The Growing Movement to Restore Outdoor Play- Internship Highlight

 by Meghan Johnson

This summer, I interned at the National Park Service’s Rivers Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) office in Boston. I endured many ‘Parks and Recs’ jokes (thanks Amy Poehler!), but I felt this was a unique opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. While there were several things I expected from my internship (for example, I expected to learn a few things about the inner workings of the Federal government and to occasionally become frustrated with bureaucracy), I did not anticipate uncovering a new movement growing in our country- one to restore the value of outdoor play.

Before I could begin my internship project, I had to research the connection between outdoor recreation and human health- a recent interest of the National Park Service and the National Public Health Service. I discovered many initiatives both here and abroad, that are seeking to connect public lands and other outdoor spaces such as playgrounds and urban parks with health benefits and childhood obesity prevention. I learned of several federal initiatives that prioritize this issue, namely Let’s Move Outside! and Healthy Parks, Healthy People US (both are supported by the Park Service). The roots of the movement are also tied to the America’s Great Outdoors report, the President’s call to action to develop a 21st Century conservation and recreation agenda.  I was struck by how intuitive this concept seemed, yet how difficult it can be to build a case for playtime to reduce childhood obesity.

Scientific Support for Play

Scientists and policy makers who believe that outdoor recreation is uniquely important to human health are vital to this movement. There are several research institutions and independent studies devoted to this topic. The most influential groups include:

  •  The Children and Nature Network (CNN): CNN is one of the most comprehensive repositories for published studies tying the outdoors to health outcomes for kids. (Check out their library if you have time!)
  • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living Research: RWJF develops research syntheses, summaries and policy briefs on topics from Race and Income Disparities and Park Access, to The Potential for Safe and Accessible Playgrounds to Increase Kids’ Physical Activity, and many more.
  •  SOPLAY (System for Observing Play and Leisure Activity in Youth): This tool was developed by San Diego State University researchers to objectively quantify physical activity in “open” environments.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Landscape and Human Health Laboratory: This facility churns out all kinds of awesomeness regarding human health and the physical environment.
  • University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Inter-Disciplinary Obesity Center: The Macro and Built Environment Center explores environmental determinants of health, such as community sports, access to home fitness equipment, outdoor play space, time spent outdoors, family environments, and exercise opportunities.

Initiatives to Encourage Play

I also learned of on-going efforts, beyond the scientific community, that encourage outdoor recreation. Institutes and organizations leading the way include:

  • The Institute at the Golden Gate:  Published ‘Park Prescriptions’, a report on the trend of medical professionals prescribing time in nature as a way to improve health outcomes. The Washington Post also covered this topic in 2009.
  •  Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living Research: RWJ’s Tools & Resources provides analytical auditing tools to access community walkability or bikability.
  •  KaBOOM!: KaBOOM! is a national non-profit organization that builds playgrounds in underserved communities to “save play for America’s children.”
  • The National Park Service’s Rivers Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA): RTCA helps communities identify, fund, and execute outdoor recreation and conservation projects to enhance physical activity.
  • The National Center for Safe Routes to Schools: Provides resources, technical support and funding resources for communities that want to implement safe routes to schools programs and increase walkability.
  •  The Mayor’s Campaign for Healthy Cities: Aims to educate mayors about specific policies they can adopt in their communities to address childhood obesity in underserved populations.
  • The National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN): NPLAN encourages and helps facilitate joint-use agreements to create partnerships that keep school facilities and playgrounds open to students during non-school hours.

I’ll stop there, though I could go on. It was inspiring to feel the energy behind this movement; stemming from the White House all the way to school district superintendents who are tired of watching the BMI of their students grow. Encouraging opportunities for kids to get out and play may seem intuitive when talking about childhood obesity prevention, but significant barriers exist that prevent kids (and adults too!) from getting the playtime they need outside. My hope is that increasing opportunities for outdoor play remains a top priority as scientists and policy makers continue to explore active community designs that support healthy lifestyles.

How You Can Encourage Play

Increasing physical activity is just one of the pieces needed to solve the complex childhood obesity puzzle. But it’s an important one. Increasing opportunities for playtime outside can be a low-cost and effective way to get kids moving more and sitting on the couch less.

If you want to promote opportunities for outdoor play in your community, you can talk to local officials about improving the safety of neighborhood parks; push to implement joint-use agreements to allow school recreation facilities to stay open to the public; support recreation leagues by volunteering to coach or referee; lead a KaBOOM! playground project in your neighborhood; volunteer to participate in a trail or stream revitalization project with the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program; or visit national, state and urban parks and help keep them clean.

Did you know that Wednesday, September 14th is Worldwide Recess Day?  Join the conversation with a webinar from Action for Healthy Kids.  Register here! 

Now stop reading. And go play outside!  

Meghan is a second-year dual Master’s student studying Food Policy, Nutrition and Public Health. She is passionate about preventing chronic disease through behavioral, policy, and communications interventions or campaigns.

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