The epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States has parents, educators and public health officials taking a closer look at how children spend their time. It's far different today than in decades past, when kids didn't watch so much television, didn't own computers and seemed to have a lot more time available for physical play. Now a children's cable television network is taking steps to address the problem by emphasizing play as fundamental to a child's physical and mental wellbeing.


Child: "Yo, Stinky!  Meet you outside in five!"

Adult: "Let's Just Play is presented by Nickelodeon.  Get up, get out and go play!"


You wouldn't think that any child would need encouragement to go outside and play.  But according to Jean Margaret Smith, vice president of public affairs for Nickelodeon, the children's cable television network, there are several reasons why it's become harder today for children to simply "play:"



"Children often, these days, don't have the time to play, the resources to play, the safe places to play.  The pressures of modern day life--whether it's being a latch-key kid, staying at home indoors all afternoon or being over scheduled with soccer, piano, homework, schools that don't have recess and p.e. (physical education) classes --  physical play has fallen by the wayside."



Nickelodeon's response was to launch what it calls the "Lets Just Play" campaign  an initiative that encourages children (and their parents) to adopt a healthy, active lifestyle. Throughout each day's programming, the station runs public service announcements asking children to "turn off the TV and find a safe place to play." Nickelodeon executive Jean Margaret Smith says it might sound odd for a television program to ask its viewers to turn off the TV. But she says it reflects Nickelodeon's long-standing commitment to children's well-being.



"We've been saying, 'Turn off the TV!  'Your ball needs you, your team needs you, your sneakers need you.'  We tell kids, 'if you sit around too much, it leads to 'couch potato-ism.' We give them these messages but I think if you're a parent or a teacher or a coach you've got to model that kind of behavior too.  So we're providing the example for kids by saying, 'This is serious. Play is serious. Get up and get out there and go play.'"


Nickelodeon Public Service Announcement:

"Nickelodeon presents 'How to be Well -- Tips for Living Well and Staying in Shape.' Today's tip: Beware of pie!"


But can a for-profit television station be a credible advocate for children's health?  Frank Vespe, executive director of the TV Turnoff Network, a group that promotes healthier living through less TV watching, has his doubts about Nickelodeon's new campaign:


"Well, it's ironic for sure, because the one single factor that's probably done the most to reduce the amount of time that kids engage in active and imaginative and creative play has been the television, and has been the time that kids spend in front of the screen. And with Nickelodeon, you've got a network that's on 24 hours a day, broadcasting to kids, encouraging kids to spend more time with the TV.  So obviously it's nice that Nickelodeon is coming to this idea that less TV would be good for kids.  Unfortunately, it's pretty belated and it's pretty half-hearted." 


Nickelodeon's Jean Margaret Smith says children are involved in potentially healthy learning experiences no matter what they are doing, whether it's watching television, reading books or surfing the internet. She says the network's programs aim to give children a taste of the real world, and real issues, in a form they can understand.


?(We have) a lot of pro-social messages such as how to interact with one another; we have a lot of diversity as in 'Dora  the Explorer' -- a little four year-old Latina character that's wildly popular.  We show real kids. We have a strong feeling about violence and helping kids deal with bullying, and all those kinds of issues that are going on in kids lives. So you'll see strands of that in all our programming. But it's not knocking kids over the head with educational messages, but it is certainly very much that we care about kids."


But Frank Vespy of the TV Turnoff Network believes that any time children spend watching television is time away from more healthful activities.


"Even if kids are watching the so-called "best stuff," if they spend three, four, five hours a day watching TV, they're increasing their risk of obesity, decreasing their level of activity. They're decreasing the likelihood of success in school. They're reducing the amount of time they have to spend with their families and with their peers."


In years past, it wasn't unusual for many American children to play outside, un-supervised by an adult. But escalating crime over the years has made many parents uneasy about letting their kids roam free outdoors. Jean Margaret Smith says Nickelodeon's "Let's Just Play" campaign has partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the National PTA to provide secure venues in communities across the nation for organized play events every day of the year.


"They're known as safe places for kids. And our message to kids over the first year of the campaign was "find a safe place to play. Find a place that cares about you."



The success of its "Let's Just Play" campaign led Nickelodeon to sponsor an even more ambitious idea -- the first annual Worldwide Day of Play. Described as a "global play-date," Nickelodeon went off the air for three hours in the afternoon of October 2nd, while thousands of children around the world joined kids throughout the United States in devoting a day to physical activity, festivals, and other fun events. Nickelodeon officials declared the first Worldwide Day of Play a big success, and they say it's their way of raising awareness in communities around the globe to the very urgent need for children to watch less and play more.