Get your children outside to play

Youth outdoors

Op-Ed by Kristina Ortez de Jones published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on February 14, 2011

If you grew up in New Mexico, you may remember long summer days playing along acequias or exploring the bosque. Old-timers may recollect digging for arrowheads or hiking in desert or forest landscapes.

No matter where you grew up, most of us have common memories of outdoor experiences. Unfortunately, this is not the norm for children living in modern-day New Mexico. With increased classroom hours and more time in front of a screen, fewer and fewer children are spending time outside experiencing New Mexico's natural heritage.

A third of New Mexico's children are overweight and diabetes rates continue to rise. Children spend half as much time outside than they did 20 years ago. A recent study showed that our youth spend an average of 7.5 hours per day in using some form of digital media. It's not too late to reconnect our children to nature; let's get those kids outside!

Last August, public-health advocates, teachers, environmental educators and members of Native American communities from around the state gathered to address this very issue: how to get our children to be active, outside.

The Getting Kids Outside: A Strategy to Combat Child Obesity forum brought 200 participants together to explore opportunities and barriers to getting kids to take advantage of the more than 300 days of sunshine our state receives annually. A policy goal that resulted from the forum was to establish a Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights.

Other states, including Texas and Colorado, have established similar bills as a means to bring the message to both the public and elected officials about the importance of connecting young people with the natural environment.

In addition to health benefits of being active, evidence shows that outdoor education improves student achievement and behaviors; when children learn about nature by seeing and doing, they get it.

After many months and meetings with educators, public health advocates and children, the Leave No Child Inside Coalition drafted a bill of rights that addresses the real desires New Mexico kids have to get outside. Children from Farmington to Silver City helped draft this list of rights:

To play outside and freely explore; watch wildlife in the quiet outside; wade in a clean river, creek, lake or pond; catch a fish and hunt for food; camp out under the stars; plant a seed and visit farms and ranches; travel a trail; explore New Mexico parks, nature centers and wildlife sanctuaries; actively care for land, water and wildlife; dig in the dirt and learn about the world from the ground up.

State Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, introduced this bill as Joint Senate Memorial 13. The memorial encourages state agencies to advertise and promote programs that connect children with the outside and get them moving.

Importantly, in this time of financial difficulties, this bill does not require funding. Rather, it promises savings that result from the health benefits of increased time outside.

TaoseƱa Kristina Ortez de Jones is the Southwest representative of the Sierra Club. Barbara Garrity is executive director of the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico.