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Calling All Role Models -- Including Elmo

originally published in the Huffington Post

When given the choice between broccoli and chocolate, only 22 percent of kids will choose broccoli. But if you put an Elmo sticker on the broccoli, that number jumps to 50 percent. Last week during the Partnership for a Healthier Americasummit, First Lady Michelle Obama reminded me of the power of role models (and marketing) to solve the national childhood obesity crisis.

Since I was a kid, the rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents. In that same time period, the amount of free time kids spend outdoors has been sliced in half.

I used to be a role model for kids. Before moving to Washington, D.C., I was an environmental educator. I spent my days in the field, inspiring kids to learn in and about nature. At the time I didn't realize that I might be helping to prevent or reverse childhood obesity by modeling an active lifestyle in the outdoors.

Today, 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, 15 million children cannot safely walk to a park or a playground, and kids spend 7.5 hours each day on electronic media. These barriers to spending time outdoors must be brought down, but until all kids have safe parks and green spaces down the street, we'll need role models and mentors to help ensure that kids can access the outdoors safely and regularly.

At the Sierra Club, the power to inspire kids to explore and enjoy the great outdoors is fueled entirely by the good will of a vast network of volunteer role models we call outings leaders. Sierra Club's role models don't have red fur or say "oh boy, that tickles" when you squeeze them; they're just ordinary people like you and me doing extraordinary things every day in their communities.

COMCO 2012 polar bear

Sierra Club's volunteer outings leaders get over 10,000 youth outdoors each year, but we know that we can't reverse the growing divide between kids and nature all by ourselves. That is why we are proud to be a co-founder of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) which brings together over 50 national businesses and non-profit organizations to advance opportunities for children, youth and families to connect with the outdoors. The members of OAK are brought together by the belief that the well-being of current and future generations, the health of our planet and communities and the economy of the future depend on humans having a personal, direct and life-long relationship with nature and the outdoors. We also believe that childhood is the best time for instilling and fully benefiting from a connection to nature.

During the Partnership for a Healthier America summit, I was honored to join some of the co-founders of OAK on a panel discussion called Get Out!(side). Led by the YMCA of the USA, we shared strategies to connect kids with nature and empower a generation of youth leaders in the outdoors. OAK believes that advancing environmental education, community health and wellness, and environmental stewardship initiatives are critical to bridging the growing divide between young people and the outdoors.

Outdoor kids are active kids and advancing opportunities for young people to spend time in the natural world is one way to help end childhood obesity; Let's Move Outside! And, Elmo, if you'd like to show kids and families just how fun it is to get outdoors, we'd gladly take you on a hike.

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