About ten years ago, the National Park Service noticed that fewer kids and families were using the parks. And they wanted to change that.
So in 2009, they partnered with the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation to launch an initiative to help families unplug, get outside, and connect with their local natural resources. The initiative, called Kids in the Park, soon expanded to encompass pediatricians like Erin Regan who are trying to combat childhood obesity, diabetes and excess screen time by writing “scripts” for kids to go outside.
“If I have a kid who is overweight, a kid who is spending a lot of time in front of the TV — we ask about screen time at every check up — I’ll make the offer,” said Regan. “We just have a placard up in our waiting room, and so anyone who is interested who notices that and who wants to participate can ask about it, and we’re happy to have them participate as well.”
Regan has observed that kids aren’t moving nearly enough and they’re spending far too much time in front of screens. As a result, they’re restless, and have a harder time managing their emotions.
“Everything sets them off — I don’t think they feel like they’re in control. They don’t know what to do with themselves.”
Her daughter, 6-year-old Hannah, sits at her dining room table munching on an apple as she describes making “fairy dust” from leaves and seeing a turtle while at a Kids in the Park event earlier this year.
“My favorite things to do are probably run around and play with nature and make things with nature.”
Her doctor-mother said the science shows that kids who move more focus better and maybe even learn better.
On the Trail
At Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area in Hillsborough, N.C., Kids in the Park director Jason Urroz walks through one of the Kids in the Park Track trails. He stops at a colorful sign where two mascots — a dog (Track) and a dragonfly — are depicted in bright colors explaining the different activities kids can do.
“It attracts kids to want to come over here and look at the sign,” he says. “And then you’ve got the directions of the map telling you how long the trail is and these are the trails in this park. A nd while you’re hiking this trail, use these different brochures on your hike in order to learn about the pond life or the trees or go on a hide-and-seek scavenger hunt.”
As kids complete a hike or brochure, they can register online for little gifts such as stickers or a bandana. Additionally, if a child has registered for the Park Prescriptions program, when they log a hike or other activity, their pediatrician gets a message and that information is added to his or her medical file. The hope, Urroz says, is if they can get the kids excited about getting outdoors early in life, it will become a life habit.
“We try to make our trails 1-2 miles in length so they’re not overly strenuous and kids have a good time and they see different things and want to do it again,” says Urroz.
Sean Higgins — the education manager for North Carolina State Parks — says for him, the program is about helping kids explore boundaries and learn experientially.
“Kids have been throwing rocks in streams and running through the forest for tens of thousands of years and kids more and more are indoors – they’re indoors more than any previous generation,” says Higgins. “They’re spending time on videogames and on screens.”
Higgins says he thinks a lot about what kids get from videogames and thinks it’s a feeling of control — getting to make decisions without an adult steering them.
“I think kids can get those same things outdoors. I think things like the Kids in Parks TRACK trails give kids the opportunity to make decisions, you know, which topics do I want to explore on the trail? It gives kids the chance to achieve things,” he says.
And it seems to be working. Urroz says 54 percent of kids who participate are first-time visitors to a park and 11 percent of kids were first-time hikers.
Pediatrician Regan has only been writing scripts for about six months and says for her, it’s too soon to see if the program is having an impact on obesity, diabetes and screen time. But anything that encourages kids to get outside and get them excited about it, is a win. She says she realizes getting outside can be really tough for working families, but making an effort makes a difference.
"My husband and I both work, so we really do our best to spend a lot of time on the weekends doing things, getting out of the house, not being inside and plopping in front of the TV yet again," says Regan.
Although there are Kids in the Parks locations all up and down the Blue Ridge, only one park in West Virginia currently participates — Harpers Ferry National Park in the eastern panhandle. Urroz says he’d love to get some more West Virginia parks on board – all it takes is for a park to reach out and say, “Hey, we’d like to participate!”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.