The Great Outdoors

This week's official arrival of fall will be met with unparalleled fanfare as dozens of organizations and hundreds of volunteers throughout Greater Cincinnati roll out the green carpet with a "weekend sampling of the great outdoors."   The cornucopia of events and activities - centered on family fun alfresco - is designed to showcase the abundance of our area's environmental resources and initiatives, and to call attention to the importance of outdoor activity and back-to-nature experiences for the health of our children and our community.

With physical inactivity and obesity at epidemic proportions in our nation, budget cuts impacting school's athletic programs and families looking for more economical forms of entertainment, several area organizations participating in this weekend's festivities work together year round to promote the affordable health and wellness benefits that stem from reconnecting with nature. 

At the core of these grassroots efforts is Leave No Child Inside (LNCI)-Greater Cincinnati, a collaboration of area organizations and individuals founded in 2006 and led by co-chairs Betsy Townsend and Bill Hopple, Executive Director of Cincinnati Nature Center.  This ground-breaking initiative was inspired by child advocacy expert Richard Louv's best-seller Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder and "is focused on educating the community that time spent in nature is essential for the physical, mental and emotional health of all children," explains Hopple.

Kicking off the weekend's activities on Friday, September 24th will be the LNCI Call to Action Rally, a statewide celebration of the movement's ongoing work.  The event will feature, via simulcast from Columbus, Governor Ted Strickland's signing of the "Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights"- a document drafted by the Ohio LNCI Collaborative to help create awareness of the importance of nature in children's lives.  "Here in Cincinnati," says Townsend, "we will also be showcasing six local projects that are successfully reconnecting children with nature." 

Among those projects is Cincinnati's Great Outdoor Weekend (GOW), an initiative of Green Umbrella, a local non-profit alliance of environmental organizations who will help to serve up the event's diverse smorgasbord of nature activities.  With over 70 programs being offered at 46 site locations scattered throughout the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region, GOW Coordinator Kimberly Whitton believes the September 25-26th event will "provide families with a unique opportunity to experience nature and encourage people, especially children, to interact, enjoy and protect the great outdoors."  Harvest festivals, fossil finds, scavenger hunts, star gazing, wall climbing, fly casting, kayaking, archery, pumpkin painting, honey harvesting, and "Park after Dark" nature trail hikes are a small sampling of the weekend's outdoor feast of activities beckoning families back outside. 

Cincinnati Parks Business Manager Julie Horne believes that this popular annual event and other grassroots efforts, along with the numerous school programs and popular summer camps offered by the parks department, are vital to "enlightening and educating the community" about the quality resources available in our region. "It is part of our basic mission to provide that connection," says Horne. "Parks are basic to the quality of life and our park system here in Cincinnati is world-class."  Among the site locations for the Great Outdoor Weekend are a sampling of some of the 70 neighborhood parks, 34 natural preserves and more than 5,000 acres of parkland within the Cincinnati Parks system.

Also being showcased during LCNI's Call to Action rally are a number of other outdoor programs which have met with enthusiastic community response.  The Cincinnati Public School (CPS) system has partnered with area nature organizations to augment its innovative Fifth Quarter program, a one-month extension of the school year designed to improve students' academic achievement.  "Our nature partners help to provide enrichment to the children's' school day with a variety of fun outdoor activities," says Julie Doppler, Coordinator for CPS' Community Learning Center, who recognizes "the educational benefit of incorporating outdoor learning into a child's day."

Encouraging children to walk and bike to school and providing safety along the way is the mission of the YMCA's Pioneering Healthy Communities' Safe Routes to School (SRTS) initiative, also being showcased during the weekend rally.  As one of the first large school districts in Ohio to participate in the program, CPS has begun preliminary planning to improve the routes children follow to school. 

Symbolic of the shared mission of each of these area grassroots efforts is the Cincinnati Playscape Initiative, a collaboration of the Cincinnati Nature Center (CNC) with the University of Cincinnati.  Ground was broken this month on the 1.5 acre natural play area at CNC with plans for a similar quarter-acre playscape to be constructed on UC's campus. Here, in these unstructured outdoor environments designed for open-ended creative play, children will enjoy digging in the dirt, climbing, building, playing in water, exploring along natural paths and reconnecting with nature.
It is through the efforts of these out(door)reach programs and far more that Greater Cincinnati earned special recognition in a report issued earlier this year by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).  In their annual American Fitness Index, Cincinnati was ranked #1 among the top 50 metropolitan areas in the nation for her environmental resources and outdoor recreational facilities. 

Says author Richard Louv, "Future historians may well record that at a pivotal moment in Americans' relationship with nature, Cincinnatians led the way."  Mother Nature would most likely agree.

Photography by Tiffani Fisher and Scott Beseler.
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