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Texas Partnership for Children in Nature Calls For “Happier, Healthier, Smarter” Kids
Statewide Conference Dec. 3-4 in Austin to Probe Problems, Solutions
AUSTIN — “Go outside and play.” How many times did today’s parents hear that familiar phrase while growing up? Studies say kids today don’t hear it enough, and that it’s time for a change.
Mobile devices and video games have all but replaced the days of playing “Kick the Can” on neighborhood streets with friends, or just hanging out at a park all day. In fact, kids today spend just four to seven minutes outside each day in unstructured outdoor play (like climbing trees), yet more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.
“If we don’t address this issue today, then what we’re facing in the next generation is that children will have a much shorter life span than their parents," said Dr. Kimberly Avila Edwards, a pediatrician at the Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and chair of the Texas Pediatric Society obesity committee.
Avila’s talking about the link between childhood obesity and sedentary indoor lifestyles. She’s part of a growing chorus of expert voices from diverse disciplines, all urging steps to reconnect kids and families with nature and the outdoors.
The Texas Partnership for Children in Nature will host a conference to address the problem Dec. 3-4 in Austin. The purpose is to present the partnership’s strategic plan to educators, conservationists, health practitioners, policymakers and others who care about the issue and can work to implement the plan in their communities.
Conference speakers include Carter Smith, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director; Joe Frost, Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin professor emeritus; Kevin Coyle, National Wildlife Federation vice president of education; Elizabeth Goodenough, Ph.D., creator of the PBS documentary Where Do the Children Play?; and Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas vice president and chief medical officer and former Texas Department of State Health Services commissioner.
“As the trend away from outdoor play and learning deepens, we are witnessing sobering consequences for children’s health and well-being,” said TPWD’s Smith. “Additionally, this youngest generation is missing out on critical experiences that lay the foundation for future stewardship of our natural resources.”
The good news: experts say the problem is solvable. Unlike complex environmental or economic problems, getting families and children back to nature is relatively straightforward and inexpensive. “We can reverse this trend,” Smith said. “We can restore our children’s well-being and their relationship with Texas’s rich natural and cultural heritage.”
The partnership’s roots trace to fall 2009, when a bi-partisan group of Texas legislators asked TPWD, the Texas Education Agency, Texas Department of State Health Services and Texas Department of Agriculture to form a public-private partnership and develop a strategic plan. Over 80 professionals answered the call, including representatives from state and federal agencies, non-profits, businesses, and health, education, natural resource and community organizations.
Their discoveries include some sobering statistics:
- Children ages 8-to-18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day, over 50 hours per week, connected to a television, computer, video games and other electronic media.
- A child is six times more likely to play a video game than ride a bike.
- Texas is home to three of the five cities with the highest obesity rates in the nation.
- In the 2009-2010 Fitnessgram school year report, only a little over 8 percent of 12th grade girls and boys were deemed physically fit.
- Today’s children may be the first generation at risk of having a shorter lifespan than their parents.
Conversely, experts found children who play and learn in nature are:
- Healthier. Active nature play improves physical conditioning and has a positive effect on emotional well-being and child development. Outdoor play has been linked to reduced risk of myopia and vitamin D deficiency.
- Happier. Nature play increases self esteem and reduces stress. Children learn self-discipline and are more cooperative with others. Children feel more capable, confident and connected to nature.
- Smarter. Nature play stimulates creativity and improves problem solving. Schools using environmental themes report improved academic performance. And, children who play in nature are more likely to become tomorrow’s conservation leaders.
Author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the situation in his best-selling book “Last Child in the Woods” (Algonquin Books, 2005). While the term isn’t a medical diagnosis, it cites evidence of psychological, physical and cognitive costs associated with the lack of outdoor time.
Experts have responded with practical solutions for parents and schools. For example, the Texas Pediatric Society has developed a Childhood Obesity Toolkit for health care providers that encourages limiting the time children spend on TV, video games, and computers and promoting physical activity, including a "healthy lifestyle prescription" that recommends an hour of outdoor play every day.
The National Wildlife Federation recently released a comprehensive report “Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body and Spirit through Outdoor Play” that details how the benefits of playing outside are essential to not only physical wellness, but also mental health. The report notes family time can be a child’s best bet to connect with nature.
The Austin conference is sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Winkler Family Foundation. Registration costs $50 and includes meals. See the conference website for the complete agenda and list of speakers and topics.
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