Participants in the first semester of the Young Explorers Society take to the woods. The new program is now registering for its second semester. / Photo contributed by Mitch Groothuis

Growing up, Mitch Groothuis' father used camping as a way to bring the family together by taking him and his two brothers on an annual trip to Norris Lake near Knoxville for a week every summer for 14 years. Along with adventures like jumping off cliffs and water skiing, he and his brothers learned skills such as how to cook over a campfire and keep a tent dry in the rain.

"It was really just an incredible time for us as a family," says Groothuis, whose love for outdoor activities continued to grow as he got older.

In college, he realized how easy it was to make friends while doing things he loved in nature.

"I really have begun to see being outdoors as a tool for individual character and spiritual development, and relational development with friends and family," he says. "I think that's a beautiful way to look at it and enjoy it, and I wanted to be able to help other people be able to do that more."

Designed with home-schooled kids in mind, he recently launched the Young Explorers Society, bringing kids ages 6-12 together for outdoor activities including rock climbing, canoeing, hiking, exploring and land stewardship once a week throughout the semester-long program.

Once Groothuis started taking his own children on outdoor adventures, he realized it's not an easy endeavor. Prepping for a day of outdoor adventure requires experience, skill, time and equipment that many people just don't have, and prepping for said adventure with kids in tow requires even more of those often nonexistent resources. And, with many kids still learning from home as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, getting them outside to explore is one more thing parents have to fit into their already overstretched schedules.

"They love the different creeks that they've gone to — which I just didn't even know were around — and so they've been able to swim in these caves and just do all these things that we would never have done," says Kacey Sides, whose sons Hudson, 8, and Holden, 7, are in the program. "We camp and we're active outside, but to have [Groothuis] take them to these really cool places is just pretty spectacular. It's a great outlet for kids."

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Young Explorers Society

The first semester of the program, which follows roughly the same schedule as Hamilton County Schools, was held this fall for 15 participants split into two groups. With the warm weather earlier in the semester, they focused on activities like canoeing on the Tennessee River and hiking to a swimming hole on Suck Creek.

"I love going outside and exploring, and the Young Explorers Society helped me get out more and explore new places that I've never seen," says participant Everly Bosinger, 11. "We went on this long hike with these big boulders to this beautiful swimming spot with a rock waterslide. It was awesome."

While playing outside, Groothuis teaches participants new skills, like how to pack gear or roll a canoe, as well as leave-no-trace principles to help them understand how to be good stewards of the places where they play. There's also a soft skill, such as experiencing wonder or building character, incorporated into each activity.

He says the program is less about getting really good at certain activities, and more about the big picture of using the outdoors to grow as an individual and in one's relationships, and to be a good steward of the environment.

"It's really fun doing this program in Chattanooga. We've got so many neat things right at our fingertips," he says.

In the future he hopes to add more day and time options, as well as an after-school program for kids attending traditional schools.

The program is enrolling for the spring semester soon. The $90 per-day cost includes all gear and transportation, and financial aid may be available. For more information, visit