Madison Connecting Children to Nature
Transcript of interview: Wisconsin Public Radio
Show: “Central Time”
March 4, 2016
This is Central Time, I’m Rob Ferrett.
Rob Ferrett: Madison is one of seven cities chosen as part of a new initiative spearheaded by the National League of Cities. It aims to get more children, especially kids in urban areas, out into nature. Madison was recently identified as one of seven cities chosen to participate in that program.
Joining us now to talk about that initiative and the benefits that access to the outdoors has for kids, for people in general, for the community at large, we have Mary Michaud, Policy Director for Public Health Madison & Dane County. Mary, thanks a lot for joining us today.
Mary Michaud: It’s my pleasure, Rob.
RF: Well, give us the basics. Exciting grant, I assume, for your department. Tell us about the initiative and what it’s trying to accomplish.
MM: Sure. So this is a partnership, really. We in public health know that big health problems can’t be approached without partnership. So almost everything we do is in partnership with other folks in the community. So this one is really a key partnership in our city with the City of Madison Parks Department, we also have leadership from Alder Rebecca Kemble from the north side. So it’s been great to explore how we can move this initiative forward.
The Children & Nature Network is an organization that was started within the last decade by Richard Louv. He’s an author of Last Child in the Woods–some of you might find that name familiar.
RF: We have heard him here on the network, yeah.
MM: The Children & Nature Network teamed up with the National League of Cities to really look at the issue of connecting urban children to nature. Now the important thing, I think, is we’re really focused on equity. What does that mean? It means that all children deserve the chance to learn, to grow and to establish a connection with nature. Sometimes, living in a city, that’s not so easy.
RF: Before we get into the details of how this will work, let’s talk about some of the benefits. What do kids get out of having some kind of access to green space, some kind of access to nature, and what do they miss if they don’t have that access?
MM: It’s a great question, and I think a lot of us recognize the obvious things. There’s physical activity. We have a real challenge in our country–and it’s not unique to Madison at all–a challenge of obesity and overweight among young people as well as adults. So that physical activity is really critical. We also have not-so-obvious benefits. Some of those include the fact that as kids, we use our senses to learn. There are learning benefits, cognitive benefits, that come from hands-on participation with the things you’re learning about. The mental health benefits can be really profound. There’s more and more research coming out that really talks about restorative spaces. So if you think about kids who might live in apartments, or kids who live in more crowded housing, a lot of kids are finding themselves having to be in noise and we have media around us all the time, they hardly ever get to be around quiet spaces. And some of those quiet spaces are really only found in the middle of the woods, or out in a small park where no one is around and you can just hear the birds. it comes down to being a restorative place for kids who have a lot of busy-ness in their lives.
RF: So some people might hear this and think, OK, great. Everybody send your kid to a park, end of story. Why do we need to develop a plan, and why do we need to develop a program for it? Why isn’t it that simple?
MM: Right. So there are a lot of historic barriers for everybody to participate in nature. Some of us go to a park and don’t think a second time about it. For African Americans, there is a long history of not feeling welcome in certain places. For Latinos, feeling like they may not belong in certain communities. That’s a historical legacy that it is really up to us to change. So being aware of those kinds of systemic, longstanding biases is going to help us make some changes for kids. The other piece is, I think, getting kids involved. In particular, it’s one of the focus areas of this initiative to tell us how they want their future to look. How do we engage kids to really shape their green spaces and the nearby nature they have. So that’s a big focus.
RF: We’re talking to Mary Michaud. She’s policy director for Public Health Madison & Dane County. Talking about a new program a grant to get more kids in urban areas out into green spaces, out into parks. Out into a little bit of nature and the benefits of doing that. And Mary, I want to follow up on that point. Getting kids themselves involved in planning. So why is that important, and how are you going to do that?
MM: Right, so we have an event tomorrow at Warner Park on Madison’s North Side. If you haven’t been there, it’s a stunning park with 200 acres and conservation land, as well as a really well-equipped community center. It’s really a unique property in the City of Madison that we are proud of. At that event, we’re going to ask a really diverse group of folks to tell us what works? What are our assets in the community around getting kids into nature? What are some of the barriers that we face? We will have a group of kids there to help us articulate that. And then, what are our dreams? Building on that, we’re going to have, part of the grant is going to pay for kids this summer who are doing youth engagement. Going out, asking kids where they already are–in camps, in other kinds of programs–what do you think you want your green spaces to look like? What would make them attractive to you? It’s really not hard to get kids into those spaces if you really make it easy for them, it’s something they are naturally drawn to. Their curiosity kind of overcomes any other barrier. It’s going to be a fun summer, getting kids to lead that effort.
RF: You mentioned bringing the community on board to help plan this. It reminds me of a benefit people have pointed to is that having that park as a gathering place, as a place where people can go, it actually builds community, it builds community resilience because people gather there. Maybe for a birthday party, maybe nothing that formal. You just see other kids, you see other parents at the park.
