How Do We Get More Kids Outside?

First it was video games. Now it’s smartphones and social media. Finding culprits to blame for the lack of kids embracing the outdoors is easy. And it’s absolutely true that kids aren’t spending as much time outside as they once did. Between 2006 and 2012, the percentage of kids ages 6 to 12 playing outdoors dropped from 78 percent to 63 percent, while participation of kids 13 to 17 dropped from 69 percent to 60 percent (a small range of years, but it’s the best the Outdoor Industry Association has).

Those are fairly precipitous declines. Meanwhile, we’re getting fatter. In 2011-2012, 20.5 percent of kids 12 to 19 were obese, according the Centers for Disease Control, while a whopping 35 percent of adults were. In 1960, the average American man weighed 166 pounds; today, he’s 195 pounds. For women, it’s even worse: She weighed 140 in 1960, but is up to 166 today.

The implications go far beyond health, too. Public and undeveloped lands are under constant pressure by private interests, and there are massive threats to the natural world, ranging from global warming to ocean acidification and groundwater depletion. If people don’t feel a personal connection to something – a place, an ecosystem, an animal – they’re far less willing to fight for its preservation, and these days we need all the fighters we can get. And the seeds of that kind of connection are almost always planted in childhood.

The reasons there aren’t as many children staying out until the street lights come on are varied and complex and go far beyond the traditional scapegoats. Growing up, I was a suburban free range kid, with a range that included two parks, a bike path, and five acres of forest and fields; in the summer, I got on my bike in the morning and came home for lunch or dinner, maybe. Today, that kind of childhood freedom is practically unheard of, both because of lifestyle changes and shifting cultural ideas of safety. No doubt you’ve heard about the Maryland kids whose parents allowed them to walk home from parks – they were picked up twice by police and the parents were investigated by Child Services for neglect. Today we have powerful and easy ways to stay in touch with our kids, or even track them, and yet as a society we think it’s unsafe for them to walk home from the jungle gym? No wonder fewer kids are getting out in the woods.

I could go on – there’s just so much to the issue – but I won’t, because you’ll either ignore it or forget to take the poll. 🙂 Have at it…and note that you can select as many answers as you like.

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