In Alabama, we each have easy access to something wonderful: the peaceful beauty of the Sipsey River, the stunning Pinhoti Trail from Cheaha State Park and the rich wetlands along the Chattahoochee or the Coosa. Even in our urban areas, natural beauty is very close at hand. Think of the amazing Mobile-Tensaw Delta or Birmingham’s Cahaba River and the city’s mountain parks. Right now, in your own backyard, there is a patch of dirt or a flower pot simply waiting for one miraculous sunflower seed or the precious bounty of a "Tommy Toe" vine.
And yet, we get distracted. Our greatest concern might be America’s newest dancing star, next season’s league champion or forwarding an email photo of a kitten. We reach for our remote controls and our smart phones. We Google. Hmm, maybe there’s a news item on our youth and adult obesity epidemic or the financial and physical toll of diabetes. Did you realize, for example, that the medical costs of obesity and inactivity are $150 billion a year? So, what are you and I going to do about it?
In Alabama 4-H, there is no issue more important than the health of our young people. We have brilliant programs employing technology and scientific-based research, and yet something which we in 4-H have found most rewarding is actually very simple: getting kids outdoors.
In Alabama and in 4-H, we value tradition. Our human tradition, actually going back thousands of years, is to be outside hunting our next meal, turning over dirt to plant maize or wandering a pine thicket looking for a lost calf. That tradition kept us strong and lean, and it allowed us to relish the patterns of the stars and the changing of the seasons – our place in the cosmos.
Now, over a decade or two, many of us have totally lost contact with nature. And scientific research shows that disconnection has had a physical and emotional impact. Young people who go outside to play don’t get sick as often. They are not as stressed or as aggressive. They are more flexible and adaptable when faced by the challenges of life. Early exposure to nature (called "playing in the dirt") even boosts kids’ immune systems.
We have a slogan: "4-H is Where You Live." Opportunities for healthy outdoor activities are also where you live. As an adult, you may serve as a role-model. If Mom or Dad sits on the couch, little Susie and Johnny will sit on the couch. If Mom and Dad go for a walk or hoe okra or toss a Frisbee, that’s what the kids think adults are "supposed to do." Been on a park swing lately? It is still awesome to kick your feet toward the clouds!
As an adult, you have the power to get involved in 4-H, Scouting or any youth group that values and promotes organized outdoor activity. There are 4-H Skateboarding Clubs, 4-H Rock Climbing Clubs and 4-H Outdoor Clubs. Wherever there is a demand and a couple of volunteers, you and your local Extension staff can work together to create an interest club meeting young people’s needs and interests. It’s not that hard to do, and it can be incredibly rewarding and fun.
In your community, think of building community resources encouraging fitness and activity. Playgrounds, bike paths and walking trails should be as important as fields for formal team sports. Perhaps you can empower youth to build playgrounds, skate parks or natural habitats. 4-H and your county Extension office can help you organize that effort.
Like the Chinese proverb suggests, the longest journey begins with the first step. That certainly holds true for lifelong health and fitness. It means putting the phone down on the counter, hiding the remote control and lacing on your walking shoes. Taking a child for a walk – and maybe learning the name of a new tree or a pretty bird – can be the start of a wonderful and amazing journey.
Chuck Hill is a 4-H Youth Development Specialist.