Mom was right; need to go outside and play

By Kathrine Warren

In a world of 24/7 scheduling and schools that scrimp on recess in favor of study time, children are spending less and less time jumping rope and riding tricycles up and down the sidewalks in front of their houses.

And Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien has her work cut out for her.

As part of a national movement for a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, she’s asking the public to suggest new ways to encourage children to go outside and play.

“Colorado has a rich culture of outdoor activity, and no one knows better what experiences they should treasure most than kids themselves,” said O’Brien in a media release unveiling the initiative.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, American children spend half as much time outdoors today than their counterparts did 20 years ago, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2007, more than 35 percent of adolescents watched more than three hours of television on an average school day — not counting YouTube, MySpace and Tweeting.

Meanwhile, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled.

Ellen Dumm, deputy chief of staff for the lieutenant governor, says taking the lead on this project “puts a lot of things (O’Brien’s) been working on under one umbrella.”

O’Brien sits on the board of LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the health of Coloradans, and has worked on children’s health and wellness issues throughout her career.

Other states have created similar bills of rights for children. Georgia, for example, created a list of outdoor experiences every child in Georgia should have before entering high school, including camping under the stars, learning to swim, following a trail and catching a fish.

Colorado’s list undoubtedly will offer some of the same suggestions, but the final outcome depends on the recommendations O’Brien’s office receives by the May 31 deadline.

“We’re trying to make (our list) uniquely Colorado, but it will certainly have the same type of feel (as other states),” Dumm said. “We want kids to be involved. It could be a classroom discussion.”

Colorado children, parents and teachers are encouraged to e-mail their suggestions to O’Brien and a small committee will narrow down the recommendations to create the final list of outdoor experiences at the beginning of June.

In addition to the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, O’Brien and her office are working to create an Environmental Literacy Plan, which could potentially qualify the state for future environmental education grants.

She will tour the state throughout the summer and hold community forums to discuss different ways to connect children with the outdoors.

The forums will examine current successes and challenges in outdoor education in an effort to help develop recommendations for local, regional and state programs.

According to Dumm, the tour will find out what is going on in the state and connect the dots for all interested parties.

O’Brien’s office believes that it is especially important to reconnect children with the outdoors in a state where outdoor recreation is already a vital part of the heritage and economy. It is estimated that outdoor recreation generates $10 billion to $15 billion in economic activity each year in Colorado.

Known benefits of spending time or playing outside include improved physical and mental health, with gains in concentration, impulse control, coping skills and creativity.

Once the Colorado Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights is officially put together, it will be used as a tool for educators, parents, sports groups and other children’s organizations to get Colorado’s youngsters outside and active.

Ali Gouhstone Sweeney, executive director of the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Educators, hopes that Colorado Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights will play an important role in environmental education.

“There’s a real value in environmental education, and it provides children with a real world, hands-on context,” she said. “Hopefully, the bill of rights will tie into it, and its experiences will connect back to their learning.”