This article first appeared in the May edition of Parks & Recreation Magazine
We are living in strange and difficult times. At the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK), we know this international pandemic is challenging for everyone. Physical distancing and sheltering in place are particularly difficult for people who know the value of spending time outdoors with friends and family.
OAK believes strongly in our collective responsibility to do our part to minimize the impacts of COVID-19. That’s why OAK’s advocates, including NRPA, have embraced physical distancing and minimized our face-to-face interactions. As a result of these challenging circumstances, we are finding new ways to do the work of advocating for getting more kids outdoors.
To be clear, our work continues. Even as we join efforts to reduce the spread of this disease, we are preparing for the day when we can all emerge from our homes and begin enjoying the outdoors again with people we care about.
Outdoor Recreation Habits Declining
We do this work with renewed conviction because evidence suggests the need has never been greater. Earlier this year, the Outdoor Foundation released its annual outdoor participation report. Overshadowed by recent events, this report tracks the outdoor recreation habits of Americans, and the 2019 results were particularly dire. Little more than half of individuals in the United States went on a single outing over the course of the year. Less than 18 percent got outdoors even once per week.
These figures are striking, but the statistics for young people are of the greatest concern. On average, kids went on 15 percent fewer annual outings in 2018 than they did in 2012. While participation on outings increased among Latino youth, two things stayed constant: youth participation outdoors remained overwhelmingly white, and total youth participation continued going down.
The steady decline in youth activity should be particularly concerning, as youth participation is a strong indicator of future activity as an adult. In fact, adults who were active outdoors during childhood are twice as likely to be active in adulthood. In other words, a kid who does not get outdoors early in life is unlikely to do so later.
But, why aren’t kids going outdoors? Part of the reason is the availability of other entertainment. Television, video games and other electronic media offer today’s kids a virtual world at their fingertips.
Another reason is a lack of access. Fewer than half of all U.S. residents live within walking distance of a park. What’s more, a lack of quality public transportation makes it incredibly difficult for individuals — and especially families — to get to a park. And, parking, entrance and other fees can quickly make a trip to a park cost-prohibitive for working-class families.
Every Kid Outdoors in State Parks Campaign
Since its formation in 2010, OAK has worked to make the outdoors more accessible to kids and families. One of our greatest achievements was supporting the development of the Every Kid in a Park pass. Established in 2015 and renamed Every Kid Outdoors in 2019, the pass program was launched to welcome a new generation of children onto their public lands by providing fourth graders and their families with free entry to national parks and other federal public lands. The program was an immediate hit, with more than 2 million kids and their families downloading the pass and leveraging $5 million in private funding. In 2019, after advocacy by OAK, the Every Kid Outdoors Act was signed into law, extending the program for seven years and ensuring that nearly 4 million children can visit national parks annually free of charge.
However, national parks are not the only way to experience the outdoors, and even with the Every Kid Outdoors pass, getting to a national park is not easy for all families. That’s why OAK is preparing to launch a new initiative for 2020. Through its Every Kid Outdoors in State Parks campaign, OAK will urge governors across the country to accept the national pass in their state park systems, allowing youth, kids and families to access these outdoor spaces without paying fees.
Several states have already begun accepting the national pass or launched their own equivalent programs, and OAK is looking to grow nationwide support to get every kid outdoors. Access to the outdoors is a human right, and every child has the right to experience the benefits of time in nature regardless of their zip code. That’s why the campaign will also build and facilitate partnerships and promote state, local and regional park and recreation agency efforts to connect youth to the outdoors. You can support the campaign by joining and sharing your programming and partnerships that your agency uses to promote youth outdoors access. Learn more and pledge your support to get every kid outdoors today at the Outdoors Alliance for Kids website.
Jackie Ostfeld is Director of Outdoors for All, Sierra Club and Chair of Outdoors Alliance for Kids. Paul Sanford is National Director of Recreation Policy at The Wilderness Society and Vice Chair of Outdoors Alliance for Kids.