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April 16, 2012

Celebrating the Military Child Outdoors

As Americans, we all want to support the men and women of our military. By choosing to serve, they frequently must face stresses and hardships that most of us will never have to experience. How can we help them cope?

One way we can help is by recognizing that military service takes a toll not just on those in uniform but also on their families. Children with a parent in the military must deal with long absences, frequent moves, and more. It should come as no surprise then that the children of deployed military families are twice as likely as those from nonmilitary families to report elevated anxiety and to experience behavioral problems.

Naturally, military parents constantly seek ways to transform the special challenges their children face into occasions for personal growth. They're concerned about the resiliency of their kids and how they cope with frequent family moves and deployments. Like kids anywhere, military children need opportunities to develop their sense of self, their imagination, and the critical-thinking skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Unfortunately, as any parent knows, that's become more difficult in this plugged-in world.

Did you know that, on average, young people spend 7.5 hours "plugged in" (on electronic media) every day -- including weekends? That's almost like a full-time job! Even if our kids suddenly decide to unplug and get outside, some 80 percent of American children live in urban areas with no easy access to the great outdoors nearby.

The negative effects of this "nature deprivation" are well documented, which is why the Sierra Club has worked for years on programs that provide meaningful and fun outdoor experiences to young people. Since 2006, one of the most successful of these has helped more than 50,000 children from military families get outside, whether it was a picnic in a city park, a fishing trip to a local lake, a hike in a state park, or a week at summer camp. Away from computers, classrooms, and paved streets, the kids have fun, get exercise, and experience nature.

Over the years, we've learned that outdoor programs can also help build resiliency and strength within military families. Getting kids and their parents outdoors together allows them to have fun and reconnect through the healing power of nature. Blue Star Families, a nonprofit that works to support, connect and empower military families, is a natural partner for us in this endeavor.

This month the Sierra Club, Blue Star Families, the National Park Service, the Armed Services, YMCA, the National Military Family Association, and the Outdoors Alliance for Kids have all joined forces to launch the Celebration of the Military Child Outdoors. Many outdoor organizations would love to support military families, but aren't sure how to start. At the same time, many military families want to get outside and experience nature. The Celebration of the Military Child Outdoors brings these two communities face-to-face and will build lasting relationships that will benefit military families and, especially, military kids.

We kicked off the month with a fun get-together in Northern Virginia, where military kids and their families hiked, learned how to pitch tents, went fishing, and more. More events are happening nationwide all month.

It isn't just the service members who serve, it's also their families. We can't make all the challenges of military life disappear, but we can all help build resilient military families. Taking a kid fishing is a good place to start.


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Michael Brune

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