Three years ago, NRPA, in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), launched an ambitious initiative at the National Congress on Parks and Recreation in Anaheim, California, to connect 10 million kids to nature and the outdoors. NRPA and NWF believed that by working together, they could engage hundreds of park and recreation agencies and thousands of schools and other institutions in providing meaningful time outdoors for children and youth in nature-based outdoor activities, especially in recurring activities and experiences which have been shown to have the most impact on creating a love and appreciation for nature.
In the three-year period since then, more than 700 park and recreation agencies and more than 8,000 schools have succeeded in engaging 13.8 million kids in a meaningful outdoor nature-based experiences. This number exceeded our original goal by 38 percent and indicates that almost one in five children in the United States participated in nature activities at parks, schools and family events.
The response of NRPA member agencies to the call to participate was amazing. More than 700 park and recreation agencies signed on in support of the initiative, with NRPA and NWF providing extensive training and online resources for thousands of park and recreation professionals during the past three years.
Combating ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’
The original reasons for the 10 Million Kids Outdoors campaign were based on the recognition that kids in America were becoming increasingly disconnected from nature and the outdoors. Stimulated by the work of Richard Louv and his book “Last Child in the Woods,” many parents, educators, and park and recreation professionals were very aware of what Louv calls “nature deficit disorder,” or the increasingly negative impacts of children spending too much time indoors behind computer and television screens and not enough time outdoors.
The larger goals of the 10 Million Kids Outdoors campaign were to encourage parents, grandparents and caregivers to spend time outdoors with kids; to encourage child-serving institutions, including park and recreation agencies and schools, to provide more opportunities for kids to spend in nature-based activities; and to encourage policy reforms at all levels to enable more kids to spend outdoor time in nature.
Several powerful lessons have been learned during this campaign. Among them is that the patterns of play for children have changed dramatically and, today, fewer kids have opportunities to play unsupervised outdoors. Furthermore, as kids have become increasingly disconnected from nature play, the knowledge of how to play outdoors and what to avoid by way of hazards, such as stinging insects or noxious plants, have made kids more fearful of and parents more reluctant to turn kids loose in nature. Sadly, there is growing recognition that kids will lose an affinity for outdoor nature play if they have much less opportunity and desire to engage in it.
Beyond 10 Million Kids
The numerical goals of the 10 Million Kids Outdoors campaign have been met and exceeded, but the long-term goals of this campaign continue to remain a high priority for both NRPA and NWF. One program you will be hearing more about in the near future is the Wildlife Explorers program that NRPA and NWF are developing in cooperation with a new partner, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The Wildlife Explorers program, now in pilot demonstration phase with a dozen park and recreation agencies, is intended to reach kids, particularly in underserved communities, who otherwise don’t have much of an opportunity to experience nature. The program will focus on providing nature-based activities in after-school programs, day camps and playground settings. Look for more information on the Wildlife Explorers program, which we soon hope to ramp up to a national program, in coming months.
We may have reached 10 million kids, but the challenge of continuing to connect kids to nature and the outdoors in meaningful nature-based activities will not be finished until every public park and recreation agency incorporates this goal as part of their mission, and every kid in America has a chance to play outdoors safely and discover nature in close-to-home parks and nature places.
Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice-President of Conservation and Parks.