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Last Child on the Couch

How 10 grassroots innovators are helping kids get active outdoors

Our kids are in trouble. Maybe not your kids, but their friends, or perhaps a teenager down the street. Two whole generations– starting with people entering their thirties now–have grown up with what authors like Richard Louv label "nature-deficit disorder." Despite being America’s most environmentally aware segment, many of these young people have few real connections to the outdoors. They are taught to hug a tree, but not how to climb one.

Fortunately, the cure isn’t a mystery. Our kids need to move. Hike, bike, paddle, skate, walk, run, whatever–just move. And they need to do it outdoors, both for the exercise and the exposure to sunshine and fresh air. Introduce kids to nature at a young age, studies show, and you give them a foundation for lifelong health, fitness, and self-confidence. At a national level, the Outdoor Foundation, the Children & Nature Network, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s "Let’s Move" initiative are training leaders and developing tool kits that help parents and educators make a difference. But even more exciting is what’s happening at the grassroots level. Across the country, local hiking clubs, guides, and teachers are inventing new programs to reintroduce the outdoors to one child, one school, and one neighborhood at a time. How can a BACKPACKER reader help kids get off the Wii and into the woods? We talked to 10 local heroes to highlight creative–and successful–initiatives.

Start a Local Hiking Group
Ten months after the birth of her first child, Wendy Sparks was going nuts. "I needed to get outside," the Idyllwild, California, mom recalls, "so I convinced some friends to go hiking." They quickly noticed their kids were the only ones on the trail. Figuring that fellow moms didn’t know where to go, Sparks organized more hikes and recruited participants through social-networking websites, posters, and flyers. Two years later, Inland Empire Kids Outdoors (iekidsoutdoors.org) organizes weekly hikes and events for more than 600 families. "Southern California is populated by new residents living in recently built suburbs who don’t know where to go," says Sparks. Her club not only describes local trails, but members hike in the safety of a group–a big plus for parents with young kids. If you can’t find an existing club, ask friends and neighbors to join you on hikes, says Sparks. Download the Children & Nature Network’s starter tool kit (childrenandnature .org/downloads/NCFF_toolkit.pdf) and begin with short local jaunts. Post notices in the library or newspapers, and communicate using email lists and sites like Facebook and meetup.com.

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