NWF Hosts Summit on Connecting Kids to Nature

NWF Draws 1000 to Children and Nature Summit

04-20-2010 // Mary Burnette
Boy playing on tree

Some say it takes a village to raise a child, National Wildlife Federation says it takes a backyard, a playground, a park. Leading health, diversity and policy experts from across the nation agreed when they convened April 10 in Houston, Texas, for the National Wildlife Federation’s National Summit on Children and the Outdoors. Web cast to over 1,000 people at 101 locations in 25 states, the Summit focused on why childhood has largely moved indoors and how that inside trend can be reversed, especially through public policy solutions.

Focusing on the health impacts of the indoor child, Dr. David Rutstein, U.S. Deputy Surgeon General, pointed out that one in three children in America are overweight. “Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming obese adults and if this problem is not addressed, we will leave our children a legacy of shorter lifespans for the first time in our country’s history.” Dr. Rutstein advocated for “decreasing indoor activities for children like screen time, and increasing active play, preferably outside.” The benefits of outdoor play are “better vision, less vitamin D deficiency, strong bodies and important social bonds.”

The letter and petition NWF submitted to the Surgeon General along with 200 other groups received applause from Dr. Rutstein. He said the petition, asking the Surgeon General for a “call to action” that would get kids outside more frequently, was perfectly aligned with the Surgeon General’s vision for healthy kids. He closed his remarks by stating that kids should be getting at least one hour of play every day and “regular active time outdoors is an excellent strategy for increasing kid’s physical activity.”

Continuing on this theme, panel moderator Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist practicing in Washington DC, emphasized that while medicine has an important role in managing many diseases, “our country should also be implementing natural solultions including spending more time outdoors in nature to address numerous health issues for children and families.”

Dr. Sandra Stenmark, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente and Physician Lead of Colorado Pediatric Cardiovascular Health, is deeply troubled by some of the trends she sees in her practice including increased obesity in kids and higher rates of asthma, attention deficit disorder, anxiety and depression. Like Dr. Van Susteren, Dr. Stenmark acknowledged the benefits of medication in remediating some diseases. But she went on to say “We can continue to medicate, or build environments that promote health, not disease. What children need are natural safe places they can play.” She believes that recess should be a necessary component of a child’s school day, and that kids with attention deficient disorders need outdoor play time the most, but often are held in from recess due to misbehavior in the classroom.

children playing on play ground

Panelist Margo Pedroso, Deputy Director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, suggested another simple yet important opportunity for getting kids outside, having them walk or bike to school. According to Dr. Pedroso 50 percent of children walked or biked to school in 1969. Today that number is less than 15 percent. Bus routes haven’t changed that much she said, “the problem is too many parents driving their kids to school.” Fifty percent of kids who live only one-quarter to one-half mile from school are now being driven. “We have to convince parents to change these habits.” She closed by saying it is imperative for children’s health that we “counter the back seat child where they are only seeing the world thru a window of a car or watching the car video player."

Nina Roberts, the third panelist and an expert on diversity partnerships from San Francisco State University, highlighted important population trends in the coming decade. Right now 30 percent of the U.S. population is represented by an ethnic minority. In the next 40 years, that number will grow to 50 percent. Hispanic/Latino, Black African American, and Asian American youth populations are expected to increase more than three times as fast as non-Hispanic White youth. These statistics demonstrate why developing diverse partnerships that get kids outside are so important. Dr. Roberts dispelled the myth that people of color don’t care about the natural world and said the” key to reaching these populations is by building trusting relationships in local communities and following through on programs that get their youth outdoors.” She cited example of several programs that that are doing just that: Vida Verde, Fam Camp, and Wonderful Outdoor World.

John Grant, president of 100 Black Men of Atlanta, closed the panel discussion by saying that the federal government and states are eager to work with all groups and communities to ensure adequate outdoor time for our nation’s children. “The time is now for state and federal policy action that will address the indoor childhood issue.“ I encourage everyone participating in this web cast to get involved because each and every effort can make a difference and keep the ball moving forward.”

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