Getting children to play outside doesn’t seem like the type of problem that needs a government solution. Given how few children routinely spend any time out of doors and the growing number of children who are obese, however, the government had no choice but to try to reverse the trends.
The Governor’s Conference on Youth and the Natural World will be held in Augusta on Thursday. The aim of the conference is to impress upon educators, parents, elected officials, community leaders and others the importance of getting kids outdoors, not just for a field trip but as a part of their daily lives.
Studies have found that only 6 percent of kids, aged 9 to 13, play outside on their own in a typical week. Yet, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, youths between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 61/2 hours a day with electronic media. This adds up to more than 45 hours per week, enough to be a full-time job.
Between 1997 and 2003, the proportion of children aged 9 to 12 who spent time outside hiking, fishing, gardening, playing at the beach dropped by 50 percent. So it should be no surprise that childhood obesity rates have risen dramatically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4 percent of U.S. children were obese in the 1960s. That had risen to nearly 20 percent in 2004. As a result, children are being diagnosed with lifelong problems, such as Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, at younger and younger ages.
Ensuring children spend more time outside won’t only improve their health. Research shows that children who spend time in the natural world do better in school and get along better with others, have fewer symptoms of attention deficit disorder and have higher self esteem.
Many of the barriers to more outside time are psychological, a problem the conference will try to address.
For example, many parents fear that their children will be unsafe outside. Yet, statistics show that the abduction of children by strangers has been dropping for 20 years and are very rare. Likewise, violent crime against children has fallen below 1975 levels.
Concerns about bug bites, sunburns and injuries can be addressed with a little preparation and common sense.
A conference, complete with a climbing wall, bicycles and a film festival, won’t be enough to cure what has been called “nature deficit disorder,” but calling attention to a problem is an important step in beginning to solve it.
For more information about the conference, visit www.take-it-outside.com.