The average North American child spends mere minutes playing outdoors. (Courtesy Photo)

Children and nature: Increasing access to the world’s oldest miracle drug

For millennia, nature has fueled the creative fires of people from every culture on earth. And for nearly as long, frazzled moms and dads exhorted their kids to “go play outside.”

Now science validates what both parents and poets seemed to have known: humans are wired for the wild. Yet even as a slew of research underscores nature’s mental and physical health benefits, we’re less connected to the natural world than ever before. A century ago, more than half of Americans lived in rural environments. Today, it’s less than 20 percent, and the average North American child spends about seven hours a day staring at screens and mere minutes playing outdoors.

That’s why San Francisco has joined a global movement to reconnect our kids with Mother Earth. On Thursday, May 16, Oakland will host the 2019 International Conference of the Children and Nature Network, the largest gathering of children’s nature advocates in the world. We’re park managers and public health policymakers, educators, and environmentalists. We speak different languages but share the same goal: Bring kids back into nature.

Nature makes us happier, healthier, smarter, more creative, and resilient. Research shows spending as little as 20 minutes outdoors without our gadgets improves our attention and decreases frustration, encouraging the kind of open, meditative mindset tied to creative thinking. A University of Utah study, for example, found participants could solve 47 percent more puzzles requiring creativity after completing a four-day backpacking trip.

These benefits extend to entire communities. Researchers have found that pharmacies in neighborhoods with more trees filled fewer antidepressant prescriptions. Studies of Chicago public housing found that buildings surrounded by green space had lower crime rates and residents enjoyed more social connections with their neighbors.

This month’s gathering in Oakland is historic because the scarcity of nature in children’s lives is finally being recognized as a public health issue by governments across the world.

In San Francisco, we have had a head start. In 2014, the City formally adopted the San Francisco Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights and with it, a goal of providing a nature experience every day for every San Francisco child. San Francisco Recreation and Parks, the Presidio Trust and the YMCA of San Francisco have made nature programming a priority over the last few years, multiplying our efforts through our participation in San Francisco Children and Nature, a cross-sector collaborative working to eliminate racial and economic disparities in access to the outdoors. City kids have found an advocate in Mayor London Breed, who has championed access to world-class parks and outdoor recreation for low-income families.As a result, children in neighborhoods across San Francisco are reaping the benefits. Downed trees from parks are repurposed as play equipment for toddlers in daycare centers. Playground renovations now include nature exploration areas. Kids delight in ‘create-with-nature’ stations at community events and neighborhood street fairs, while teenagers get job skills and environmental educations through our outdoor youth development programs. Families who live in apartments grow food through our urban agriculture program, and doctors now are prescribing nature walks through our partnerships with healthcare providers.

The good news is it’s easier than you think to get your 20 minutes in nature. Simply stepping out of your office for lunch and observing your outdoor environment helps your pre-frontal cortex recover, boosting your problem-solving abilities. If you’re feeling more ambitious, explore one of the Bay Area’s thousands of trails, many with breathtaking views. You can also volunteer with your city’s park department or state or national parks, restoring native habitats while enjoying camaraderie with your fellow nature-lovers. Cities offer low-cost classes to get you going on your new outdoor hobby, like archery, fly fishing, or gardening.

Every San Francisco resident lives within a 10-minute walk of a park, so why not schedule your next playdate there? No matter what your child’s interest—art, sports, superheroes or dance—simply take it outside. Having bags of special toys to be used only outdoors can also help spark excitement

Technology is here to stay, and in many ways it has improved our lives. But think of that wonderful calm feeling you get when you enter a park. Remember that cloud-connected can also mean lying down in the cool grass and gazing skyward. Where this also leads is a new generation of environmental advocates, active citizens who will understand how we best inhabit the planet and make it sustainable for generations to come.

Phil Ginsburg is the general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Jean Fraser is the chief executive officer of the Presidio Trust. Chuck Collins is the president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of San Francisco.

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