Municipal leaders have an opportunity – even at a time of physical or social distancing – to promote connecting children and families to the outdoors and nature. Such connections can benefit city and town residents of all ages. Getting outside offers chances to combat social isolation, maintain physical and mental health, enrich connections with nearby parks and public spaces, and set a pattern for a healthier life and ongoing stewardship of the environment.
The layout of many cities and towns provides easy access to parks, as well as street trees and green verges, and some residents have back- or front yards. Just as many places do not yet feature such easy access, municipal leaders have a key role to play in bridging the nature access equity divide – in the immediate term, by encouraging residents’ attention to even the smallest patch of nature or the outdoors. Street trees and pocket parks count!
Best case, municipal leaders who promote getting outdoors will also heavily reinforce the need to comply with state and CDC guidelines regarding safety and physical distancing while outdoors. Two examples of how to reinforce with specifics:
- Go outside in small groups only with people you are already having close contact with, e.g., groups of family members or housemates living together under stay at home or shelter in place orders.
- If a park, trail, or sidewalk is too busy or narrow to observe distancing, go elsewhere.
Major leadership steps for connecting to nature and the outdoors include the following:
- Encourage residents, and children in particular, to get outdoors at least once each day, and to connect to nature in any available form.
- Collaborate with public agency partners such as schools and libraries to disseminate virtual and neighborhood-based options for connecting children to nature.
- Coordinate with local networks of early childhood care and education providers, out-of-school time providers, and parents to disseminate tips and resources.
High Level Recommendations and Action Steps
Encourage residents, and children in particular, to get outdoors at least once each day, and to connect to nature in any available form.
- Clarify via public announcement and on the city website that parks, greenways and trails remain open for use with physical distancing rules in effect (and that playgrounds, benches, and recreation centers remain off limits at this time).
- Post a video of the mayor taking a walk around his/her neighborhood or in a park.
- Encourage backyard and community gardening, yard work, and tree planting – provide seeds, seedlings, mulch if available via meal distribution sites.
- Deputize residents to update inventories of natural features in parks and school grounds; residents may share findings on apps such as iNaturalist.
- Crowd-source photos of where residents find nearby nature on the city website or city social media channels.
- Create a citywide contest to count the most squirrels, robins, crows, etc.
Collaborate with public agency partners such as schools, parks and recreation districts, and libraries to offer and disseminate virtual and neighborhood-based options for connecting children to nature.
- Provide guidance for parents to lead nature story walks, and ease virtual library access to nature stories easy to tell (in multiple languages).
- Create a scavenger hunt or bingo game to identify local street trees and birds, and disseminate on multiple city websites.
- Arrange for school grounds with any natural features (including grass) to remain open.
- Highlight livestreams available from city parks, zoos, and natural areas.
Coordinate with networks of early childhood care and education providers, out-of-school time providers, and parents for dissemination of tips and resources.
Local Government Examples
- Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Austin Mayor Steve Adler have used Twitter to encourage safe use of outdoor spaces during COVID-19.
- Seattle Parks & Recreation created public health guidelines and tips to practice social distancing while enjoying parks and outdoor spaces.
- Houston Parks and Recreation Department website updated with new restrictions, and Houston Parks Board provides tips daily on Twitter.
- City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources’ Play Anywhere Raleigh website includes ideas for nature-inspired activities at home.
- Staying Active While Social Distancing: Questions and Answers
- Children & Nature Network
- National Recreation and Parks Association: Resource page with links to guide use of recreation and parks during the Coronavirus era; blog post and infographic on keeping a safe social distance in parks
- Austin Park Foundation: Social distancing best practices for parks visuals in English and Spanish
- American Hiking Society: Hike Responsibly
- Trust for Public Land: Itching to Head Outside? Read This First
About the Authors
Andrew Moore is the director of Youth and Young Adult Connections in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.
Vera Feeny is a Program Specialist, Early Childhood Success & Connecting Children to Nature in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.