Time to get your kids outdoors

Sep 8 2010 - 5:20pm

MINNEAPOLIS -- Getting more kids into the outdoors has become such an important national concern that President Obama is sending his top managers around the country looking for the best ways to do it.

The intent, the president says, is to replicate nationally the best local and state ideas for getting people off their couches and outdoors to hike, bike, paddle, hunt, fish -- whatever.

The president believes, as do most other observers of this issue, that conservation of our natural resources over the long term depends on a citizenry at least fundamentally knowledgeable about, and experienced in, nature and the "outdoors."

Last week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley were in town to conduct "listening sessions" about the outdoors with Minnesotans, young and old.

In one meeting with 100 or more mostly minority kids in downtown Minneapolis, the two were told that transportation to parks, rivers, lakes and similar places is a problem, as is education -- or lack thereof -- about the natural world and the opportunities it presents.

By the time they left town, Jackson, Sutley and other federal officials in their group knew that Minnesotans -- hailed, generally, nationwide as "outdoors" people -- aren't immune to some of the same outdoors-deficiency afflictions that have stricken residents of more populous states such as New York and California.

But is this a "kid" problem? Meaning: Are young people today so distracted by their gadgets and friends, online and otherwise, that they don't have time for the outdoors?

Or is it instead primarily a parent problem?

More and more, I think it's the latter.

Granted, in the inner city, broken homes and poverty often are to blame for a lack of knowledge about, and experience in, the outdoors.

But elsewhere, particularly in the suburbs, why aren't more middle-class parents taking their kids to lakes or parks, or hiking or biking with them, or paddling or hunting or fishing?

In many cases, sloth is to blame, pure and simple. Some parents are just too lazy, too self-consumed or -- oftentimes -- too accustomed to dropping little Johnny or Suzy off at soccer practice for an hour or two, to spend the time, money and effort required to cast a line, hike a trail or camp in a state park.

That said, some parents are better intended. They would like to do things outdoors with their kids. But they don't know how to get started. This is especially true in hunting and fishing, which require at least nominal amounts of skill, equipment and knowledge to be successful.

Part of the blame for this now-widespread parental disconnect from the land and land-based activities lies at the feet of the outdoor industry, including equipment manufacturers and retailers. Rather than spending so much time and money airing hokey hunting and fishing TV programs whose real message often seems to be that everyone involved in the outdoors is stupid, they should work more aggressively to educate people about the many personal and family benefits of an outdoor lifestyle.

After all, the financial futures of these businesses depend in large part on their willingness to develop and execute ways to creatively introduce more kids to the outdoors.

EPA Administrator Jackson at one point recalled how she and one of her children took a skiing trip not long ago. Neither is an accomplished skier, she said, and the two did a lot of falling and otherwise tumbling -- rather than gliding -- down the mountain.

But they spent the whole day together.

"And at the end of it," Jackson said, smiling, "my son said to me, 'Mom, that was the best day of my life."'

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