Outdoors: evolving from nicety to economic necessity

Delaware's Division of Parks has created A Teachers Guide to Delaware State Parks to make it easier for schools to get their students outdoors.  Dr. Carol Rattay, director of Delaware's Division of Public Health, says the health of our children is declining, and getting them outdoors will help reverse that trend.  She is shown here at the Sussex Outdoors summit between Charles Salkin, left, director of Delaware's Divison of Parks, and Ray Bivens, operations manager for the state's parks. BY DENNIS FORNEY
September 28, 2012

Delaware's state parks people have taken a close look at the youth groups that use the overnight facilities in the parks. At Cape Henlopen State Park, for example, there is room in a variety of youth camps for 370 children at a time. Division of Parks Director Charles Salkin, at a Sussex Outdoors summit held at Cape Henlopen this week, said in 2011 a total of about 2,400 children spent the night in the facilities. “There's room for a lot more than that through the year,” said Salkin.

The most astounding statistic, however, is this: More children from Maryland and Pennsylvania have overnight experiences at Delaware's state parks than do Delaware children. That might have something to do with the dubious distinction projected for Delaware people in 2030 by an organization known as Trust for America's Health. Using statistics gleaned from federal government and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation studies, the organization projects that Delaware - by 2030 - will be home to the third-highest level of obesity in the nation. Only Mississippi and Oklahoma residents are projected to be worse off in terms of weight.

Sussex Outdoors is an initiative designed to combat obesity and its related health problems by encouraging people of all ages to spend more time outdoors. Studies show that when people are outside they are naturally more active and healthier. At the Sussex Outdoors summit, Delaware's secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Collin O'Mara, said Delaware is going the wrong way in the obesity rankings. “We were the 20th worst state in the nation for obesity in 2010, but in 2011 we slipped to 19th, with first being the worst,” said O'Mara.

That's part of the reason, said O'Mara, why Delaware has undertaken an unprecedented trails program, to connect outdoor areas and communities in the state. “We want to make Delaware the first state in trails. I believe in the Field of Dreams scenario: build it and they will come. But we have to make it easy, and we have to make it safe. That's our challenge: how to make it easy for folks to participate.”

Children a particular concern

“I grew up in a generation when we started staying inside a lot, playing electronic games, sitting in front of the screen. We have to turn that around,” said O'Mara. “We're working on building the Field of Dreams. The next phase will be talking to people and getting people to take other people to the parks and the outdoors. The problem right now is that while we have more trails than ever before, we're not seeing a lot more children on them.”

Over the past two years, the Markell administration has budgeted more than $20 million for the First State Pathways and Trails initiative. On Monday, Oct. 1, the state will announce recommendations from its Children In Nature/No Child Left Inside task force. Ray Bivens, operations manager for Delaware's Division of Parks, told people at the Sussex Outdoors summit that the recommendations will include creating coastal experiences for all Delaware children and making sure every child gets the kind of overnight experiences in the parks that will build lifelong habits related to being outdoors. Bivens also noted that educational studies show children who spend time outdoors do better in school.

Noting that Medicaid costs are taking an increasingly large bite out of the state's budget, O'Mara said getting people outdoors is moving from “amenities and niceties to economic necessity.” The same study that projects Delaware - if its trends continue - will become the third most obese state in the nation by 2030, also projects that healthcare costs related to treating diabetes and other obesity-related problems will rise by more than $50 billion by 2030.

Delaware is doing a lot, and we will all be seeing a lot more being done over the next few years. Awareness is huge. Still, the challenge is daunting. Dr. Carol Rattay, director of Delaware's Division of Public Health, told those at the summit that it's estimated one out of three children born in 2000 will eventually develop Type II diabetes as teenagers or young adults because of obesity issues. She said in the African-American and Hispanic population, the forecast is worse: one out of every two children.

“It all comes down to access to physical activity and access to healthy foods,” said Rattay.

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