The Healthy Kids Outdoors Act will provide incentives for states to develop new strategies for getting children and families outdoors.
Credit: Loren Kerns, flickr.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) introduced Senate and House versions of the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act, which would provide incentives for states to combat the trend of kids and families spending less time outside.
“Now, more than ever, it is important to develop new strategies for getting children outdoors reconnecting to nature,” said Paul Sanford, national director of recreation policy for The Wilderness Society, in an Outdoors Alliance for Kids coalition statement. “Kids need stimulating alternatives to smart phones and computers, alternatives that are educational and promote physical activity. The Healthy Kids Outdoors Act will encourage states to provide opportunities for recreation and education in the great outdoors. We thank Senator Heinrich and Congressman Kind for championing this important legislation.”
The legislation would spur states to form five-year strategies that encourage kids and families to be active in the outdoors through unstructured play and outdoor recreation like camping, hiking, hunting and fishing.
Credit: Brian McNeal (USDA), flickr.
Make no mistake: we do need a plan. Recent research has found that kids spend much more time staring at screens than they used to—an average of six and a half hours per day, according to one report—and it negatively affects everything from their weight to their academic performance to their ability to recognize emotions.
As they settle in front of the television or computer, kids are shying away from nature, too. In a Nature Conservancy poll, only 10 percent of kids said they spend time outdoors every day. Part of the problem is that some parents are not taking their kids out to play.
The benefits of time outside may be obvious to dyed-in-the-wool wilderness lovers, but they are worth talking about for the sake of those still working on getting their kids to drop the smartphone for a little while:
Benefits of getting kids outdoors
- Physical health. Childhood obesity has been on the rise for years, and it’s clear that reversing that trend won’t be easy. But physical exercise, especially in the form of unstructured outdoor play, can be a big part of the strategy. Other issues that may be partly remedied by more time outside include vitamin D deficiencies and nearsightedness. In recent years, pediatricians have even been urged to formally recommend outdoor activities for children—and in some areas, doctors are already prescribing time in public parks.
- Emotional and mental health. Research suggests that a connection to nature can improve happiness. What’s more, unstructured activity in the outdoors may improve kids’ psychological wellbeing, build independence, strengthen imagination and cognitive ability, and boost school performance. Nowadays, kids’ lives seem ever more densely-packed with appointments and obligations, so nature’s ability to reduce stress and anxiety is especially important.
- Connection to nature. Introducing a child to the wonders of nature can help foster a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors and the need to protect wildlands. Conversely, a child whose connection to nature is tentative or restricted will be less likely to stand up for conservation later on. It’s hard to appreciate the value of wilderness if you haven’t experienced it, and at a time when nature terms are literally being omitted from children’s dictionaries to make way for tech terms, it is vital that we establish these connections early on.
The move to connect kids with nature is gaining momentum. In February, President Barack Obama launched the Every Kid in a Park initiative to get more kids playing and learning outdoors. It will provide 4th grade students and their families free admission to all national parks and other federal lands and waters for a full year, support transportation for school trips, and provide educational resources for students and teachers through field classrooms and digital materials.
A final note about those ubiquitous tablets, phones and other devices: there is no doubt that screen time is a major concern for kids and an impediment to outdoor play—pediatricians have even formally cautioned against screen time. However, if used in moderation, modern technology can be an ally in connecting children with nature. Check out some apps that can help to encourage time outdoors.