By Dan Wenk, National Park Service Deputy Director
The newly released Task Force Report highlights the importance of regular physical activity in the fight against childhood obesity. One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to incorporate activity into your family’s daily routine is to get moving outside!
Children today are spending half as much time outdoors as their parents did – and on average, more than six hours per day in front of electronic media. Research cited in the report attributes the poor health of many of today’s children in part to a “generational decline in the level of outdoor recreation in natural environments.” It states that children are “healthier, happier, and have better social skills if they have frequent opportunities for free and unstructured play outdoors.”
The report acknowledges that federal lands, such as National Parks, Forests and Wildlife Refuges, provide ideal venues for a range of activities that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. As the manager of one-fifth of the nation’s landmass, the U.S. Department of the Interior oversees some 2,400 sites across the country, from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, to Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, to Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. Meanwhile, our friends at the U.S. Forest Service manage some 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands at more than 170 locations across the country.
Many of these places are located in or near urban centers, allowing children and parents to experience the benefits of outdoor recreation within their own communities. Still, there is much work to be done to extend these opportunities to all American families. The report recommends a comprehensive approach to “increase the number of safe and accessible parks and playgrounds, particularly in underserved and low income communities.”
Last week, I witnessed firsthand how a community park can boost the health and well being of local residents. Along with Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and Robert Stanton, Senior Advisor to Secretary Salazar, I helped lead an outdoor activity event at Fort Dupont Park in Southeast D.C. Part of Washington’s former network of Civil War Defenses, the park is a rare example of protected space within a maze of development, boasting 375 acres of rolling fields and wooded hills just yards away from a major highway.
Nearly 100 kids from nearby Kimball Elementary School participated in fun, energetic activities such as mountain biking, hiking, and a relay game called, “Race to the Sun.” One group of kids trekked up to the park’s community garden, where they planted the first rows of vegetable seeds and learned about growing and eating organic produce. At the end of the afternoon, the kids walked back to school with huge grins on their faces – sweaty, thirsty, and invigorated from an afternoon of healthy recreation.
National Park Service Deputy Director Dan Wenk speaks to students from Kimball Elementary school about the importance of getting outside every day, May 14, 2010. (Rick Lewis, National Park Service)
Spring training: plyos before a ski walking session up Whiteface Mtn.'s ski trails.