The National Park Trust has dubbed May 19 National Kids to Parks Day, a day when they invite every family in America to visit a national, state or local park. Their slogan, which is touted by their mascot, Buddy Bison, is simple — “Explore outdoors, the parks are yours!”
That this “holiday” was created and is gaining wide recognition is a testament to what many people have known for years and to what a lot of research is dedicated to exploring — that spending recreational time outdoors in places like parks makes happier and healthier people.
“We are so lucky here, where nature is so accessible,” says Jennelle Freeston, the coordinator of volunteer services for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), who has a master’s degree in environmental leadership and sustainability. “But even here in Boulder, people are not getting outdoors as much as they might want to, even though studies show the amazing health benefits of getting outdoors and connecting with the local environment.”
Freeston explains that it’s especially important for children to connect with the outdoors at an early age. She says that while many adults had what might now be considered a romanticized childhood, where most kids spent time outdoors every day, many of today’s children are not getting outdoors often enough to engage in unstructured play.
“Tons of studies show that time spent outdoors by kids is so important, because they are using their imaginations and being creative,” says Freeston. “When kids are outdoors, the sky is the limit, and they don’t know what their own minds can create until they’ve tried.”
Many studies have also shown that recreational outdoor time is beneficial for adults, too. In fact, some doctors are now prescribing patients ecotherapy (also known as nature therapy) to help improve mood and relieve anxiety, stress and depression. Some health care providers are even prescribing ecotherapy to patients to help treat many physical medical conditions as well, like high blood pressure and diabetes.
Boulder, with its celebrated annual 300 days of sunshine and 40,000 acres of open space, is an ideal setting for ecotherapy. And getting that doctor-prescribed treatment, or giving kids an environmental education, doesn’t have to cost a cent.
“Open Space Mountain Parks has made helping kids and their families get out into nature a priority, and we offer all kinds of free programs and events to help this happen,” says Dave Sutherland, interpretive naturalist for OSMP.
The organization offers many free, year-round programs, but really boosts things up during the warmer months, when more people want to be outdoors. This spring and summer Boulder County residents can take advantage of OSMP’s free, guided hikes, kids’ story times and Meadow Music, a family-friendly weekly outdoor concert series of silly but educational songs about the county’s flora and fauna. Families can also check out nature discovery backpacks at Chautauqua’s ranger station. The packs are full of cool gear like magnifying lenses, games and guides, and helpful information for parents.
And, OSMP will be offering special programs on National Kids to Parks Day — a day that puts emphasis on what they strive to do every day — to help make Boulder County’s open space and mountain parks more accessible and educational for the community. For more information, visit their website as the holiday grows closer.
“We live in an amazing community where getting outside and learning about nature is funded by our tax dollars,” says Freeston. “We [OSMP] hope that everyone takes advantage of this and gets outside more. It really does reduce stress for parents, and it helps kids learn that they have a place to be creative and play and, yeah, de-stress, too.”