A First-of-Its-Kind Initiative to Get Mainers Outside

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Article and photo by Ramona du Houx

“We can start today to make a difference in the lives of our children. Kids are healthier and happier when they are exposed to the wonders of nature. Maine is a rich state with our natural resources. You don’t need to go to Disneyland to enjoy good times with your family and friends. All you need to do is be able to enjoy what we have right here in Maine,” said Governor Baldacci. “I have directed state agencies to evaluate their programs, rules and policies with respect to the role they play in encouraging Maine people, especially young people, to experience and appreciate the natural world. I look forward to receiving the findings from our state agencies and incorporating them into our planning. And next spring we will hold a Blaine House Conference on Youth and the Natural World.”

At the summit the state will work with organizations that are already successfully getting kids outside and connected to nature like Chewonki and the Maine Conservation School.

Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan said his department will work with other state agencies to attract roughly $250,000 in grants to fund the best proposals that emerge from the conference, starting in July 2008.

Far too many children have a problem focusing on schoolwork, concentrating on one goal at a time. Attention deficit disorders are all too common, and too many children are put on drugs to get through a school day. With the advent of computers, the world is at our fingertips; at the same time children’s fingertips need guidance. Between the computer, electronic toys, and the TV, less young people are appreciating the world outside their door, in nature. Staying glued to an electronic device is one item that is contributing to the nation’s overweight problem.

“Sometimes we need to lead our kids outdoors,” said Baldacci. “We need to get them away from the iPod and, video, and text messaging, and just get them out to smell the beautiful air and enjoy the beautiful resources we have.”

Jack Baldacci, Gov. John Baldacci and Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell on the Saddle Trail of Mount Katahdin. The governor was the first serving governor to climb Mount Katahdin since Gov. Curtis

The recent book by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder, describes the problems children have growing up in a technology-based society, increasingly disconnected from the natural world.

The book, conversations, and Acadia National Park superintendent Sheridan Steele inspired McGowan to create the Take It Outside initiative.

“Louv’s book told about how a young boy couldn’t sit still, a young boy who nowadays would have been classified as having an attention deficit disorder. His parents found a cure for him by taking him outside. That boy grew up loving the natural world. His name was Ansel Adams, one of this nation’s foremost nature photographers,” said McGowan. “We want kids to ‘take it outside.’ I grew up in a large family, and it was normal for us to go outside to have fun. Kids nowadays don’t know what they are missing. This is all about changing a mindset, so parents and children can see what a great time they can have being outside. Maine has great opportunities to recreate in all four seasons.”

Steele wants the next generation of Mainers to experience being outside. “My message is not to get people to Acadia, even though the attendance numbers at Acadia have been going down. My message is just to get kids outside,” said Steele.

Some parents who already motivate their children to enjoy nature brought them children to the press conference. “Playing outside makes you smarter, healthier and happier,” said Theo Hembre, age seven. “Playing catch is one of my favorite things to do outside.”

The two Olympians made a point of informing the press that getting active outside is what changed their lives.

“When I worked in a restaurant out here on the Cape I would run to and from work. That really got me on the path to gold. Just getting outside and walking really will help more people reach golden years,” said Benoit-Samuelson who started the Beach to Beacon marathon to motivate people to become healthier.

Year after year there are more people who want to participate in the 10k race. Governor Baldacci runs every year with the encouragement of Benoit-Samuelson. This year he met his goal of completing the course in under an hour. Some participants walk with their families.

“To me, one of the largest successes of the Beach to Beacon has been seeing people pulled off the sidelines as spectators and become participants the next year, taking charge of their own health and wellness,” said Benoit-Samuelson. “As the governor mentioned, we have a huge problem with diabetes and obesity in this state, and more people need to take charge of their own lives.”

Benoit-Samuelson, the first woman’s marathon Olympic gold medalist, also reveled that she used to babysit for a Seth Wescott, the first snowboard cross, Olympic gold medalist.

“It’s really important how I grew up. My parents encouraged me to get outside, and I hope that I can encourage kids to do the same. There are amazing things to do outside in all the seasons,” said Wescott. “To prepare for the Olympics in ’06, I spent my entire summer playing in Maine.”

During that summer he whitewater kayaked, surfed, sailboarded, and mountain biked.

“Maine has so much to offer from the southernmost tip to Aroostook County and all points in between,” said Governor Baldacci. “Last summer I was lucky enough to climb Mount Katahdin with my son, and I’m thrilled that I was able to canoe the Allagash with him as well. The initiative isn’t about just going to the top of Katahdin or a trip through the Allagash — but it can be a walk through the woods, playing catch in the park, biking or snowshoeing one of Maine’s breathtaking trails, or even playing ball in the backyard.

I hope Maine families will spend a lot more time together outside. The memories will last forever,” said the governor. “Get outside, have fun, and enjoy Maine’s natural beauty while living a healthy, active lifestyle.”

Continuing the Take it Outside objectives, Governor Baldacci partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Waterville, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and Nickelodeon to encourage children to turn off the television, get up, get out, and go play.

On September 28, the governor proclaimed a Worldwide Day of Play in conjunction with an unprecedented move by a major TV network. All Nickelodeon networks, along with their Web site, stopped transmitting programs and went dark for three hours from noon until 3 p.m.

The Waterville area Boys & Girls Club participated during the “blackout” by walking and running along the Kennebec River Trail in the Waterville area.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is a nationwide initiative to fight childhood obesity.