Outdoor Recreation and Children – A Perfect Match!

Jessica Aiello

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With 124 state parks, more than 2.2 million acres of state forestland, and 6,100 community parks, Pennsylvania has a wealth of opportunities for families to enjoy the benefits of outdoor recreation. A new short video produced by the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation (PPFF) profiles some of the ways children’s physical, mental, and emotional health improves from time spent in nature. Here we delve deeper into the topics raised in the video.

Physical Health

Nearly 30 percent of Pennsylvanian kids are overweight or obese, according to the Child Policy Research Center. Some of that is due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, where kids spend more time watching TV, playing video games, and staring at their phones. In fact, 25 percent of all Pennsylvanians are considered physically inactive, according to County Health Roadmaps & Rankings. Thankfully, spending time outdoors can get kids (and parents) active and help them lose weight.

“The more active you are, the lower your BMI (body mass index) and the lower the risk for cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Colby Wesner, DO, with Mount Nittany Health. “I think it is very beneficial to get kids engaged in outdoor activities at a very young age, so they learn to appreciate it and want to continue it throughout their lives.”

With so many state parks and forests in Pennsylvania, parents and guardians don’t have to look far to find wonderful places to take their children.

“We have state parks that offer hiking and biking trails, kayaking and canoeing options – all of which are great forms of exercise,” said Matthew Silvis, Sports Medicine Physician for Penn State Health. 

Mental Health

“Nature-deficit disorder” is a term coined by Richard Louv in his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, to describe how children are increasingly feeling disconnected from the natural world. This disconnect can lead to a host of mental and emotional health complications, including the “ability to feel ultimately alive.” His research strongly suggests that time outdoors can help children build confidence in themselves and find calm and focus.

Dr. Wesner concurred, saying that “Being out in nature has a strong association with mental benefits… reducing stress, reducing anxiety, improving concentration, and decreasing hyperactivity.”

Forest bathing is one way to use time in nature to improve mental health in children, teens, and adults, according to Silvis. You take a slow, meandering walk through nature, embracing all your senses. People who practice forest bathing for 30 minutes a few times a week have shown improvements in their blood pressure and a significant drop in stress hormone levels, which has a positive effect on depression and anxiety.

Emotional Health

Louv has said that “The risk-taking inherent in outdoor play is an important role in child development. Without independent play, the ability to exert self-control, to control and direct emotion and behavior, is at risk.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree, noting that play is essential to children’s emotional health in many ways, including building social skills and encouraging them to communicate, share, and empathize. 

“Parks provide an opportunity to connect to physical activity and to provide connection to one another in a positive way,” said Andrew Mowen, Professor of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management at Penn State. “Parks and recreation are an essential part of our health care system.”

Resources to Help Your Family Get Outdoors

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Photo Credit: Beth VanHorn

“With the lack of activity, nutrition, and time outdoors, many kids are becoming more likely to develop chronic illnesses like diabetes and asthma earlier,” said Marci Mowery, President of PPFF. “That is why our organization works to raise awareness of the health benefits of time spent outdoors and to ensure that Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests remain free and open to everyone so that each and every family in the commonwealth can benefit from these public lands.”

Whether your family is new to outdoor recreation, or just looking for a new experience in nature, there is a wealth of resources on the PPFF website to help. This includes Explore Near flyers for places of interest in counties across Pennsylvania, Skill Builders for activities like forest bathing, camping, and fishing, a Family Fun and Games section that includes a coloring book an outdoor cooking recipes, and a link to other videos on PPFF’s YouTube channel

Author and activist, Rachel Carson, once said that a child’s positive connection to nature depends on “special places and special people.” As parents or guardians, you can be that special person and get your young one(s) outside to those special places. Their physical, mental, and emotional health will benefit when you do.

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Jessica Aiello
Freelance Communications Professional at Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation

Jessica Aiello is a freelance communications professional working on a contractual basis for the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation, along with other clients. Her work includes writing and editing grants, social media posts, reports, press releases, and articles, as well as event planning and other projects. She can be reached atJessica.s.aiello@gmail.com

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