Getting Back to Nature

Updated: Oct 28, 2018

Photo courtesy of Paige Vaccaro

Is anyone else noticing how empty the playgrounds look unless school is in session? I rarely see kids playing in the park anymore unless it’s for an organized sport or gym class. Technology habits are having a big impact on how often our kids are getting outside, with the average of 7 hours on social media each day for kids between the ages of 8 and 18, according to the Kaiser family foundation. This especially effects kids in urban areas, who have less outdoor space and opportunity to play in green environments.

While most of us know the importance of exercise - and we also know that most kids aren’t getting enough of it - research is also suggesting the importance of green space as a benefit unto itself. So simply being in a park can be beneficial, even if we’re just chilling on a bench with a friend. Finding ways to expand green space as well as increase kids’ access to it can have a positive effect on their overall wellbeing.

My friend Paige Vaccaro is doing both through C.R.O.P.S. (Communities Revolutionizing Open Public Spaces), the nonprofit organization she founded that aims to promote healthy, connected communities. I visited Paige at the garden she planted at the Covenant House, an organization that provides housing and services for young adults ages 18-21 facing homelessness in Atlantic City, NJ. The garden is planted on the site of the Covenant House’s supported living apartment building, a transition home that fosters independence for the young adults, who have full access to the garden and fenced yard.

The day of my visit, several of the teens worked with Paige to harvest the last of the summer vegetables and prep the garden for fall. One of the boys took a tentative bite of a ground cherry that he had just picked off the vine and said, “It’s good - kind of sweet and a little spicy at the same time.” Paige encourages them to try new things, but also to enjoy and relax in the space. She told me, “Nature becomes a tool in combating the negative effects from the demands of a fast-paced, stressful modern society. When this tool is introduced at a young age, it becomes a habit of mind.” Studies show that people and communities often underestimate green spaces as a resource for health, and many parks and open spaces have disappeared through urbanization. C.R.O.P.S. and other organizations like it, such as the Million Tree Initiative in Los Angeles and Ubuntu Green in San Francisco, aspire to convert unused land into green space in order to provide equitable access for low-income communities.

A 2018 study by Twohig-Bennett and Jones on green space aimed to pinpoint benefits by looking at 143 studies on nature’s relationship with health outcomes. They found, among many other positives, significantly lower blood pressure, stress hormone release, and heart rates in the people who increased their use of green space. The combination of physical activity, social interaction, sunlight, and immunity-boosting micro-organisms in nature act to benefit a wide range of health indicators. Our green spaces truly are “the lungs of the town”, as billed by London in the 1800s, that help keep us healthy.

Unfortunately, green spaces are available in higher proportion to white residents, contributing to the health inequalities that exist around the country. This is where people like Paige come in, adding green spaces to vacant lots or unused areas in cities. She’s currently working on a new garden a few blocks away, adjacent to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, and involving community members in working together to convert the unused land. Paige is passionate about sharing the benefits of green space with residents and believes that, “All people can benefit from spending time in green spaces as they provide aesthetic beauty, fresh air, peace, and connection to the natural world. Nature offers so many life lessons and opportunities for discovery, appreciation, and curiosity.”

Frequent use of outdoor parks can increase kids’ energy and attention, and reduce future likelihood of cancer and other diseases. Adults can point out to children how great they feel after going for a hike on a trail, swinging in the park, or walking the family dog down a tree-lined street. Paige, who is also the mom of four young kids, adds, “As children and young adults grow, they learn to listen to their bodies and know when to seek fresh air and peace in the outdoors.” If instilling a love and appreciation of nature can improve future outcomes and life expectancy, then promoting healthy communities in healthy environments is an important component of our work toward wellbeing.

Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental Research, 166, 628–637.

cover photo courtesy of Paige Vaccaro

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