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The great outdoors can help heal a generation

December 20, 2009 By Mike Beagle

I watched with a grin as my 10-year-old son, Steen, gallivanted around the mouth of Strawberry Creek, both he and the stream running free through the meadow.

He was a non-stop bundle of energy in the wilderness, jumping from the bank into the creek, making mud pies and rock weirs, small houses made of bark and exuding the joys of youth. With no toys or electricity, he was armed only with a creative mind, a good attitude and youthful exuberance. I watched for hours and learned that his day of exploration could help heal any internal tough times that I might ever have.

Like my son, I'm thankful to have had a life spent in the outdoors. My father took me hunting at a very early age and I can remember my boyhood days camping, hiking, backpacking, biking and fishing in some very special places on Oregon's public land.

Back in the old days, kids like me played outside. Other than GI Joes, Legos, Hot Wheels, Tonka trucks and Lincoln Logs, most of us didn't have much of an array of electronic indoor toys to feed our short attention spans. Even then, most of our indoor toys were used outside as well. And after winter's rain or snow, we'd often find our toys half submerged in a pile of mud, waiting to be exhumed in the spring for the next round of outdoor play.

Growing up in today's high-tech age is different. Our kids are often locked into living rooms, eyes gazing at an arsenal of high tech gizmos requiring electricity, no physical exertion and little in the way of creativity. I can remember surveying my students during my first year teaching at Tigard High School in the Portland area. I asked them how many hunted, fished, hiked, rafted, camped and generally, enjoyed the outdoors. Fully two-thirds of my students raised their hands. It was heartening for me to observe that even in a metropolitan-area school, kids were getting outside.

That was 1990. By the time I completed my 15th year of teaching at South Medford High School, I'd ask the same question and be lucky to get a sprinkling of hands raised in response.

The blitz of the high-tech age has impacted a generation of young people and the results are troubling. Many of our kids today are unhealthy. They don't exercise and they're literally addicted to a bevy of junk food and super-sized happy meals. You can see this anywhere you go in America. Childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing and the results for kids are diabetes and escalating health care costs for all of us.

In a 2008 study, Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found the use of America's parks and forests may be down by as much as 25 percent since 1987. Our society is becoming more in tune with sedentary activities rather than nature-related activities.

In the American Journal of Public Health, researchers have documented that exercise and outdoor play can ease problems in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and all children. And it doesn't cost part of a paycheck or use any electricity to get our kids into the great outdoors; just a bit of time, commitment, knowledge of public lands opportunities and leadership by parents. And what's good for young people is good for adults.

Here in Oregon, we are blessed with public land from our ocean beaches to the depths of Hell's Canyon. No state has a more diverse or beautiful birthright of public land.

We need to take care of it, and we need to enjoy it. The land and water has the ability to help us solve more problems than we probably know we have.

I eventually coaxed my son away from the world he had created in Strawberry Creek that day, in time for a camp dinner. And even though dark was fast approaching, he didn't want it to end. Neither did I. He repeated the experience the next day. Interestingly enough, he wasn't tired the whole trip. He smiled and exuded confidence, energy and focus throughout.

I like to think about that trip in the context of what the outdoors can do for all of us, challenging us to move beyond our comfort zones, enriching our lives, improving our health and creativity and filling our souls. And healing a generation.

Mike Beagle is a former U.S. Army field artillery officer and Oregon high school teacher and coach. He is a field coordinator for Trout Unlimited and lives in Eagle Point. His e-mail address is mbeagle@tu.org.

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