Celebrating the great outdoors

Time to Create an ECHO Across America: Every Child Healthy Outdoors

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just released the 2014 State Indicator Report on Physical Activity, and it’s bleak. The state by state analysis is a stark reminder that most kids in America are not getting enough physical activity.

According to the report, only 27.1% of youth in the United States are meeting the national physical aerobic activity guidelines, which call for 60 minutes of moderate- or vigorous- intensity physical activity daily. In some states, like Texas, less than one-fifth of young people are meeting these guidelines.

Unfortunately, these numbers are less surprising when coupled with the fact that most Americans simply do not live within walking distance of a park. According to the state by state report, only 39.2% of the U.S. population lives within a half mile of a park. If you want to see how your city fares on park access, look no further than the Trust for Public Land’s Park Score, which ranks cities on park acreage, access, investments and other metrics. The proximity and safety of parks are increasingly being recognized as a contributing factor to the overall health of a community, yet many of our children don't have basic neighborhood access.

It’s not all bad news. The CDC’s report also found that when you combine parks, community centers and sidewalks, 54.5% of youth have neighborhood access to safe places for physical activity. While I, find that number to be woefully inadequate, it is a slight improvement over the CDC’s 2010 findings that only 50% of youth had neighborhood-level access to physical activity opportunities.

The report also took a look at the school and childcare environments and found that several states are beginning to provide policy guidance to enhance physical education and activity. For example, 30 states have provided policy guidance on recess, and 34 have provided guidance on walking and biking to school. Twenty-seven states have adopted some form of complete streets policy, designed to make walking and biking safer and easier.

While progress may be being made in some areas, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that all kids and youth are meeting the daily physical activity guidelines, and perhaps even more work to be done to ensure that getting outdoors is a part of that daily routine.

That is why my colleagues and I at the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) created the Every Child Healthy Outdoors (ECHO) Across America Toolkit. OAK is a national strategic partnership of over seventy businesses and organizations from diverse sectors with a common goal to connect children, youth and families with the outdoors. The ECHO Across America Toolkit was designed by a broad set of OAK members and includes major contributions from the YMCA of the USA, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Children & Nature Network, Conservation Legacy, the Public Lands Service Coalition, and the Alliance for Childhood, among others.

ECHO Across America provides state and local groups the tools needed to develop strong and diverse alliances and a plan to get kids and youth outdoors. The Toolkit includes resources for organizing a meeting of non-profit, community, business, and government leaders in a state or city to conduct an assessment of existing policies and initiatives. ECHO also helps alliances set policy goals for getting kids and families outdoors and provides advocacy resources for engaging governors and mayors to advance those goals. The Toolkit takes a multi-sector approach that includes strategies in education, health, transportation, the built environment, conservation and environmental stewardship.

At the national level, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado and Congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin have introduced legislation that complements the ECHO Across America strategy. The Healthy Kids Outdoors Act is one of several pieces of legislation aimed at improving kids’ access to nature and the outdoors. The bill would provide incentives for states to develop multi-sector plans, similar to those recommended in OAK’s ECHO Across America Toolkit, to ensure that kids and families have opportunities and encouragement to get outdoors. The bill has broad support from OAK members.

There is still a long way to go to ensure that every child has opportunities to get healthy outdoors and we could use your help. If you represent a business or a non-profit organization that believes all children and youth should have opportunities to get outdoors, consider joining the Outdoors Alliance for Kids. Download OAK's ECHO Across America Toolkit and see how you can advance Every Child Healthy Outdoors strategies, today.

Looking for some simpler ways to get involved? Start by letting your member of Congress know that you support the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act. Next, take a kid outdoors! Then, make known your efforts and ideas to engage more young people in the outdoors by blogging, writing a letter to the editor of your local paper, or sharing them in the comments below and on OAK’s Facebook page. Collectively, we can create an ECHO Across America.

 --by Jackie Ostfeld, Nearby Nature Director, Our Wild America campaign, Sierra Club