Playing Outside: Important For Children’s (And Adults’) Health

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I’m sure you’ve heard about the record amount of snow that the DC area got this past weekend. As a native Bostonian, and a recent resident of northern New England, I get excited about big snow storms, particularly an unusual one such as this!

Mostly, I like snow storms because I like playing outside. As a kid, I’d often join up with friends at a favorite sledding hill or build forts for snowball fights. These days, I try to grab my skis (cross-country or telemark) as quickly as possible, though I sometimes settle for just tromping around. An important ingredient for these activities is some amount of nearby (ideally hilly) open space, parks or woods. These areas are also favorite spots for me during the non-snowy seasons for running, walking, birding, and biking. I’ve been really lucky to live in places where I could access public open space pretty easily. A lot of neighborhoods don’t have those areas available for kids and adults to enjoy.

Given that childhood obesity has tripled among adolescents and extensive efforts are underway to get kids to play outside more, providing open spaces for kids to be physically (and mentally) active should be more of a priority for developers, redevelopers and town planners. A lot of communities, particularly disadvantaged ones, could use more sporting fields, courts and playgrounds, so that every kid has one around the corner. Based on my experience, I think it’s important not to overlook the “informal” spaces for simply playing outdoors, too. Where else are kids going to sled when the snow falls? (No soccer field or baseball diamond I ever played on was steep enough for sledding!)

Folks here at EPA are promoting healthier communities that incorporate open spaces and recreational areas for communities. They’ve supported a lot of important research and community-level engagement efforts to promote open space and other elements of smart growth. Among other things, access to community space for recreation and outdoor exercise has been associated in some instances with declining levels of obesity, which is in part why open space provides economic benefits for communities.

I encourage you to enjoy your neighborhood’s open spaces and to ask your local officials and community leaders about getting an open space project off the ground.

About the author: Matthew H. Davis, M.P.H., is a Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, working there on science and regulatory policy as a Presidential Management Fellow since October 2009. Previously, he worked in the environmental advocacy arena, founding a non-profit organization in Maine and overseeing the work of non-profits in four other states.