Two Programs Emerge to Benefit the Health and Well-Being of Washington's Children and Adults
Two successes from the 2021 legislative session will help connect the benefits of nature with the people of Washington state: The Parks Rx Pilot Program and Licensing for Outdoor, Nature-Based Child Care.
By Crystal Gartner
Two successes came out of the 2021 legislative session that will help connect the benefits of nature with the people of Washington state: The Parks Rx Pilot Program and Licensing for Outdoor, Nature-Based Child Care.
WTA, alongside partners, are thrilled about helping advance these two important programs through the legislative process. Both dovetail with our Trails For Everyone campaign, which aims to give everyone a chance to connect with and find the benefits from time spent in nature.
Senator T’wina Nobles, who represents the 28th Legislative District in Pierce County, was instrumental in bringing both projects to life.
“Expanding access to the outdoors increases opportunities for preventative care for communities with disproportionate health outcomes, fewer local health care facilities, and higher negative environmental impacts,” she said. “In many cases, these are communities of color and low-income communities, and as such expanding access to the outdoors is a matter of expanding justice. … I sponsored this legislation (Parks Rx) because it is an investment in the wellbeing of our community and will result in more community members being better connected to the healing benefits of the outdoors. The Outdoor, Nature-Based Child Care Pilot Project is another program that will promote access. I supported this project because the opportunity for children to be better connected to the outdoors at an affordable cost for families is critical. When we increase equitable access to the outdoors, we holistically serve our communities.”
The first of these wins to highlight from the 2021 legislative session is the launch of a task force and Parks Rx pilot program which will allow health care providers to prescribe time outside.
Studies show that time spent in nature can lower rates of chronic diseases. We also know that safe outdoor spaces aren’t accessible for everyone. Aligning perfectly with our campaign Trails For Everyone, Washington’s new pilot version of Parks Rx serves as a health equity program that addresses these issues by letting health care providers opt in and write a prescription for nature.
There’s a growing realization that asking the question, “Do you spend time outside?” is just as important as, “Do you smoke?” or “Do you wear a seatbelt?” By also addressing the question, “How do we make sure everyone has access to being outside,” the Parks Rx pilot program for Washington is part of growing a healthier society.
Examples of Parks Rx prescriptions could be to go for a hike, play a game of ball, meditate in the park or ride your mountain bike. As long as people are outside and moving more, we all reap the benefits with less cardiovascular disease, asthma and depression.
It’s simple and it’s working. One success story with remarkable results is that after the prescription of a walk through a local park once a day with her family, a patient with uncontrolled anxiety reported feeling she had her life back within just a few weeks.
Parks RX began as a national program collaboratively designed with the healthcare and insurance industries to make use of parks, recreation spaces, trails and facilities to improve people’s mental and physical health.
Originally introduced as a bill to formalize the program in Washington, SB 5292 didn’t pass. However, its provisions were included in the state’s 2021-23 Operating Budget (ESSB 5092), which did pass. “The language doesn’t yet ‘institutionalize’ Parks Rx, but it funds a task force to develop 3 pilot project regions. It doesn’t fund the projects themselves, but it asks the task force to contemplate funding options,” said Hunter George of Metro Parks Tacoma, a driving force behind the legislation.
Doug Levy, the lobbyist for the Washington Recreation and Parks Association (WPRA), explained that it began with a decision to set up a few pilots around the state in central Puget Sound, eastern Washington and southwest Washington. “Let’s think about the idea of using the wellness and positive health values of parks and recreation in the outdoors the same way we use things like a fitness center as part of a wellness program. Also, let’s have the experts—parks professionals, healthcare professionals, public and community health leaders and wellness professionals—get together and ask them how would you design this system?”
Metro Parks Tacoma researched how to better connect the health benefits of parks with the healthcare system and health insurance. Together with the WPRA and other parks, they wrote a paper which supported the Parks Rx plan when it was presented to the legislature. That paper was informed in part by the 2019 scientific Hike Bike Walk Study that WTA supported.
The task force members are working on how to move the program forward and will give recommendations to the legislature by Sept. 1, 2022. The next meeting is in October. The goal is to eventually extend the program beyond the three pilots to more areas of the state.
You can get regular updates on the work of the task force and help support this exciting pilot project by signing up to receive the Parks Rx Task Force Stakeholder Newsletter. Send a request to HEAL@doh.wa.gov.
The second of these legislative wins is the passage of Bill 5151, a program that began as a pilot to license outdoor, nature-based childcare for preschool and school-age children. When the governor signed this bill into law in May, it gave Washington the green light to have permanent licensing beyond the pilot.
For childcare providers who are interested in getting their kids outside more, it provides an opportunity for them to have a program where the children are outside more than 50% of the day.
In the spring of 2017, the Washington legislature passed a pilot program to license outdoor preschools, which previously could not be licensed by the state. The pilot continued for 4 years to understand current practices and develop appropriate regulations.
“Our 4-year pilot program allowed us to learn what it takes to provide a high-quality outdoor program and establish robust standards to ensure children’s health and safety in the outdoors,” said Ross Hunter, Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). “Other states can now look to us as they consider how to implement outdoor learning options.”
why outdoor preschools?
At WTA, we’re always excited to see children getting time outside. It’s good for the children, and it’s good for society when kids learn to care about and for our natural world. Rachel Franz, early childhood consultant and founder at Twig & Thread Consulting, says science shows the value of getting outside for young children, especially.
“We know from research ... that if children don’t have meaningful outdoor experiences before age 6, they’re very unlikely to care for the planet or develop that desire to engage. If we’re not directly addressing outdoor access early on, we’re missing out on really powerful, meaningful opportunities for young children.”
The first outdoor learning preschool in the United States was founded in Washington and now there are hundreds of outdoor preschool programs across our state, making us a hub. But early outdoor learning isn’t anything new.
“People have been learning outside since time immemorial. Indigenous folks in Washington have been stewarding the land, their school was outside and that’s how children learned,” Rachel said.
“You can meet all of children’s needs the same, if not better, outdoors than you can inside,” said Rachel who was also the founding teacher and later Director of Education at Tiny Trees Preschool. “When we’re outside, we do all the things that we do inside—we paint, build, balance and challenge our brains in so many ways. But the cool thing about the outdoors is that it’s often not predictable, so it offers these constant opportunities for problem solving. Problem solving is the skill that we want children to go to kindergarten with.”
looking to a brighter future
Previous to this licensing pilot, outdoor early learning efforts were all unlicensed because the licensing didn’t exist. That meant that providers had to scrounge together their own funding, and it was very hard to figure out ways to provide scholarships and access. That meant that only certain people could access the programs.
Rachel says that, right now, four out of five children enrolled in outdoor programs are White. This new effort, thanks to the bill, could help make outdoor programs more diverse and inclusive.
When programs become licensed, they are able to offer subsidies to qualifying families through Working Connections Child Care. When programs are licensed, they can also take part in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), which provides free preschool to families.
Rachel hopes that, as licensing for outdoor preschools becomes more common, that schools will be able to offer longer hours, which is important for many working families. That could also help make outdoor options more equitable and accessible.
While outdoor preschool has many benefits, it won’t work for every school. Even so, the hope is that the regulations that have been passed can also help inspire people with traditional indoor programs to get outside more and to be able to enhance that connection to nature.
Outdoor Nature-Based child care licensing is now available. For more information, or to apply, visit the DCYF’s Outdoor Preschool Pilot page. Or contact Aliza Yair, the program support specialist, at email@example.com. If you’re an early childhood professional looking for support, check out the Washington Nature Preschool Association.