Nature RX: Get Outside!

The DMV is lush with public outdoor green spaces. In fact, in terms of public park access, D.C. is third best in the nation according to the Trust for Public Land. While area kids have great opportunities to experience and enjoy nature, do their families take full advantage of it?

Many pediatricians say no. They are concerned about what author Richard Louv terms “nature deficit disorder.” The health and wellness benefits of spending time in nature are proven, and children who don’t engage in outdoor play may eventually suffer from obesity and developmental problems. However, parents who did not grow up going camping or spending time outdoors may not realize the preventative health benefits exposure to nature provides. 

One area pediatrician is curbing this problem by actually prescribing nature for his young patients and their families. Dr. Robert Zarr works at Unity Health Care, serving low-income and immigrant families in Washington, D.C.  Known as “Nature Doc,” Zarr leads D.C. Park RX, a program that helps train physicians, nurses and other providers of health care to connect people to parks. D.C. Park RX has mapped and reviewed 354 area parks to help physicians and parents discover nearby nature and reap the health benefits of spending time outdoors.

I recently asked Dr. Zarr about his program:

Q: Why is too much indoor time a problem?  

A: Spending too much time indoors is a problem for people of any income or any age in the sense that we have a pull to technology and use it indoors, while sedentary and while eating…we’re all doing that. On average, 87-95 percent of our time is spent indoors across the board, regardless of income.

Q: What tips do you have for getting our families outside more often?

A: Know the parks nearest your work, school and home. We have over 350 parks in D.C., and I have some favorites. But don’t try to find the perfect park five miles away when there’s a good one three blocks away. Convenience is most important. Think about your life and make tweaks to get more time outdoors. Is it possible to eat outside, take a different route to school, walk to work or pick up the baguette at the neighborhood store instead of driving? Just being outdoors is the point—you don’t have to go somewhere that’s “the best!”

Q: What are the potential health consequences for us and our children if we’re not spending time in parks?

A: Parks are not just a place to take a break. We should think of them as an essential part of our health. People haven’t figured out why we have increased, restored attention after being in nature, but it’s true. After you go for a walk, you feel more focused and can concentrate more. It decreases stress. Mental health is more important in some ways than physical health. If you’re stressed, you’re more likely to be depressed, anxious, overweight or see your blood pressure go up. It’s all interrelated. We’ve lost a lot of common sense on this issue ─ we don’t really see what’s happening to us until we don’t feel well.

Q: What does it mean that you write “park prescriptions” for your pediatric patients?

A: For example, I asked two brothers with significant weight gains about their daily routine and how many times they’d gone to a park in the past week. They walked through one on the way home. I asked their mom if they could stop and spend 20 minutes to play. She agreed, and I gave them a goal of playing there three days a week. I put that goal in their chart and wrote them a prescription. If a patient needs to be active outdoors more, and a prescription is what it takes [to have them take it seriously], I’ll write a prescription!

Q: If a family agrees they need to spend more time outdoors, where do you recommend they start?

A: Keep it simple. Going for a walk may be the first and easiest step for most people. Most of us have shoes and a hat and clothes, and that’s all it takes, and maybe a bottle of water. A lot of people like the social aspect of walking. Going for a walk before or after dinner or having a picnic are options for a lot of people ─ both high and low income families can do it.

Q: How can we make walks interesting for kids?

A: Think about paying attention to the life around you and identifying the plants and animals where you live. It can go a long way. The garden in our yard has been a godsend for me. Yesterday I noticed two birds building a nest on our porch and watched them for a while. Observing nature is pretty neat and slows us down, helps us focus and makes us happy.

Online Resources for Outdoor Fun:

About 300 doctors and medical providers in the area serving 200,000 patients have access to the Parks RX database in their electronic health records, but local families can use it too. Browse the site by zip code for photos, suggested activities and details about local park amenities, such as bathrooms and drinking fountains. Information also includes a report card on park cleanliness and accessibility.

Author and activist Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” and wrote Last Child in the Woods; the now-classic defense of outdoor recreation. His new book Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature Rich Life provides 500 “smart, fun, and effective ways to engage with the natural world.”

Kids in Parks/ Track Trails partners with national parks to create outdoor scavenger hunts for kids on existing trails. There are dozens of exciting adventures in D.C., Maryland and Virginia!

Dr. Zarr’s work has been featured on the Diane Rehm Show, NPR Health News, The Washington Post, Slate, and Children & Nature Network. He is a fan of the Surgeon General’s Step It Up! program, which encourages walking for all ages. Learn more about the call to action here:

Bring your children on a National Geographic BioBlitz and help scientists count the plants, animals, fungi and other organisms that live in your area. Register as a public participant and find out more about tours and taking inventories here:

Meredith Baker is an educator, writer, author of The Richmond Theater Fire and mom to three Capitol Hill kids.


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