06/27/2013 12:09 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Great Outdoors America Week: Replacing Screen Time With Green Time

I had the great fortune of growing up in the 1960s and '70s on the west side of Los Angeles, where my unfenced backyard opened up onto the terrain of the Santa Monica Mountains. My friends and I ran, climbed trees, swam in the ocean, hiked up mountain peaks, dug trenches and tunnels, built forts, and rode our bicycles as we explored our natural surroundings.

We developed stamina, strength, coordination and confidence in our bodies. We learned to handle bumps, bruises, and cuts, and we developed safety skills. We learned conflict resolution skills, we developed our imaginations and an ability to innovate and improvise. And above all, we developed a respect for nature and learned to recognize its importance.

Over the past 25 years I have worked with children, teens, and families as an educator and a mental health professional. Sadly, during this period I have seen a steady decline in outdoor activity and an increasing disconnect from nature -- especially over the past decade.

There are many reasons for this, including the expansion of suburbs into green spaces, parks that are configured to exclude nature, schools that don't take advantage of nearby nature, parental fears that play in nature will result in injury and, most of all, the expansion of home-based recreational technology: multiple televisions, cable networks with hundreds of channels, handheld devices, laptop computers, and most recently, smart phones and tablets.

Parents should set a positive example by leading an active lifestyle and making family physical activity -- taking walks, doing yard work, or camping -- a priority. Parents should also encourage their children to be active with their peers and make sure they play outside instead of watching television or playing video games. Schools should implement comprehensive physical activity programs and organize special events that connect children to their natural surroundings. Studies show that schools that use outdoor classrooms produce gains in test scores in social studies, science, language arts, and math.

I would also encourage parents to join the Sierra Club and participate in the Club's outings program, either through local chapter outings or the national Outings program. And this week, families can participate in Great Outdoors America Week (GO Week), the preeminent event celebrating our relationship to the great outdoors. As one of the largest annual conservation and outdoor-focused events, GO Week increases awareness of the importance of getting outdoors, and brings together a wide array of organizations and activists to meet with lawmakers and administrators to advocate for our outdoor lifestyle.

I invite you participate in GO Week by contacting your members of Congress today. Sierra Club is supporting efforts to ensure all youth have access to connect with the outdoors through the Community Parks Revitalization Act. If passed, this will help revitalize urban areas making them healthier, more livable, and economically competitive through improved access to public parks and recreation programs and services. A mere 20 percent of Americans have access to a park within walking distance of their home.

It is important to underscore that the foundation for all of the above is parents setting clear and firm limits about screen time. Without these limits, children will remain disconnected from nature and vulnerable to the adverse consequences associated with overexposure to the ever-expanding world of recreational technology.