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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Rx for Healthy Kids

Air Date: Week of

Dr. Charles Owyang.

The National Environmental Education Foundation’s Children and Nature Initiative has the prescription for healthier kids—a breath of fresh air. Doctors from New Jersey to California are encouraging kids to get back out into nature by connecting them with programs at local nature reserves, where they can reconnect with their inner wild child—literally. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to one of NEEF’s “Nature Champions,” Dr. Charles Owyang.


GELLERMAN: What do you do with kids who think the great outdoors ain’t so great? Seems there are a lot of them and all that couch time is taking its toll: A third of the population under 20 is overweight or obese. That puts these kids at risk for diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. In fact, this could be the first generation of children with a lower life expectancy than their parents.

Dr. Charles Owyang says what kids need is a healthy dose of nature, and he has just the prescription. Dr. Owyang is a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he's training other physicians in writing prescriptions for nature as part of the National Environmental Education Foundation’s Children & Nature Initiative. Dr. Owyang, welcome to Living on Earth.

OWYANG: Thank you!

GELLERMAN: You guys aren't kidding around – you really are talking about writing prescriptions to get outside for kids!

OWYANG: Yes, we sure are. It’s a phenomenal way to really get kids back out to nature, and it seems like, you know, it’s something that we can really get traction on and kids and families are responding.

GELLERMAN: But is this really necessary? You know, I mean it’s kind of a sad statement – when I was a kid, you wouldn’t have to tell a kid to go out and play.

OWYANG: Yeah, these days, you know, there’s just more barriers sometimes to getting kids outside. Part of it is, perhaps, some of the social media and the internet, and other things also include that some communities are getting more and more built up, and sometimes it’s hard to just go down the block to the neighborhood park, or where there’s trees, and go out and play.

And, it’s something that parents actually have to think about a little bit more, especially with their busy schedules. And writing that prescription for nature gives them something to take out of the office that reminds them to get back out and to play. And, you know, most people, when they actually experience it, they just are amazed at how wonderful it is to actually take a walk out by the Bay, or out in a nature reserve and see egrets and pelicans and birds, and smell the fresh air. It’s just a world apart.

Dr. Charles Owyang.

GELLERMAN: But for a kid who’s playing Kill Zone 3, you know, the video game, do they ever look up at you and say, ‘Yeah, right doc.’

OWYANG: (Laughs). You know, sometimes they do. But we’ve been very fortunate that this program is so excellent that it has a lot of visual handouts that actually entice the child a little bit more. And I show them the different programs: Every weekend there are just multiple programs that they can go to, like photographing nature, learning how to identify birds on the bay, doing GPS scavenger hunts for different treasures at the nature reserve…so, they’re actually a lot of fun.

And I show them some of the rewards that they can earn, like binoculars, a children’s plushy woodpecker toy, a tote bag…the kids actually think, ‘Wow, this might be kinda cool.’

GELLERMAN: But it’s a little bit like McDonalds giving out toys so people buy their burgers, and I’m just wondering: Isn’t nature enough?

OWYANG: You know, I guess, just seeing something tangible, like a set of binoculars, like, ‘Wow! I earned that!’ is sometimes the icing on the cake. And it’s interesting that they found in another study that the kids that are out in nature, for every hour that they’re out, they probably have an extra 27 minutes of fairly vigorous exercise. Even though you’re not telling them, ‘Go and run a mile’ or ‘Go and play basketball,’ they end up just being kids.

Beyond that, there’s even mental health benefits where they’ve found that there’s been studies that show that ADD and ADHD symptoms can be reduced and that the nature, and being outdoors and being near green areas, can really decrease impulsivity, and also increase your attention span.

GELLERMAN: I wonder if virtual nature works as well. I was in the gym the other day and they have a new indoor bike. And it has a video screen, and you’re actually biking in the scene.

OWYANG: Your hunch is correct…that seeing nature on a screen has helped too. So, there have been some studies where they have put people on a treadmill and made them exercise, and they showed them green scenes, where they were in a rural, pleasant environment - and they found that there was a significant improvement in the positive effect of their moods, so it does definitely help mood and blood pressure.

GELLERMAN: So, Dr. Owyang, I gotta ask you: Do you practice what you prescribe?

OWYANG: Oh my goodness, absolutely. For me, I didn’t grow up in a place where I was always allowed to go out and run around in nature, and as I raise my own two children – I have a five-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old – and as I bring them out to the Bay, or to the different tide pools, or to see the giant sequoias, I notice that the kids are so much less whiny, I find I’m in a better mood, I find the kids eat so much better. So, it’s really terrific to see that in my own children and in myself.

GELLERMAN: Thanks so very much, I really appreciate it, Dr. Owyang.

OWYANG: My pleasure, my pleasure!

GELLERMAN: Pediatrician Charles Owyang writes prescriptions for nature in his Bay Area office at Kaiser Permanente.



Children and Nature Initiative

CDC Childhood Obesity Facts


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