MM: That’s right. And that is especially important for intergenerational connection. A lot of times we see older adults who are isolated, and who brings them out? It’s the kids. So part of what we are hearing from a lot of different places, especially from kids, is let’s design schoolyards, for example, to be nature-based play places. So that right there, right nearby, you can access nature in a way that maybe you couldn’t when it was asphalt or just a flat, mown field. Much more tactile, interesting sensory environments for kids to learn and play.
The other piece is that a lot of what we do in public health, if not everything is research-driven. What’s the evidence that tells us that this kind of change will make a difference in childhood obesity rates, in mental health over time, in kids’ ability to use nature as a life skill? So we’re looking closely at the evidence that’s emerging. What you do find is that communities with lots of exposure to green space and places for that restorative piece to happen, they find fewer violent crimes going on. They find people feel safer in their communities. A lot of community connectedness happens, as you’ve pointed out, Rob. We’re looking closely at that evidence base.
When people talk about getting kids into nature, the image that pops into my mind, is “out to the woods,” out of the city completely to a natural landscape. But there is evidence, you’re saying, that even just that one block or smaller park can be part of the solution here?
MM: Exactly. You don’t have to have a grand vista, as we say, you don’t have to have a really big space. What you do need is that you have to have some complexity, you don’t have to make a lot of effort to draw kids in. It’s that lack of effort that is needed to draw kids into the curiousness, the wonder, if you will. Taking kids outside in the dark, and looking up at the stars, can really fundamentally change where they see themselves in the world. So nearby, just great. That quality of “wonder,” is something that kids often miss.
RF: But green space. Does there have to be green? There have been parks with asphalt and gravel, with a couple of trees here and there but that’s it. Is it important to really have a majority of the space be not man-made, not rock.
MM: It can certainly be a combination, and a lot of people are actually drawn to water. Spending time on water is incredibly helpful for folks, and often times therapeutic.
RF: So “Blue Space” and green space.
MM: Right–water space. The other piece that you’re pointing out is that design is important. The built environment, as we say, is really critical for how people spend their time, the way they feel about themselves and their neighborhoods, and this connection to nature should and we say, should be an essential piece of what we see in cities. So a nature-rich city is really what we’re after.
RF: We’re talking about getting kids outside into nature–even a little bit of nature, like the neighborhood park. Mary Michaud is talking with us, she’s policy director for Public Health Madison & Dane County. A new initiative picked Madison as one of 7 cities around the country, part of an effort to figure out what’s going to work, what’s going to provide that space for kids of all ethnic and economic backgrounds. We want to hear from you now at 800-642-1234. How important do you think this is for you? For your kids? For childhood? Do you try to get your kids outside more? What’s going on in your town, your city, your neighborhood? Do you see kids playing at the park?
Madison was recently named as one of 7 cities in the Cities Connecting Children to Nature Initiative. The initiative aims to encourage children, especially in urban areas out into nature. We’re talking about why getting outdoors is good for our health and the well-being of our communities. You can join in at 800-642-1234. Do you feel like kids have enough opportunities to go, enough friendly landscapes to get outside? What did you get as a kid or for your kids out of having those kinds of parks to get out in? Call in now, call and tell us what’s going on in your school or in your part of the state.
Let’s go right to a caller. We’ve got Mattie on the line in Waupaca. Mattie, hi.
Mattie: Hi. Joy Cardin had a guest on her show on March 2, and he did eye research. And he said that children are not getting enough daylight in their eyes, and it’s actually affecting the shape of their eyes. More and more, there are going to be kids who are nearsighted and during the growing years, up to the age of 25, he said it’s absolutely vital that they get daylight in their eyes.
Mattie, thanks for that call. You were starting to get into some of the really specific health benefits of getting outside.
MM: Right, it’s a great point, Mattie, and I think that if you think about how we’ve evolved as humans, right, it’s only in the last couple of hundred years that we’ve lived in really urban areas. Only in the last two years that most of the world is living in urban areas. We’ve had lots of green space around us over time. It turns out we are really “programmed” that way. To sort of have this affinity for green space, this affinity for nature. If you ask a room full of people, What is a place that you really feel at peace? Chances are most of them are going to say somewhere in nature. Right? So it’s pretty profound, and so much more of the research now is focused on testing those theories, and it’s turning out to be true.
RF: Mattie, thanks for that call at 800-642-1234. We heard from Julie in Tomah. She said this sounds like a great opportunity. There are lots of outdoor options for her boys in Tomah. She notices differences in their behavior when they don’t spend enough time outside. Definitely as a parent, I’ve been there, when the kids are cooped up too long because of weather or something like that, you just need that little bit of time outside. So physical benefits, community benefits, behavioral benefits, too, it sounds like.
MM: It’s true. We see a pretty big rise in we call Autism Spectrum Disorders. We see a rise in Attention Differences among children. Part of that are diagnosis rates, but part of it is very real. And what you see is time outside for kids with sensory differences or attention differences can really be beneficial in helping them adapt when they come back inside. It helps remove that fatigue from focusing. It takes effort to focus, but it turns out that that “heavy work,” we call it, that big motor play, can really calm kids so that they can actually turn to things like reading or math or things that require small motor skills, tactile skills. It can be really helpful for those kids as well.
