Michelle Obama's Childhood Obesity Summit Addresses Importance of Outdoors

About the Author

Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) has more than 25 years experience as a writer, editor, social media manager, community builder, and advocate for getting children into nature. She is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which was named a TIME magazine Top 10 Trend of 2012. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog and others. Suz serves as the Director of Social Media Promotion and Partnerships for the Children & Nature Network.

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.


  1. I liked this blog entry specifically because it didn’t drab on about the problem of obesity but provided a reasonable solution. The blog focused on the importance of outdoor physical play in schools as forms of encouragement for children to achieve academically through activity. As the blog stated, “We can get our children physically active by building that opportunity into the structure of the school day.” This message really hit me because I remember the once a week physical education class I would have in elementary school and how much I hated it. The teacher was mean and insensitive to kids who could not perform to par with the athletic ones, kids like me. All the activity we did have was on the blacktop or turf of the track, nothing green, nothing real. The blog also didn’t stop at one solution but provided numerous ones about how the community must also be in alignment with the schools efforts and the drastic changes in today’s youths’ activities when compared to our parents’ activities. Martin Leblanc touched on the cultural barrier that exists between outside activities and today’s generation, when stating, “I go around and talk to kids now and kids aren’t doing that [playing outside] these days and I want to make sure we look at some of these cultural things when we’re looking at these barriers.”
    There are so many components involved to fully reform local schools and communities to natural play for children that it will take time to compile and execute them. Another factor we must count for is the fear the outdoors brings, the unknowing of events that can happen when your child steps out the front door. Creating safe, green, play environments is the goal.

  2. We have a problem. Children are obese. As a country we are going to solve it and work through it together one way or another. The solution to the obesity problem might as well be supplemented by the outdoors. After all, we now know its positive effect on our mental and physical wellness. It is refreshing to know that the outdoors was not forgotten in the Childhood Obesity Summit.
    The Education Secretary Duncan knows far too well our education can be positively impacted by getting the nation’s students active. Having this summit with The First Lady’s presence was a step forward. It is great the nation recognizes children need to be outdoors, but how?
    I liked the articles suggestions, and what they talked about implementing at the summit. Interior Secretary Salazar pondered how to make our nations parks more accessible. We have so many beautiful waterfalls, trails, birds, flowers, etc. that are not given the opportunity to be seen. Much of our life-style is drive-up, drop- off, drive-thu. When you have to hike to see something beautiful, it seems silly. Why not go see a movie? However if you do take a chance and take that hike, you will be surprised- wondering why you ever considered a movie. What you will experience will be so much better.
    Going to a movie is simple. You search fandango on Google and have the closest location and time for the movie you want to see. Accessing nature is not this easy. Families need this information of what is close to them, and how to get there. Do they hike, bike, walk? What time is the park open? My hope is that the parents will be as familiar with the knowledge of their local parks as the knowlegde they have of local malls.

  3. The Let’s Move campaign is the first step toward preventing obesity amongst children. We need to lend our hands to support the good cause. We need to do whatever it takes to make sure that the children of today and of tomorrow sustain a healthy lifestyle. Young children are the future of the United States -They need to be active contributors to the society. Obesity can prevent our children from performing adequate activities to help move our country forward. Since obesity can cause sickness among young people, it will slow down our country’s productivity greatly. We cannot let obesity takes over. We must join Michelle Obama to fight obesity. Federal funding must be set aside to build a better and well-rounded education that include healthier activities, which can help our children to make better decision for their lives as well as for the country. The funds can be used to build more playgrounds and parks that our children can have access to during their free time. We also must educate parents to be more active with their children by involving them with outdoor activities.

  4. Suz Lipman

    Hi Lisa, Veronica and Han. Thank you so much for adding your comments. I greatly appreciate your wisdom and passion on this issue. You all raise a lot of great points and I hope you’ll continue to stay involved, influencing larger programs as well as those around you to enjoy nature and its many benefits.


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