Michelle's Next Mission: getting America's children outdoors?:

If you read The New York Times on Sunday, you might have seen Timothy Egan’s opinion piece, “Michelle’s Next Mission.” That’s Michelle as in Michelle Obama, our first lady. Egan points out the ripple effects of her every action: When she put in a kitchen garden at the White House, vegetables — growing them, eating them — became the new cool flavor. Not that there wasn’t already a robust local-food movement, but the photo of her digging in the garden drew attention to the trend and boosted it. Egan wants her to do the same for the country’s national parks.

More fundamentally, he wants the First Lady to use her superstar power to get kids outside. Anyone who follows the news knows that many measures of children’s health show serious declines over the past 15 or 20 years. Some of those problems are directly linked to the food children eat and to the physical activity they don’t get. Here’s one scary statistic from Egan’s essay:
“A Nature Conservancy report a few years ago linked the decline in children’s interest in the outdoors to their being under ‘virtual house arrest’ to electronic media, spending 6.5 hours a day face-planted in Facebook, Xbox, television, a text-tablet or some other device.”
I read the op-ed at the end of a long day at a lake with Jim, Ursula, Virgil, and my father, who was visiting from western New York. Ursula and Virgil were in and out of the water and in and out of the woods all day. Other than a short hike to show Grampa the view from some ledges, we were simply hanging out together outside. Even when the adults went inside to make dinner, Ursula and Virgil lingered outside, having discovered a small grove of trees next to the house where we were staying. They and a younger child from next door had some elaborate game of make-believe going in there right up until bedtime.

Apparently, this kind of free-form, lengthy child’s play is what we have too little of in America. I know there are many reasons for the decline in outdoors play, and I also know that our family is not immune to the problem. Sunday was a good day, but on other days — days when I’m carting the children from one errand to another or during the school year when time and daylight always seem in short supply — they’re outside only to walk from car to building and back again.

I hope that the Obamas do vacation in our national parks and that Michelle Obama helps make playing outside as cool as kitchen gardens and video games. But it’s going to take more than one supermom, even one as powerful as she is, to get our kids outdoors again. Much needs to happen beyond individual families — in our schools, neighborhoods, and communities — so that all children are able to discover the joys of playing outside. We can start, though, we parents of America, by asking ourselves, as I did on Sunday night, if we’re letting our children discover the outdoors enough on their own.

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