Awbury Arboretum is just one of the partner sites that has free programming to bring nature activities to patients

You’re handed a prescription from your primary doctor. It reads, “Go to a nature program at Awbury Arboretum.” It takes you to the Prescribe Outside website, where you can see partnering locations like Awbury in Germantown, Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center, and other natural spots around the city participating in all kinds of activities outside.

It’s one way that Prescribe Outside introduces outdoor activity and time spent in nature to families in our area. They partner with doctors from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), outdoor educators, researchers, and partner sites to bring a variety of free nature programming to families to increase the overall physical and mental health and wellness of families.

The program came out of observations from physicians on increased anxiety, mild depression, and overall increased use of screen time in their patients. There has been growing research about the effects of spending time in nature and how it could positively impact behavioral health. 

“Our physicians, through CHOP, write prescriptions for patients, and it brings them to our website where we have free programming,” said Grace Parker, Prescribe Outside’s program coordinator.

“It’s all outdoor activities facilitated by our environmental educators at Let’s Go Outdoors. Their key messaging is they want to make sure if you don’t feel comfortable outside, they help facilitate a positive experience, so we’re really excited to be working with them,” Parker continued.

Parker says the key is safe, accessible, and free programming for everyone. She told the Prescribe Outside team that some folks might need guidance on what to do in nature, so they work with all their community partners to provide many different access points to getting outside. Activities like a spirited hike, a nature craft that promotes focus, and bubble walks, which Parker says might seem simple, are great ways to get kids to control their breathing and calm their nervous system.

Dr. Barbara Rolnick, a pediatrician for over 30 years and a primary care doctor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) in the Roxborough location, has been prescribing getting out in nature for over ten years.

Rolnick personally observed how mental health in kids was affected by increased use of screen time and less outside play, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody had a hard time, but particularly the kids in Philadelphia because they couldn’t go to school and they were trapped in their houses,” said Rolnick. “The playgrounds had caution tape around them. They were stuck inside, stuck on their devices, staring at a computer all day for school, not having enough outdoor activity,” Rolnick said.

She saw it affecting kids physically and emotionally, and she and her colleagues anecdotally observed how there were more anxiety and depression health crises in emergency rooms at that same time. Some of it, she says, was definitely COVID-19 related, but some of it she was not getting outside and getting physical activity.

Rolnick also noted how mental health was also being affected by long waits, sometimes up to four to six months, to book appointments with counselors. In the meantime, she said, there’s a lot of research that backs spending time outside helping folks with their overall mental well-being.

“I have one family that lived very close to Pennypack Park and had never gone there,” said Rolnick. “They had teenage kids that were mildly depressed, not that happy, and we recommended them to go as a family and spend some time at Pennypack Park on a regular basis. They loved it, and they still go now on a regular basis, and they thanked me for that.”

“They said we lived there all this time, and we never made it part of our life. And now it’s something they do almost every weekend. They do it together. They turn off their phones and just hang out together.”

Rolnick says prescriptions for outside time are just like taking care of your basic health in so many other ways; she compares it to taking vitamins to prevent deficiencies. She recommends outdoor time to her patients alongside a healthy diet and good sleep as basic parts of health.

“I’ve been a pediatrician for 33 years. I’ve seen a real change in the health and wellness of our kids. I’ve seen how, over time, part of it is too much time on the screens and not enough time playing outside.” 

For more information on upcoming Prescribe Outside events at Awbury Arboretum, you can always check out their event calendar. And you can check out Prescribe Outside events at other sites on their website.