Michelle Obama’s Childhood Obesity Summit Addresses Importance of Outdoors

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the White House Childhood Obesity Summit as part of her work with the newly formed Childhood Obesity Task Force and its accompanying Let’s Move campaign. The Summit was attended by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, and Martin LeBlanc, Vice President and co-founder of C&NN and National Youth Education Director of the Sierra Club, along with many educators, health experts, business leaders, food-industry representatives, and others.

The Let’s Move campaign has four distinct planks that involve health, nutrition and physical activity. The one involving physical activity reads, “We can get our children physically active by building that opportunity into the structure of the school day; through better land use planning so that children have safe routes to a playgrounds and parks; and by putting the fun back in physical activity for all of us, parents and children.”

C&NN is advocating that outdoor play in nature be included as part of Let’s Move’s Physical Activity plank, because it has been shown to have tremendous benefits on children’s health and well-being. Read C&NN’s comments here.

The outdoors was far from ignored at the Childhood Obesity Summit and that, along with the upcoming White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors, provides reason to cheer. During the Summit’s Opening Remarks, Education Secretary Duncan noted:


If you want our students to be much more successful academically, they have to be active.

He continued, “The First Lady talked about food deserts, but we have recreation deserts. We have to create playgrounds, we have to create cultures, we have to create time, and we have to demonstrate that students who are … physically active are going to do much better in class.” “We’re going to work very hard at creating more well-rounded educations for children” and those, he noted, include P.E. and recess.

According to Interior Secretary Salazar:

We need to get our young people and our society as a whole more connected to the outdoors than they have been.

He continued, “We have about 400 million visitors a year to our national parks and our Bureau of Land Management properties .. but when you look across the spectrum of outdoor opportunities, we think about the great urban parks of America and the riverways that we have in places like Chicago and St. Louis and Denver .. How we (can) provide opportunities for young people to ride their bikes along the riverways or along the parks … That is a huge opportunity for us. How we work with local communities and schools to try to locate some of our parks close to schools … so that when the kids are getting out for recess or after school, instead of playing on the hard-top or places that may not be as safe as playing in the outdoors in the woods, or close by, we ought to figure out (alternatives.)”

Secretary Salazar continued, “I believe that one of the great contributions on this administration, one of its legacies, will be what it does with the outdoors, in terms of a conservation agenda for the 21st century. That conservation agenda can only work if you have people connected to that agenda.”


Getting people to connect to the outdoors is one of the things that we are very focused on within the Department of the Interior.

A complete video of the Summit’s Opening Session is available here.

The remarks were followed by a series of Breakout sessions. The Breakout on Physical Activity addressed barriers to physical activity and ideas for solutions and was attended by Martin LeBlanc, Vice President and co-founder of C&NN and National Youth Education Director of the Sierra Club.

Martin brought up a cultural barrier to physical activity: Parental fear. He asked those gathered around a conference table:


How many people here can remember when you used to bike ride to nowhere, or your parents sent you out to build a treehouse?

“I go around and talk to kids now and kids aren’t doing that these days and I want to make sure we look at some of these cultural things when we’re looking at these barriers.” He brought up the success story of Crenshaw High School, an inner-city school in Los Angeles, which had plenty of opportunities for team sports, but was lacking in nature activities. The school started an Eco Club, which grew to 600 members and has been responsible for markedly higher levels of physical activity, community involvement, academic achievement, high school completion, and entry to college among its members.

Other barriers to physical activity were addressed. These include: access to natural spaces across the economic spectrum, location of parks near schools and homes, safe routes to schools and parks, available transportation to green spaces, access to activities beyond organized sports, resources for parents, and a culture of increased walking instead of driving for short distances.

As one of the participants noted:


We want to connect our neighborhoods to safe healthy places for kids to play.

The group agreed that that was one of the key recommendations to come from the Breakout session.

A complete video of the Breakout session on Physical Activity is available here.

Information about the April 16 White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors can be found here.

By Suz Lipman
Suz Lipman has more than 25 years experience as a writer, editor, social media manager, community builder, and advocate for getting children into nature. Suz serves as Social Media Director for the Children & Nature Network.

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