Thursday, September 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Kids of New Jersey: Go outside

By Michele S. Byers

Here's the homework assignment:

Explore the woods, climb a tree, race through a field, build a fort.

Splash in the water, catch a fish, explore a city park, turn over a log.

Sleep in a tent, gaze up at stars, follow a trail, listen to birds.

Play in the mud, hold a frog, plant a garden, follow animal tracks.

These once-common activities - from back in the days when parents sent their kids outside and told them not to come home until dinner - may not be real school assignments. But they could be if some New Jersey legislators get their way.

Exploring, running, climbing, and more are part of the "Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights," introduced recently in the New Jersey Senate. The bill encourages children - and their parents and teachers - to spend more time outdoors, discovering the joys and wonders of the natural world.

Not playing outside, the Senate resolution noted, has been shown to have adverse physical, social, and emotional consequences. Conversely, students who play outdoors perform better in the classroom, show increased interest in learning, and are less likely to create disciplinary problems.

No wonder "Go outside and play" is a message that's spreading across the nation.

In March, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced an ambitious federal initiative to reconnect America's young people to the outdoors.

"If Americans are going to continue to have healthy lifestyles, healthy lands, and a healthy economy, one of the steps we must take is to bridge the growing divide between young people and nature," Jewell declared.

"The next generation of scientists, wildlife biologists, tribal experts, park managers, and conservation leaders are now in school or just entering the workforce," she added. "This is the time we need to invest in creating meaningful connections between young people and the great outdoors."

Under Jewell's initiative, the Department of the Interior will create new opportunities for outdoor play for more than 10 million youngsters, provide opportunities to bring information about public lands into the classroom, recruit a million new volunteers annually on public lands, and provide 100,000 outdoor-related work and training opportunities for young people and veterans.

Nonprofit groups, including Food Day and Youth Service America, are also connecting more young people to the outdoors. This year, they encouraged kids, parents, and teachers to plant a garden on Global Youth Service Days, held this past weekend, and harvest their crops on or around Food Day on Oct. 24.

Richard Louv, author of the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, coined the term "nature deficit disorder" to describe the affliction of kids who spend too much time glued to TVs, computer screens, and electronic gadgets.

These new initiatives to promote outdoor activities are great first steps toward putting more "Vitamin N" - nature, of course - into our children's lives, improving their physical, mental, and spiritual health.

But kids need places to play - parks and natural areas close to home are ideal. Unfortunately, New Jersey has run out of funding for park and open-space preservation, and we need our legislators to take action.

Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. To learn more, visit

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