RF: We’re talking with Mary Michaud, policy director for Public Health Madison & Dane County. Talking about efforts to get kids outside. Still time for your call. Call 800-642-1234. You notice a difference among kids when they have time outside, out in nature, and when they don’t. Are there enough chances for kids to get out into parks and play? 800-642-1234. You mentioned earlier access, equity, making sure people have access to these parks in their own neighborhoods. When you talk about race, in Wisconsin and Madison, a disparity is a word that comes up a lot. Education, health, income. How does that play into this discussion?
MM: It plays in quite profoundly. One of the efforts we’re trying to make through this initiative is connecting with organizations that have local trust. organizations that have been in the community a long time, who have served children and families of color, can incorporate and in many cases are already incorporating these kinds of activities but it’s a tough thing to put enough resources together to do that well. Transportation is often the issue. We see the Aldo Leopold Nature Center doing really, really good things in terms of in reach into the schools and providing transportation, too. We see Parks doing that, we see the Madison School and Community Recreation programming doing that. So there are a lot of efforts being made. They are not particularly well coordinated. I don’t think anyone would argue that is the case. It’s not unique to Madison. What we do have is over 260 Madison Parks. It’s astounding. We have 5,500 acres of parkland, with 19 conservation parks. This is an unbelievable asset in our community. And to use that to its full extent for healing, for physical well-being, and for community-building, is really a key goal of what we are trying to do.
RF: Let’s bring our callers back in. We’ve got Richard on the line in Huntsley, IL. Richard, hi.
Richard: Hi, well, I’ve been an educator of preschool children for 30 years. A parent, And I’m really enjoying this, but what I’m saying is that I spend a great deal of time outdoors in environmental education. I don’t see anybody outdoors anymore. Unless it’s a sport, unless it’s driven in a car, you get in and you go.
RF: Thanks for that call. So people talk about “over-programming” kids sometimes. He said he only sees kids outside for maybe that organized sports league. Is that part of the goal here? That unstructured time where you just go out, and be outside?
MM: It certainly is. I think…and I’m a parent of two fabulous kids, who might be listening right now. It’s really important to have us take a moment to build that free, unstructured play time into our kids’ lives. And really make that possible. There are so many distractions, there are so many expectations already. I think the other thing is to look for resources in your community. Community Groundworks is an organization locally that trains teachers to take kids out and get hands-on education experiences in their own schoolyards. It’s been really pretty powerful to see that learning community of teachers grow and expand now that Community Groundworks is running a state-wide initiative, a school garden initiative, that is funded through a grant, it’s actually a health grant through the Wisconsin Partnership Program. So we see a lot of resources coming back, and it’s really encouraging to see.
RF: I talk to a lot of public health researchers on the show here. And it seems like there is this trend to think more holistically. That health isn’t just making sure the vaccinations happen, and talking about diet. But reaching out to make sure that the community is a healthy place. So that sounds like you are trying to be a part of that equation.
MM: That’s exactly right. It’s moving, as we say, “upstream” in the things that affect our health. It turns out that only about 20% or so of our health is shaped by health care, formal health care services. The socioeconomic conditions we find ourselves in, the built environment, those are really really important. Health care can be the “protein on the plate,” if you will. When you need it it needs to be really good, and high quality and those periodic checks are really important. But for kids, most of the time they are out in the world. So we are profoundly aware of food insecurity as a concern in our community. We are very aware of housing instability in our community. Over a thousand children in our community have suffered housing insecurity in this last year, where they have to move from place to place. They still need to play. They still need that nature as a life skill. That they can go somewhere and find peace. The other piece is, can they find a place that they feel good about their leadership? Where they belong? That youth engagement piece. This is a great place for us to start that.
RF: Well, I’m probably looking too far ahead here, because this is still in the planning stages in some ways. You’re just getting the ball rolling. Is the hope here that this isn’t just Madison and the other six cities? That this is going to form a template for other communities around the country?
MM: That’s exactly right. And I think that’s the vision of the Children & Nature Network, the National League of Cities working together with partners at the federal level, to really discover what we can do to shape the ways kids spend their time differently.
RF: I get the sense, if I could ask a personal question, that you’re really excited about this. It’s not even a question, it’s a statement. Yes? You are?
MM: I am. I grew up out in the country, rural Wisconsin, with four brothers and a sister, and my dad was a naturalist. So this is just a part of my life. One of the self-interested reasons is that the people who tend to choose this path of environmental education (you know who you are out there), of choosing to spend time with kids and families, are really a great crew. It’s a great crowd of people. They live in the present very much. I have a lot of affinity for this community and it’s really up to our kids. It’s their future, and we need to give them voice.
RF: That is a good place to leave it, Mary. Thanks for joining us today.
MM: Thank you.