New legislation tells fourth graders to take a hike
© Getty

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle came together this week for our children. With the introduction of the bicameral and bipartisan Every Kid Outdoors Act, members of Congress signaled a commitment to connect our children to the natural world outdoors.

Our kid’s lives are out of balance. Today’s children spend less time outdoors than any generation in history. On average, America’s youth are plugged into electronics for the equivalent of more than a forty-hour work week, while devoting just minutes a day to unstructured outdoor play. More than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas and fewer than half of our kids live within walking distance of a park. Barriers to spending time in nature are great. They include proximity to public green spaces, costs of transportation, school budget cuts for field trips, busy schedules, a general lack of interest, and historical or cultural barriers that prevent some communities from feeling welcome in America’s great outdoors.

ADVERTISEMENT
The indoor lives of our children have dire consequences for their health and wellbeing. Nearly one in three children is overweight or obese, and we are seeing more and more kids develop what were once adult-onset-only chronic diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, yet nearly three-quarters of all youth don’t meet these basic guidelines. Time outdoors in nature has been shown to improve physical and mental health, reduce stress and anxiety, and increase a general sense of happiness. Nature time can also help kids do better in school.

If the health and welfare of our children isn’t enough to convince you that kids need to get outdoors, allow me to make the economic case. America’s great outdoors drive an $887 billion economy, supporting more than 7 million jobs across our nation. The outdoor recreation economy generates nearly $125 billion in tax revenue ($65.3 billion federally; $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue); this federal tax revenue alone would be enough to support more than six million critical jobs from firefighters to police officers to teachers. Jobs in and around our national parks and public lands can never be outsourced. To remain a colossal economic engine into the future, America’s great outdoors need to be places where all kids, all communities, feel welcomed and valued.

That’s why the bipartisan Every Kid Outdoors Act (S. 1522, H.R. 3186), introduced by Sens. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSenate panel to hold hearing on bump stocks, background checks Senators propose closing 'domestic violence loophole' after Texas shooting Week ahead: DHS nominee heads before Senate | Ex-Yahoo chief to testify on hack | Senators dig into election security MORE (D-N.M.) and Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderObamaCare becomes political weapon for Democrats Senate passes resolution requiring mandatory sexual harassment training Sen. Warren sold out the DNC MORE (R-Tenn.) and Reps. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), is so critical. The legislation, if passed, would encourage fourth graders and their families to visit America’s natural, cultural, and historical treasures for free for the duration of the school year, summers included. The bill also encourages public-private partnerships to expand opportunities for kids and encourage collaboration between land agencies, schools, non-profits and the private sector. An early childhood opportunity in the outdoors will help inspire a lifelong connection to nature which is sure to deliver a hefty return on investment.

The legislation is inspired by the Every Kid in a Park program which has leveraged substantial investments from the private sector. Over the last few years, over $2 million in private donations have supported the program, including funding transportation costs to ensure that low-income children from Title 1 schools have opportunities to visit the parks and public lands that belong to all of us equally. Members of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids have also stepped up to support the program by providing transportation grants, promotion and quality programming for kids who may be visiting a park for the first time.

Additionally, several governors, Democrats and Republicans alike, who see the long-term potential payoff of the program, have embraced the Every Kid in a Park pass in their state park systems. Nevada took it a step further and recently passed a law to give free entry to all of it’s fifth graders to state parks, encouraging broader engagement in the outdoors for the children of the Silver State.

A small investment in our kids today will have lasting benefits to the health of our kids, our economy, and our planet. The Every Kid Outdoors Act is a low-cost, commonsense solution to encourage children to get active and learn about the public lands, waters, and shores that make America so unique. Congress should pass it without delay.

Jackie Ostfeld is Outdoors Associate Director for the Sierra Club; Founder and Chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.