Connecting parents, children to nature the outdoors challenge

REHOBOTH BEACH – Getting kids to be physically active and experience the outdoors wasn’t a monumental task 40 or 50 years ago.

In today’s world, it’s a challenge.

11 Summitt  Collin O'Mara with parks award

Former DNREC Sec. Collin O’Mara addresses the audience at the Sussex Outdoors Summit.

Delaware has award-winning beaches, a nationally-recognized state parks system and some of the best wildlife areas in America.

The trick, says former DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara, is connection.

“One of the challenges we face … was that there was an implicit assumption that if we build it they will come. What we are finding is that’s true for folks that have means or live close,” Mr. O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, America’s largest wildlife conservation organization.

Outstanding programs already in place are attracting children – but 10 or 20, not hundreds or thousands, Mr. O’Mara said.

“Right now in America the average kid spends between 50 and 60 hours a week in front of some kind of screen,” said Mr. O’Mara. “We have to convince parents to just bring them to these facilities, and we can take it from there. We can show both the parents and kids how to fish, how to bird, how to hike, how to canoe.”

In his first 15 months with the National Wildlife Federation Mr. O’Mara has been in 44 states. The challenge of getting people, particularly young people, outdoors is the most pressing issue.

“The No. 1 question that comes up isn’t about policy. It isn’t about legislation. It isn’t about funding. The No. 1 question is … are there any silver bullets that you see anywhere in the country to try to get more kids in nature?” said Mr. O’Mara.

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John Hollis, , at left at podium, recognizes Gov. Jack Markell at the Sussex Outdoors Summit.

Delaware’s Children in Nature Program was one of the focal points of the 5th Annual Sussex Outdoors Summit held Oct. 30 in conjunction with Booooo-B-Que By The Sea at Delaware Seashore State Park.

Several dozen stakeholders were part of the Sussex Outdoors Summit, facilitated five years ago by John Hollis.

“The vision that John laid out a few years ago – trying to make sure every Sussex kid is outdoors – we’ve come a long way,” Mr. O’Mara said. “Let that be our legacy. Let’s show the entire country that not only are we getting middle class white kids out but kids of all color, all income levels. We’re going to be the healthiest state in the country because we made the investment …because we connected the investment to people.”

Constructive strides have been or are being taken by Delaware State Parks, Delaware Greenways, Center for Inland Bays, Delaware Nature Society, Stockley Center and others.

“I don’t know what is going to happen in the next five years but I do know if similar energy is applied to the next five years … we have a bright, bright future in Delaware.

I do know that Delaware’s children have a much brighter future,” said Mr. Hollis.

Mr. O’Mara believes concepts such as Children in Nature should be integrated into educational curriculum.

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Gov. Jack Markell, right, recognizes Mark Carter of Dogfish Head Brewery for Dogfish Head’s support for Sussex Outdoors’ initiatives.

“We have to stop thinking of it as extracurricular but as an essential part of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education of students,” said Mr. O’Mara, noting that kids who participate in Children in Nature programs – regardless of income, race, region or any other demographics “perform statistically better in almost every part of science and mathematics.”

Today’s sedentary lifestyle is feeding the increase in obesity, and with it chronic disease which further burdens the healthcare system. Studies show that barring a reversal today’s youth could be the first generation to face a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

“Despite all of the advantages of modern medicine … it is something we cannot accept,” said Mr. O’Mara.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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