Green Investment – Go play outside…doctor’s orders

As an educator, Avril Wiers knows outdoor recreation helps brain and body health. As parent of a 3-year-old who recently hiked four miles along a river trail, she also knows it up close and very personally.

Wiers teaches natural resources and conservation at Careerline Tech and is a naturalist guide in Ottawa County Parks. And she’s a parent who has been taking daughter Hazel out into nature since a week after she was born.

Wiers sees intellectual as well as physical benefits. Sensory exploration has developed Hazel’s curiosity and her cognitive skills, Wiers said.

Hazel makes connections between what she’s seen in nature and what she learns in preschool, such as finding colors and shapes in nature. Hiking uneven surfaces, climbing over trees and exploring has made her more physically capable than many kids her age.

On the other hand, Wiers sees how a student sitting a half hour in the woods (which her students do) brings better attention spans, more mindfulness, and less stress.

In fact, sometimes, getting outside is just what the doctor ordered — literally.

“We’re basically encouraging people to explore nature as part of their wellness program,” said Dr. Beth Peter, a family medicine physician at Lakewood Family Medicine in Holland.

“It’s both for the exercise benefits, but also because it lowers cortisol levels, decreases anxiety, helps you sleep better.”

Dr. Peter uses a national website called Park RX America through which she can text a prescription to spend time at a park that fits a patient’s abilities and interests.

“Certainly, my biggest focus is just getting people outside. I don’t care if they’re sitting on a park bench, or hiking, or kayaking,” said Dr. Peter.

Conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and weight issues can be helped by a nature prescription. That’s not instead of traditional medicine, but in addition to it, Dr. Peter is quick to add.

However, the nature prescription may help people need lower doses of medicine or less other treatment.

Jessica Pipe, an Ottawa Parks naturalist and early education specialist, hears about increased curiosity and better behavior after young people spend time exploring nature.

And she notes nature doesn’t have to be big and dramatic; for kids, it could be an ant hill in the back yard.

To engage children in nature, Wiers advised, let them lead and “tap into that sense of wonder, and wanting to learn.” Hiking four miles with Hazel meant exploring stumps for fairy houses and collecting acorns. And gummy bears every half mile.

“My daughter is endlessly curious about everything,” Wiers said. “Why trees are growing in a certain way, why the sky is blue, why there are clouds. It can be overwhelming to a parent, you might not know all the answers, but at least she’s asking questions.”

“A child’s learning is focused on play,” Pipe pointed out. “If they go out and play and discover, they’re going to learn so much more than what we can tell them. Follow their lead.”

“I don’t think we give kids enough credit,” she added, recalling a preschool group who snowshoed a mile and a half at Hemlock Crossing without complaint. “I think if we just step aside and let them go, we can see how far they can actually fly.”

Ottawa County Parks offer many ways for families and children to engage in nature.

Hemlock Crossing is among Wiers’ favorite spots for families because of the Nature Center, naturalist staff, and bathrooms with changing tables.

Along the Grand River Greenway, Connor Bayou offers a great mix, including hiking, bike riding, and a Grand River overlook. Rock hunting at Riverside Park offers a great variety of cool rocks to find.

Among Pipe’s favorite parks is Grand Ravines, with its varied ecosystems, ravines formed by glaciers, access to the Grand River, and possible sightings of bald eagles.

She describes Rosy Mound as “a smaller version of Sleeping Bear Dunes,” with majestic dune formations, extensive forest hiking, and the beach.

And Dr. Peter practices what she prescribes at places like Rosy Mound and Hemlock Crossing.

“The time I spend walking my dog is pretty key to my wellness,” she said. “There’s something very physiological when we engage our five senses in nature that really helps with our well-being.”

This article was published in the Holland Sentinel on September 14, 2019.