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09/06/2012

Green the Back to School Blues

Blog as appeared in The Huffington Post 

It's that time again. While parents are jumping for joy, many kids are dreading the first day of school and what it portends -- the end of summer. Across the country, school bells sound and students are settling in to what is increasingly becoming a sedentary and indoor learning environment.

I would be lying if I told you that the summer vacation was reserved for playing outdoors. Today's kids are growing up in an environment very different from that of the generations preceding them. While kids spend more time outdoors during the summer than they do throughout the school year, they are still more likely to be surfing the web, than surfing the waves. For more than 50 hours a week, youth explore virtual worlds that exist only inside computers, cell phones and fill in the blank with your kid's favorite electronic gadget.

But it's during the school year that children are really overdosing on the indoors. While the CDC recommends 60 minutes of physical activity daily, kids are lucky if they get 25 minutes during the school day. Students no longer supplement their daily dose of exercise by walking or biking to school -- in the 1960s, nearly half of all kids walked or biked to school -- now, that number hovers around 13 percent. Budget cuts are resulting in cancelled school field trips for many classrooms. But, perhaps even more unbelievable is that up to 40 percent of schools in the U.S. are cutting back on recess, with the greatest reductions in schools serving students from communities of color or low-income neighborhoods.

Is all this indoor time helping our kids succeed? Studies show that outdoor play and learning improve the health, wellbeing and academic performance of our children. Time in nature reduces the symptoms ofattention deficit disorders and stress, improves physical fitness and increases cognitive function. It is also true that kids who learn outdoors can improve their science test scores and their classroom behavior.

So how can we ensure that kids have adequate opportunities to play and learn outdoors during the school day? Initiatives to green schoolyards with native habitats, natural play areas and gardens are springing up across the country. And now some of them are beginning to get some recognition thanks to the U.S. Department of Education's Green Ribbon Schools awards program. Safe Routes to Schools programs are helping communities make walking and biking to and from school more accessible.

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The No Child Left Inside Act, if passed, would establish incentives for more schools to develop environmental education and outdoor learning curriculum. And, states, there is no need for you to wait for federal legislation to get started. Maryland went ahead and became the first state in the nation to develop an environmentally literacy standard, ensuring a foundation in environmental education as a prerequisite to high school graduation.

I am proud to report that my outfit is making some strides, too. Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors programhas expanded its reach, with the establishment of three new volunteer-led outings groups working with schools and community groups to get more kids outdoors, bringing the total to 52 groups across the country. We also recently helped to pass a Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights in New Mexico, the first of many steps we will take to ensure kids in New Mexico, and across the country, have the opportunity and encouragement to get outdoors.

Got Kids? Let me leave you with some tips to keep your family active and outdoors into the school year.

1. Walk your kids to school in the morning or home in the afternoon.

2. Take it a step further, and get involved with (or start your own) Safe Routes to School program at your kid's school.

3. Join your local PTA and work with the Association to make sure recess and field trips don't get cut out of your kid's curriculum. Host a fundraiser to raise money for that school trip.

4. Establish a green hour for your family and get outdoors together before dinner each day. Plant a garden, take a walk in a local park or go for a family bike ride.

5. Make sure you go on a weekend outing, whether a hike, bike ride or camping trip -- you can likely find a Sierra Club outings group near you. If not, you can start one!

And if the kids aren't interested in going on that family camping trip, just show them this awesome video of Modern Family star Nolan Gould on a Sierra Club outing to the Grand Canyon. That might inspire them!

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