What’s the antidote to screen and social media overexposure?

Pathways to Play counters technology’s influence on children’s physical and mental health //

Twenty years ago, our nation’s rising childhood obesity rate was a growing public health concern. While it’s far from solved, angst over children’s mental health appears to have eclipsed it as one of the top public health issues in the country. Both are likely intertwined.

Our trending cultural direction — growing use of smart phones among children, increased screen time, more time spent indoors, the allure of video games, reduced sleep, and social pressure correlated with social media – all lead to reduced physical activity and less exposure to the natural world.

In his influential 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv, cited a number of reasons why children spend less time outdoors than they did a generation ago and why they have less access to nature: our growing addiction to electronic media, the relinquishment of green spaces to development, parents’ exaggerated fears of natural and human predators, and the threat of lawsuits and vandalism that has prompted community officials to restrict access to their land.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recognized the importance of play and has encouraged outdoor play to promote children’s health and social-emotional development. There is increasing evidence that outdoor play environments containing natural elements may offer health benefits that come specifically from engaging in the natural world.

According to the Academy, recent studies have demonstrated that a broad range of outcomes are related to access to, and contact with nature, including increased physical activity, reduced obesity, decreased stress, and improved mental health.

Unfortunately, in spite of our knowing the importance of outdoor play, we appear to be careening toward the metaverse, a technology-driven, virtual reality, internet-based world in which we’ll have more and more personal experiences online.

The associated risk for children has not gone unnoticed. In fact, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy just released an advisory on the health effects that social media has on youth mental health and N.H. Governor Chris Sununu has ordered the N.H. Departments of Education and Health and Humans Services to develop a curriculum that would add instruction about the dangers of social media to all K-12 health classes in New Hampshire.

Big tech will undoubtedly profit from it, but the health of children and families is likely to suffer in a metaverse-driven world in which kids rarely or never get outside to play or explore nature.

What’s the antidote to the metaverse? It just might be a growing Foundation-funded initiative called Pathways to Play.

Planning commissions involved in public health work?

For more than 15 years the Foundation has been supporting local initiatives to increase physical activity among young children and their families in outdoor spaces. The initial flight of projects focused on developing safe, walkable or bikeable routes to schools and public play spaces. The next set have engaged community leaders to inventory public outdoor recreation resources and then promote them to members of the community using interactive online tools.

“The rationale for our Healthy Eating-Active Living priority has morphed over time from addressing childhood obesity by increasing childhood physical activity to a strategy that also addresses mental health,” noted Foundation Program Director Patti Baum.

In 2015 the Foundation awarded the Nashua Regional Planning Commission a grant to improve walking, biking, and safe routes to play. The success of that project spurred interest among other similarly missioned organizations in our state.

Planning commissions provide technical expertise to help communities develop a concrete vision for their future with an emphasis on transportation, housing, economic development and environmental planning. One hallmark of planning commission work is expertise in in-depth data collection and mapping.

Recently, regional planning commissions spanning Strafford County, the greater Manchester area and the Monadnock Region have used Foundation funding to undertake in-depth projects documenting and promoting outdoor recreation resources in their regions under the Pathways to Play banner.

“We discovered is that it’s difficult for families to know where local recreation offerings are,” said Jackson Rand, Geographic Information System Planner with the Strafford Regional Planning Commission. Rand’s organization serves 18 communities in the Dover, Rochester, Somersworth, Newmarket region.

“’Where is there a playground I can take my kids, other than the one that’s on my block? Or other than the one I drive past on my way to work? Where are the rest?’ We found that no one really knew,” he said.

“A lot of communities have parks, but people don’t know where they are. And they may be hard for kids to get to, or feel hazardous for kids to get to, unless they are driven there,” said Patti Baum.

“That’s why project like these and others we’ve funded like Safe Routes to Play in Hillsborough by the Central NH Regional Planning Commission often focus on community infrastructure, including transportation design, to make communities more walkable or bikeable, particularly for children. That’s why these initiatives are a natural fit for regional planning commissions,” Baum said.

The missing outdoor recreation resource layer

GIS, or geographic information systems, are computer-based tools used to store, visualize, analyze, and interpret geographic data. Geographic data identifies the geographic location of a range of features like streams and lakes, terrain, roads, political boundaries, property boundaries, building footprints, or utility lines.

Outdoor recreational resources are typically a missing or incomplete GIS data set. From a planner’s standpoint it is important to have a recreational resources inventory and develop a land use mapping layer (incorporated into the GIS) that inventories all the sites.

Once those have been identified, municipalities or the regional planning organization can develop tools like interactive websites to share that information with the public and conduct public outreach to create awareness so that citizens know where they can look to discover outdoor recreation opportunities in their own, and surrounding, communities.

In Strafford County, for example, municipalities often know where their playgrounds are, but most did not have an online resource to tell residents where those parks, playgrounds or trail systems were.

“Most towns and cities knew the ones they owned and managed, but then there were trail systems, boat launches, and conservation areas that were owned and managed by different entities that they didn’t know about,” said Rand.

“It was kind of a mess for families and residents to find recreation opportunities in their community,” he noted.

“We knew that we had the ability to figure out where those sites were and compile a single resource. That’s when we started looking for funding opportunities that would help us do that,” he added. “It’s where the whole idea of our project originated.”

Rand and his colleagues discovered that there were multiple GIS data layers for various types of recreation sites. They had one for boat launches. One for trailhead locations. One for park locations. The problem was that much of the data was so outdated it couldn’t be trusted.

