Given the choice, many young people today would opt to stay inside playing with electronic devices or watching TV over a walk, a pick-up game of basketball or a friendly neighborhood hoola hoop competition. Children are becoming increasingly disconnected to the natural world and its many health benefits – both mental and physical. The rise in obesity and mental health issues are direct results of this troubling shift.
With this in mind, Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) launched the Outdoors Rx program in 2013 in collaboration with the MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) and piloted the effort in Framingham and Waltham. The program is designed to get overweight youth and their families out of doors so that they may improve their physical and mental well-being while also developing a greater appreciation for the natural world.
How it works: Pediatric health care practitioners issue “prescriptions” for outdoor physical activity to children and teens and AMC then helps families “fill” the prescriptions by providing: free (and frequent) local family outdoor activities led by AMC staff and AMC Chapter “Family Outings” volunteers. AMC offers access to both local outdoor resources and an online community with outdoor adventure recommendations and advice, among other benefits.
Families in these two communities can register online at AMC’s Outdoors Rx website, where they will find a calendar of free, year round AMC-guided local outdoor programs, blogs answering questions on what to do and what to wear, and additional ideas for getting outdoors. Kids can log all of their outdoor time to earn points, which can then be redeemed for outdoor gear.
The pilot was a great success. The programs in Framingham and Waltham served more than 1,200 youth and adults in their first eight months and close to 300 families registered online. Feedback from participant families, most of whom had previously never spent any time using these local outdoor resources, has been positive. One hundred percent of those surveyed say that they plan to come back to future Outdoors Rx activities.
A recent article in the Boston Globe profiled the program’s impact at the Pelham Apartment complex in Framingham where AMC staff led outdoor activities for young residents every Monday during the school year. The program is continuing this summer with 30 children participating.
“Our goal is to reach as many kids as we can,” said Pam Hess, AMC’s director of youth engagement. Hess was recently acknowledged as a White House “Champion of Change” for engaging the next generation of conservation leaders.
The Outdoors Rx pilot employed a full-time AMC staff person in each community, supplemented by a growing corps of volunteers. AMC recognized that this model would not be sustainable long-term but wanted to first test the approach to see if families would actually utilize the physician’s prescription. After receiving the favorable reviews, AMC sought funding to create a strategic business plan.
AMC will use a $25,000 grant from the Sudbury Foundation to hire a consulting firm to help the agency develop the strategy to sustain the program and eventually replicate it throughout New England.
Photo courtesy of Paul Schultz