ST. LOUIS — Borrowing a refrain voiced by generations of parents, Missouri officials are urging moms and dads to get their kids away from the television and outside for some fresh air.
As part of a national effort, Missouri families are being encouraged to take children to the nearest state park so they can explore nature during "Take a Child Outside" week from Sept. 24 through 30.
Do children really need a themed week to encourage them to play outside?
Supporters say it certainly could help. With child obesity on the rise and children spending more time playing electronic games or surfing the Internet, supporters of the effort are extolling the virtues of getting out of the house.
"There's just a disconnect with the natural world around you," said Sue Holst, a spokeswoman for Missouri's Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the state parks. "Today's children do not seem to have the same connection to the outdoors."
She said attendance is down about 2 million visitors at Missouri's state parks, from about 18 million annually in 2004 to 16 million in 2007. Park officials can't say conclusively why that is — rising gas prices may play a role — but they think families also need to be reminded of what parks offer and the benefits of outdoor play.
DNR is suggesting that parents take a hike with their children, go fishing, take a float trip and camp together — or even just sit at a picnic table and watch kids explore. The department also has a year-round effort called "Get Out and Play" to support more free time for children outside.
North Carolina began the "Take a Child Outside" week last year, and it spread throughout much of the U.S. this year. About 250 organizations in the U.S. and Canada are taking part this year.
"When I was a kid, you had to come inside when the street lights came on," said Liz Baird, director of school programs with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
Baird, who came up with the idea of "Take a Child Outside" week, said now parents often have to tell their children they must go outside for 30 minutes.
Baird read Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods," about the disconnection between children and nature, and invited him to visit the museum where she worked.
"I struggled with what the museum could do because we're indoors," she said. "We're a fake outdoors!"
But she said the museum drew from its knowledge of educating and activities for children.
The effort comes at a time when the Centers for Disease Control says 17 percent of U.S. youngsters are obese and millions more are overweight. Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, sleep problems and other disorders.
But Baird said play in the natural world has other benefits — learning to compromise with a friend about who should carry a rock, using materials wisely to build a tree house, learning how to negotiate through the neighborhood while riding a bike.
She acknowledged it may be a sign of the times that promotions are needed to encourage outdoor play, but she hopes families will spend more time in the natural world the rest of the year.
"I always end by saying my honest hope for the week is that one day it won't be needed," she said.