Outdoor Recreation

Go Outside & Play
The Benefits of Outdoor Recreation

By Brian W. Flaherty


hack! I can still feel the sting from a well-launched "monkey-ball," (actually the fruit of the Hedge Apple tree), as my best childhood friend quickly ducked out of sight. Some of my fondest memories growing up include spending countless time outdoors. The two tracts of forested land at the end of our suburban, dead-end street in Pittsburgh were left virtually untouched when the neighborhood was first built. They were duly named the "first" and "second" woods, and we would spend hours in them.

We built forts and had numerous battles there. We told our secrets and dreams in the sanctity of the trees, knowing they would keep our words safe unto themselves. My friends and I explored those woods most days, and learned firsthand about our local flora and fauna; sometimes in ways no biology professor or botanist would approve of, but we learned and had fun doing it. We played countless pick-up baseball games and football games, with no adults present to coach us or add any pressure. (How refreshing when compared to today's standards.) It was just friends against friends, outside, in the fresh air, having fun. Obesity was a word uncommon to us. Playing outside kept our bodies and minds healthy. But can the same be said of the children of today?

Although the technological age has created benefits to society in general, it has also changed the way many children play today. Options abound in video games, personal computers and hundreds of television channels at our fingertips. The unfortunate side of this age can be seen in the obesity epidemic clearly present today. Among U.S. children and adolescents ages 2 to 19, the prevalence of obesity has grown by leaps and bounds, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. In 1971-74, the rates were 5 percent for 2-to-5-year-olds, 4 percent for 6-to-11-year-olds, and 6.1 percent for 12-to-19-year-olds. Those numbers have grown to 12.4 percent, 17 percent and 17.6 percent, respectively.

It would not be accurate to blame just the technological age for the rise in obesity. Other variables such as nutritional choices and how children are raised also come into play. But few would argue against the correlation that exists between sedentary activities and the rise in obesity rates (The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have documented a correlation between children's body fat and how much television they watch.)

We need to reverse the obesity trend for our children's' sake, and the solution is literally "in our back yards." Since our profession's earliest inception, it has provided a multitude of parks, playgrounds, programs and other outdoor recreational venues for the public to enjoy, and benefit from. The important efforts of our profession's pioneers, such as Joseph Lee, Frederick Law Olmsted and John Muir, have set the stage for professionals to continue to build on their labors.

Here are a few current efforts:

Get Outdoors It's Yours! (www.getoutdoorsitsyours.gov) Launched at the National Recreation and Park Association's 2008 Congress, its purpose is to encourage children and their families to spend time in outdoor recreation venues, environmental education and natural resource stewardship. Seven federal agencies have signed on including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Partnerships are being formed with nonprofit organizations, conservation organizations and state and local land managers.

No Child Left Inside: (www.nochildleftinside.org) A program of Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection focusing on encouraging children and their families to get outside and explore the resources of state park and forest lands, and in doing so, become healthier, more active and environmentally conscious citizens.

No Child Left Inside Act: (www.nrpa.org) Amendments were approved by the House of Representatives in late 2008, which will allow local park and recreation agencies to be eligible for grants, and will also require those entities receiving grants to partner with park and recreation agencies. This act will provide fresh resources for the states to offer environmental education programs to students, as well as finances for teacher training. It will also encourage hands-on field experiences. The 111th Congress will take this up in 2009.

Park Planning Perspective: "I think about how park facilities serve children and nature objectives. Because parents want to see their kids, but their kids desire freedom, we have worked to provide safe sight lines through out our neighborhood parks." Julie McQuary, Parks Projects Coordinator, Olympia Washington.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With the recent passing of this legislation, funding opportunities for park projects have been made available.

As a profession, the challenge is set. We are in the best position to provide the parks, facilities and programs that ensure the health of our children, (adults too!). As our world grows more crowded, both geographically and technologically, it becomes a responsibility we should embrace. Time and space are limited. Recreational options are not. After all, there should always be enough hedge apples to go around…


Brian W. Flaherty, PPRP, is director of the Waterford (Conn.) Recreation & Parks Commission. For more information on the initiatives listed here, contact the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) at www.nrpa.org. The National Society for Park Resources is in the forefront of this movement. They can also be contacted via the NRPA.

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