Parks and Recreation: A Champion for Youth Health

June 5, 2018, Feature, by Allison Colman

2018 June Feature Youth Health 410

A few years ago, at the NRPA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, the keynote speaker, Gil Penalosa, founder of the nonprofit 8 80 Cities, acknowledged that local park and recreation agencies play a significant role in the health and wellness outcomes of their communities. Penalosa shared that, from his perspective, parks and recreation is more than playgrounds, ballfields and trails. It’s more than park maintenance and event planning, more than youth sports and fitness classes, and more than dog parks and swimming pools. While these are all things that parks and recreation includes and valuable services it provides for communities, Penalosa acknowledged that parks and recreation has an even bigger role and responsibility.

Lifesaving Parks
While some may have chuckled at the thought of being a lifesaver, it’s true. Park and recreation professionals not only are leaders, but they are also healthcare workers, childcare providers, nutrition educators, coaches, mentors and role models. Each day, they are on the frontlines of major societal issues, addressing the social determinants of health and working to improve the quality of life for our most vulnerable community members. They are change agents, paving a path for the future and investing directly in the physical and mental health and well-being of their constituents every day. Parks and recreation is an invaluable component of a healthy, connected, engaged and happy community.

Since 2014, one of NRPA’s strongest and most impactful initiatives, Commit to Health, has demonstrated the lifesaving potential of parks and how critical the role they play is in the communities they serve. Let’s start with some of the impact numbers:

  • More than 1,650 summer camp and before- and afterschool sites in 47 states have implemented the evidence-based Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards.
  • Annually, more than 300,000 youth have increased access to healthy and fresh foods and improved opportunities to engage in physical activity.
  • Eighty-five percent of Commit to Health sites serve a fruit or vegetable at each meal, 95 percent of those sites provide drinking water and limit sugary beverages, 97 percent meet the daily physical activity recommendations for quantity and quality, and 90 percent are ensuring that kids are outside and off screens.
  • Kids who attend programming at Commit to Health sites experience a 20 percent increase in healthy-living knowledge, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, and reducing the amount of processed foods and sugary beverages consumed.
  • Eighty-five million healthy meals have been served to 4.5 million youth in more than 300 communities across the county.

Pretty powerful, right? Beyond the numbers though, what’s even more powerful are the long-lasting individual and communitywide life-changing impacts local agencies and park and recreation professionals are creating through this work.

Commit to Health agencies are leaders and healthcare workers.
Through Commit to Health, park and recreation staff members at every level have become leaders and champions for community health and wellness. Empowered with the tools, resources, a unique skill set and an extraordinary amount of passion, park and recreation staff members have embraced change and led the charge to build healthier youth, families and communities.

They have worked tirelessly to lead programming, build partnerships, and develop policy and planning efforts framed around the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity standards. This is all done to improve access to healthy and nutritious foods, increase physical activity opportunities and address rising rates of chronic disease and health disparities, including childhood obesity and type II diabetes, which disproportionately impact low-income communities. Their efforts ensure that all community members have access to environments that promote safe and affordable physical activity and sustainable access to healthy foods, ensuring that kids and families have access to the nutrients they need and, ultimately, improving health outcomes and quality of life for these vulnerable neighborhoods.

Commit to Health agencies are childcare providers.
Each day, more than 10.2 million youth attend an out-of-school-time (OST) program, with many of those attending a program at their local park and recreation agency. The profession of childcare provider, afterschool educator or summer camp counselor are some of the most important roles in society. Childcare providers are on the frontlines of the day-to-day issues, struggles and successes that youth experience in their lives.

As childcare providers, park and recreation staff have a wide range of responsibilities. They are responsible for ensuring that kids are safe, protected and in a supportive environment when school is out of session. They are also responsible for fostering opportunities that keep kids engaged in enrichment activities, stimulating the mind and body while providing opportunities for social connections and continued learning and academic support. Parents and caregivers who rely on these OST programs believe these programs are a critical component in the developmental process for youth, engaging kids in multiple dimensions of academic, physical, emotional and cultural growth, leading to positive physical and mental health outcomes.

Commit to Health agencies are nutrition educators and lifestyle leaders.
While the adoption of site-wide and agency-wide wellness policies is central to the Commit to Health campaign, the provision of nutrition and healthy-living education is equally as important. Nutrition education, cooking classes, taste-testing activities and hands-on experiential activities that incorporate healthy foods are an effective mechanism for driving knowledge gain and associated behavior changes in youth, staff and caregivers.

With support from the Walmart Foundation, NRPA has worked closely with Healthy Networks Design and Research since 2014 to evaluate the impact of Commit to Health (HEPA) standards, the provision of summer and afterschool meals through the USDA Child Nutrition programs, and nutrition education on youth, caregivers and park and recreation staff. Research has documented the positive impact of these three interventions on each target group, including:

  • A 20 percent increase in fruit and vegetable knowledge in children who attend summer camp programming at Commit to Health sites.
  • Statistically significant increases in knowledge of nutrition topics, including reading nutrition labels, understanding MyPlate and the effects of sugar on the body and organs and that drinking water each day is important.
  • Improvements in children’s eating behaviors, including eating new fruits, vegetables and whole grains, drinking more water and milk and drinking fewer sugary beverages.
  • Reports of parents/caregivers eating new fruits and vegetables, trying new foods, cooking according to MyPlate and cooking more as a family.
  • Improvements in staff (many of whom are older teens and young adults) knowledge of healthy living and in staff making associated behavior changes, such as increased fruit and vegetable consumption and reduction in sugary beverage consumption.

The impact of nutrition education efforts, coupled with a program environment that supports access to healthy foods and physical activity, is essential to establishing healthy habits in youth and families. These changes reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve health outcomes for all populations.

Commit to Health agencies are social workers, mentors and role models.
It’s no secret that eating healthy, moving more, spending time outdoors and having positive social experiences with friends and family contribute to significant improvements in mental health. Kids, parents and staff report that kids who attend park and recreation programs at Commit to Health sites are healthier, happier, less stressed and increasingly socially engaged with their peers. The need for fostering these positive social and emotional outcomes and for understanding the links to physical and mental health is perhaps greater than it’s ever been. Communities across the country are struggling to deal with traumatic experiences and other matters frequently impacting youth and families, from rising rates of substance use and the crippling opioid epidemic, to violence and school safety concerns and significant educational, economic and health disparities that continue to plague low-income communities.

Since they are well-connected to all aspects of community, park and recreation professionals are often the first to identify, acknowledge and address the needs of kids in crisis. Staff members see it all: kids who are struggling with a crisis at home, kids who are at risk of becoming a victim to violence or gang involvement and kids whose families are struggling to put food on the table and keep the electricity turned on. Out-of-school-time programs that provide protective factors, including enrichment activities, youth sports and physical activity, access to healthy foods, youth development opportunities, tutoring and mentorship, and social experiences, can transform lives. These critical offerings support improved mental and social-emotional health through the positive effects of physical activity and a connection to nature, but also by providing opportunities to link relationship-building skills, teamwork and respect to existing activities.

Out-of-school-time programs in park and recreation settings are well-positioned to continue to infuse more of these social-emotional learning aspects into daily programming and activities, supporting positive physical growth and development and improved mental health.

Is your agency leading communitywide health and wellness efforts? Reach out and tell your story! Contact Allison Colman to share your work.

Allison Colman is an NRPA Program Manager