by Jacqueline Ostfeld, National Youth Representative
In just a few hours, one of our dreams will come true. The most popular talk show on the planet will do a segment highlighting one of our most iconic National Parks. Yes, you guessed it. Oprah goes on a camping adventure and experiences the magnificence of Yosemite National Park. It was there in the Sierras, where Sierra Club founder John Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on a four day adventure that resulted in a pact to save America’s wilderness about one hundred years ago.
While a lot of progress has been made over the past century to protect our natural heritage, some new challenges have emerged. One of them is the growing disconnect between today’s children and the natural world. A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that on average, youth are “plugged in” to electronic media for more than seven hours a day. Reports also indicate that each day children are spending just a few minutes engaged in unstructured outdoor activities. If kids are not connecting with the outdoors today, who will be champions for conservation tomorrow? Threats to our natural heritage like mining, logging, overgrazing and suburban sprawl are being exacerbated by new challenges like climate change. And the widening gulf between people and the land may be one reason these problems are going unsolved.
“Today’s segment on Oprah will start to make a big difference by shining an enormous spotlight on the divide between Americans, especially people of color, and the great outdoors,” says Sierra Club National Youth Director Martin LeBlanc. “Oprah will inspire her viewers to take a risk, try something new, and get outside.”
Just last year, Sierra Club’s Building Bridges to the Outdoors project took some teens from two rival high schools in Los Angeles, Crenshaw and Dorsey, on a trip to Yosemite National Park. Like Oprah, the students had a chance to learn about the buffalo soldiers from the interpretative park ranger Shelton Johnson and spend a few days in one of the most majestic places on earth. By the end of the trip, the youth had decided to rename their individual high school eco clubs to the unified Dorshaw Eco Club.
As we saw in Yosemite, nature has the power to bring people together. Time spent in the outdoors has been shown to alleviate a lot of what ails us. Research shows that using the outdoors as a learning tool can increase academic and behavioral performance. Surveys tell us that kids who spend time in the outdoors are more likely to develop positive attitudes towards the environment in adulthood. Studies show that kids who spend time in green spaces have reduced symptoms of attention deficit disorders. Children with more close-to-home nature may also have lower body mass indices. And the list goes on. At a time when one in three children is overweight or obese, with the highest prevalence in African American communities, followed by Latino communities, we need to be doing much more to make the outdoors safe, accessible and culturally relevant to encourage our kids to get outdoors.
The Obama administration has started the ball rolling on a few major initiatives. First, in April President Obama announced the America’s Great Outdoors initiative. Through a series of listening sessions and youth roundtables taking place across the nation, the public had an opportunity to help shape the agenda. Throughout the summer, the Administration heard time and again the call for solutions to reconnect Americans, especially children and youth, with the outdoors. On November 15th, the Administration will issue a report to the President. Sierra Club and the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) have made recommendations for engaging more people of color, especially children and youth, with the outdoors. It's not too late to share your ideas, too.
Also, kudos to the First Lady for taking on the challenge to fight childhood obesity in a generation. In addition to healthier eating habits, First Lady Michelle Obama is encouraging children and youth to get sixty minutes of physical activity each day. A great way to get your sixty minutes in is by getting outdoors. Check out the First Lady’s Let’s Move Outside initiative for some tips on getting outdoors.
Before you head outdoors this weekend, take action to protect America’s Great Outdoors for current and future generations and to reconnect children, youth and families to our natural heritage.
Here are some Sierra Club resources to help you get started on your outdoor adventure. And don’t worry – we have options that may be a little closer to home than Yosemite!
- Visit our Inner City Outings page for information about hiking groups across the country
- Check out Sierra Club Trails for information to help you get started and to find an online community with like interests
- Sign up for our newsletter The Buzz to stay informed of all the latest news on reconnecting kids to the outdoors
- And of course, stay connected with us on Facebook and share your stories about your outdoor experiences on our page!