So, Rand and his team met with municipalities in their service region, showed them draft maps and asked what they were missing.

“We then eliminated resources that no longer existed and added new ones,” he said.

After that phase of information gathering, the planning commission created a set of maps for every municipality in their region that shows the location of their community recreation sites and identifies what type of recreation sites they are.

Some communities added the maps to their websites. Others posted them on their Facebook pages or included them in their newsletters.

The Commission was awarded the N.H. Planners Association Plan of the Year for its Pathways to Play initiative.

Motivated by the Nashua Regional Planning Commission’s work, the Strafford Regional Planning Commission wanted to take their project a step further. With another round of funding from the Children’s Health Foundation, they organized staff, interns or volunteers visit all 350 sites in their database.

For each site they took photographs and recorded detailed information like, Is there a bathroom? Is drinking water available? What hours is the site open? Is there overhead lighting at night?

“We pulled all that information together in our Promoting Outdoor Play online tool,” Rand said proudly.

The Promoting Outdoor Play website was launched last summer. Collaborating with the NH Children’s Museum to promote it, they exhibited at community block parties and farmers markets. The Commission created a passport program so kids and families could use the tool and log their visits to sites. They solicited prizes for a drawing to reward passport holders.

Promoting Outdoor Play was met with a lot of public excitement,” Rand said. “The communities we work with have told us people love the tool and are using it. We’ve had more than 15,000 visits to the website so far.”

The sincerest form of flattery

Inspired by Rand and his team’s work, the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission requested funding from the Foundation to undertake its own Pathways to Play initiative. The commission serves Manchester and 13 other communities in eastern Hillsborough and western Rockingham counties.

Its first step was gathering feedback through a community survey. Enlisting the help of a diverse set of community groups, the commission discovered that the most common recreational resources for children were playgrounds (60%), parks (45%) and trails (37%).

Survey respondents noted that the most common method employed to access local recreational resources was driving (93%). Walking (25%) and biking (11%) were other common modes of transportation.

When traveling to recreation resources in other communities, driving increased and the rate of walking (5%) and biking (4%) dropped significantly.

Only half of survey respondents said they are able to engage in recreational activities as much as they would like. The remainder cited a lack of personal time (60%), lack of nearby facilities of interest to children (38%) and a lack of children’s programming (33%) as barriers to participating in outdoor recreation.

The next step was engaging the community. “For example, we attended a children’s Easter egg hunt in Windham,” said Senior Planner Suzanne Nienaber.

“We asked people to map their favorite places to play in their community. Kids did an Imagine Your Park exercise. We set up a coloring station where kids made beautiful drawings of places they’d like to play. We conducted a simple voting exercise for kids to show how they currently get to a park and how they’d ideally like to get to a park.”

Nienaber and her project steering committee are now soliciting applications for a pilot project. They will identify one park or play space that is “primed for transformation” as Nienaber put it.

“It could be a park with potential for community stewardship, or increased access opportunities,” she said. “We’ll select a site based on need, community enthusiasm and readiness.”

The pilot project’s outcome will be an action plan that the community can implement. It might include how the community can pursue funding to make improvements. How it might make design changes. How it might engage a park friends or community stewardship group that helps to maintain it.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop list of ‘Top Takeaways’ that any community can do with any park or play space to make it more accessible or attractive to children and families,” she said.

Why is her regional planning commission undertaking a Pathways to Play initiative? “Hopefully we can combine our expertise in the rigor of a detailed inventory with the inspiration to pepper people with ideas about where they can go,” explained Nienaber.

Pathways to Play is about public health

Terry Johnson, Senior Project Manager with the Southwest Region Planning Commission, frames Pathways to Play more broadly. “It’s a public health initiative to address childhood obesity and chronic disease,” he said. His commission is a member of the Healthy Monadnock Alliance and the Foundation-funded project they are engaged in is called Monadnock Region Parks and Play.

Johnson’s project has three components. First, the inventory piece and developing an interactive map.

Second, similar to the Southern New Hampshire commission’s objective, creating a municipal resource guide with recommendations for communities to improve existing recreation resources and create new ones.

Third, to conduct community outreach to publicize that these resources are available.

Southwest Region Planning Commission will release its results this summer, but when asked if he’d discovered anything unexpected, Johnson echoed a point that other Pathways to Play projects cited — poorer access to recreational resources in rural communities than in urban ones.

“There are areas in the southern part of the Monadnock Region,” Johnson noted, “where less than 20% of the population lives within a half-mile of a park or public recreation space. And this tends to coincide with lower income communities.”

“Larger cities or communities have a lot more resources,” he said. “And they have more staff dedicated to improving access.”

Hope for our future

It’s not hard to imagine the next generation of children spending even less time outdoors and even more time indoors immersed in a digital version of reality rather than outside experiencing it first-hand. Projects like Pathways to Play may be one of the only antidotes.

“We are only cracking the surface of how important nature is for our overarching well-being,” noted Suzanne Nienaber. “Our physical health, our mental health our sense of community our sense of belonging in the universe. We all depend on it.”


Active Recreation in the Nashua Region Website

Pathways to Play: 2019 Somersworth Pilot Project Report

Strafford Regional Planning’s Pathways to Play Maps

Promoting Outdoor Play Project Summary

Promoting Outdoor Play Website

Southern NH Planning Commission Community Survey Results

Southern NH Planning Commission Pathways to Play Website