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Doctors are writing prescriptions … for kids to play outside

CHILDREN RUNNING OUTSIDE
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This fantastic new initiative is a collaboration with the US Forest Service and the Philadelphia Parks and Rec.

I’m sitting outside with my kids and my laptop right now, enjoying the much-anticipated return of spring and sunshine. It’s been an abnormally long and cold Texas winter and we’ve all been going a little stir-crazy, so we ate dinner outside and now the kids are wandering around, digging in the dirt and climbing trees.

Days like this remind me of how grateful I am to have a back and front yard for my kids to play in. We lived in apartments for many years, and I’ll never forget how much I struggled to get the kids outside. Pretty much our only option was to drive to a park, which required a significant time and energy investment from me that wasn’t always feasible — especially when I was heavily pregnant or newly postpartum.

Lack of access to outdoor spaces is a real problem in cities, but doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have unrolled a new initiative to combat the problem of increasing numbers of kids who are growing up isolated from nature and the outdoors. According to CHOP pediatrician Christopher Renjilian, they’re taking an unorthodox approach to encourage families to spend more time outdoors … by writing prescriptions for outdoor activity:

The program, NaturePHL, launched last year as a collaboration between CHOP, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the U.S. Forest Service and the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia. The initiative’s aim is to promote pediatric health through increased physical activity, but not just any activity — the program encourages a connection to nature.

According to Renjilian, the benefits include:

  • Pragmatic: Studies show children naturally increase activity levels just being outdoors vs. indoors
  • Inclusive: Nature “tends to meet children where they are,” allowing kids of all ages, interests and developmental stages to find activities that will engage them
  • Psychological: Being outdoors eases stress and alleviates anxiety — benefiting mental health and physical health

I love the idea of using the authority of the prescription pad to help improve the overall health of children and their parents, but I have to admit I was a little hesitant about the program. Remembering how hard it was for me to get my kids outside for so long, and how some days it was simply impossible, I worried about adding the extra burden of mandated outdoor time for parents who already struggle.

That’s why I was so excited to learn that the program is a collaboration between Parks and Rec, the US Forest Service, and the Schuylkill Center. The doctors even have the option to refer families who are struggling to complete the prescribed activities to a “nature navigator,” a health care professional trained to counsel children and their families on the program and help them complete the activities.

I think this is a fantastic initiative to give kids and their parents the resources, encouragement, and motivation they need to be active outside. If we could find a way to roll out this program nationwide, I imagine we would see a significant decrease in childhood and adult obesity — as well as a significant increase in overall happiness.

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