Who doesn't like to play outside? You can study nature, learn new things, invent games and get in shape.
But the fact is, American kids spend just minutes each day noodling around outdoors and more than seven hours parked in front of electronic screens. That's not healthy. And it's a big reason 1 in 3 U.S. kids is overweight.
Kids in Parks, a program of outdoor family adventures, wants to change that. Kids can sign up for the free program and earn prizes by visiting some of the program's 157 trails. Kids in Parks was started in 2008 by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation in North Carolina. Today it has trails in 10 states, including Virginia and Maryland, as well as the District of Columbia.
They're called TRACK trails. TRACK stands for Trails, Ridges, Activities and Connections for Kids. It's also the name of the program's mascot dog.
Aiden Buchanan signed up a few months ago and has been on seven TRACK trails.
"It's good exercise, and it's fun for the family to do together," says Aiden, 8, who lives in Alexandria.
Each TRACK trail has a detailed hiking map and brochures of what to see and do there. Some examples from our 15 local trails:
●Identify forest bugs in Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park.
●Sharpen your birdwatching skills on Theodore Roosevelt Island in the District.
●Go on a 1½ -mile scavenger hunt near the White House.
●Hike through history at Manassas National Battlefield in Virginia.
If you can talk the family into a road trip, head for the Oconaluftee River Trail in western North Carolina. More than 14,000 Cherokees live in the area. On the TRACK trail, you'll learn about their native legends and how their ancestors used plants and trees for medicine, food and making arrows.
"Sometimes we find live animals," Aiden says of the hikes that he and his little sister, Braylin, have taken. "I got to be up close with a salamander. . . . It was neat to take pictures of it."
On a hike in Virginia's Prince William Forest Park, the kids' mom was about to take a photo of them on a bench when she noticed something. As Aiden tells it: "She said, 'Don't freak out, but come over here. There's a snake under that bench.' "
The park has 17 species of snakes, only two of which are venomous. Aiden and Braylin's snake, which was more than three feet long, was not, they learned later. Whew!
Still, it was a great tale to put in their TRACK nature journal.
Yes, we did.
After kids visit a TRACK trail and answer a few questions about it online, they get a park sticker and credit toward prizes such as a magnifying lens and a backpack. Virtual medals are awarded for those who meet extra goals.
Kids in Parks Director Jason Urroz says kids have had more than 370,000 TRACK adventures. More than 10 percent of those who sign up are first-time hikers, and more than 40 percent return.
While Kids in Parks encourages kids to enjoy nature today, it's also looking at the bigger picture. Says Urroz: "If we don't get kids connected now, in the future when they're the voting public, who's going to stand up and say these places are important — not only to our health but to the environment, clean water and clean air?"
Aiden, for one. He hopes to some day be an environmental engineer, "cleaning up parks and neighborhoods. Or maybe work at a dam."
Kids in Parks has five TRACK sites each in Maryland and the District and 16 in Virginia. Some sites around the country offer biking, paddling and disc golf. Check out all 157 sites at kidsinparks.com.