Feature Article - June 2007
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Building Active, Involved Communities

Environmental education programs, such as trail guides, nature guides, bird watching, classes on environmental impact and sustainability and more, are likely becoming more popular among parks and recreation departments as awareness of global climate challenges grows and the impact of rising energy costs is felt across the board.

One California-based respondent cited youth involvement in natural areas as an issue of top concern in his facility. "Increase in youth involvement in electronics and indoor activities is taking the place of wilderness experience and activities. This looks like a long-term trend with millions of young people not experiencing nature."

Author Richard Louv, in his testimony before the House of Representatives, said that impressive efforts are starting to emerge across the country that aim to address this problem, and some of these programs feature elements of environmental education.

"Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State successfully brings hundreds of schoolchildren to the Refuge and combines school lessons with tree plantings for habitat restoration," Louv said.

He also described a campaign launched by John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, who is encouraging politicians and communities to create a family-focused nature center in every congressional district. "Of course, such programs must teach children how to step lightly on natural habitats, especially ones with endangered species," Louv said. "But these experiences are essential for the survival of conservation. The truth is that the human child in nature may also be an endangered species—the most important indicator of future sustainability."

Louv went on to encourage the government to increase the number of naturalists and interpreters working at parks and in other public nature settings.

The U.S. Forest Service recently put $1.5 million into projects to help close the growing chasm between kids and the natural environment. Many studies have revealed a widening gap between kids and nature, and this gap inevitably leads to corresponding drops in physical and outdoor recreation.

"We can help address troubling declines we see in the mental and physical health of our children," said Gail Kimbell, chief of the forest service, in a recent press release. "At the same time, we can inspire future conservation leaders, who can perpetuate the critical role forests play in the quality of life for Americans."

The money granted by the forest services is focused on projects designed to reach underserved and urban youth, recreation and conservation education, solid, broad-based partnerships and innovative techniques, with most of the projects taking place within national forests.

Environmental education can provide a way to get children outdoors and encourage activity, but the second most common program offering parks and recreation departments are planning to add in the next several years—fitness programs such as aerobics classes, cardio sessions, strength training and more—tackles the growing problem of obesity head-on. Fitness programs were a common program addition planned at park and recreation facilities, and the need couldn't be clearer.