult version. Pint-sized softgoods from Patagonia and White Sierra are infused with bamboo and Tencel. Redington’s miniature fly rods and Avex’s kid-sized water bottles come with the same features as standard models, but with grips fit for smaller hands. Deuter offers backpacks built with adult-worthy lumbar support, but with a tightening system that allows the pack to grow with the child.

Of course this advanced technology comes with a higher price tag than more basic cotton or plastic Walmart versions. While budgets are tight, brands confidently report parents are willing to spend more to ensure a quality product for their kids.

“They’re realizing that if they put their children in the right performance gear, the child will be more comfortable and more willing to stay out longer, meaning mom and dad get to do more of what they love,” said Robert Thomas, senior product line manager at Smartwool. “There’s a breaking point with regard to cost because kids do grow quickly, but by and large, parents are more willing to pay a little more to make sure their kids are comfortable outside.”


Crazy For Color
One key difference between kids and adult gear, however, tends to be aesthetics. Playful, kid-oriented colors and graphics are key to helping pint-sized outdoorsmen and women take ownership of their gear. This summer, look for cartoonish animals and favorite super heroes, as well as tropical prints, fresh florals and stylized ethnic patterns.

“We know kids want their own gear, gear that doesn’t just look like their dad’s,” said Josh Prestin, Redington marketing manager fly fishing company, Redington. “Ultimately outdoor equipment built for kids should be about fun. If they don’t think something looks fun, they’re far less likely to engage with it.”

*SSI Data, powered by SportsOneSource, collects and analyzes point-of-sale data from more than 20,000 retail doors across nine channels of distribution. To learn more call 303.997.7302.