It is an honor to have the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation’s Kids in Parks program recognized as a ‘Let’s Move! and Physical Activity Champion of Change’, as part of President Obama’s “Winning the Future” initiative.
When I grew up, I spent most of my time outside - as did all the other kids in the neighborhood. You could drive through any neighborhood in my hometown of Wytheville, Virginia and most were filled with the sounds of children’s laughter. And then something changed…I grew up… and by the time I had a child, the neighborhoods seemed empty. I no longer saw the swing sets and tree houses of my youth. This stark realization became even more troublesome when my young daughter began having friends over. Many of these kids did not go outside to play, had never walked barefoot on the grass or hiked in the woods in a park. What would happen to our parks and wild places without a future generation of stewards? What would happen to the health of our children? This was the beginning of the inspiration for the Kids in Parks program, and I left my career as a Professor to see if I could help make a difference.
With childhood obesity rates rising and children’s connection to parks and places decreasing, I was excited to see if a program linking children’s health and the health of our parks and public lands could really work. With the support and partnership of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, we launched the Kids in Parks Initiative and cut the ribbon on our first TRACK TrailTMin 2009. With the help and vision of Jason Urroz, who serves as the Program’s Director, we now have 11 TRACK Trails in the ground in three states, link over 40 partners, have distributed over 30,000 brochures, and had over 15,000 kids and families unplugging and going outside.
The Kids in Parks Initiative represents a unique partnership, joining the public and private sectors in one common goal: to promote the health of our kids, our parks and our communities. The TRACK Trails we install are self-guided trails designed to make hiking and walking more attractive to kids and families in order to increase physical activity and connection to the cultural heritage and natural resources of our local communities and parks. TRACK Trails are linked to each other through our website (kidsinparks.com), installed in easy to access locations, provide kids incentives for participation, rely on key partnerships to link public land agencies, incorporate a web-based method for tracking and marketing the program, and use different types of trails (nature, disc golf) with varing age based self-guided adventures designed to reach diverse target populations. These strategies make the TRACK Trail experience fun for the kids, easy for the adults, assessable for us and a success for keeping today's kids engaged more often and more meaningfully in our public lands.
From studies that show increased brain activity and higher SAT scores when children play in natural settings, to research that links lower incidences of bullying, ADHD and depression in kids that play outside, there is clear evidence that children benefit from time in nature. Nature has restorative and healing qualities; our National Parks and public lands are not just places set aside and protected for future generations, but are places that hold both significance and meaning for our lives today. We know that it is through a personal meaningful connection with natural and cultural resources that lasting positive impacts can be achieved both for the children and for the place. Getting visitors outdoors and children moving helps develop healthy stewards connected meaningfully to their National Parks, their heritage and their home.
The problem affects us all; the solution will take us all. Together, we have partnered with community groups both big and small: city and county parks, state parks, the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers, private foundations and other caring and dedicated groups throughout the country to get kids unplugged and outside in our public lands. Together we form the partnership for health: children’s health, the health of our parks and the health of our community…
My daughter and her friends play outside and hopefully their kids will too . . .
Carolyn Ward, Ph.D. serves as the CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the primary philanthropic partner to the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most visited units of the National Park System. Ward started the Kinds in Parks Initiative in 2008.