A breath of fresh air: City of Grand Rapids aims to reconnect children with nature

Grand Rapids has a message for its children: Time to turn the television off. These days, the city is set on giving its younger residents plenty of reasons to abandon the TV. With a renewed focus on parks, outdoor learning labs and playgrounds, the city and its leaders aim to be at the cutting edge of reuniting children with the great outdoors.
As a somewhat new parent, I have experienced the transformation of myself from a cinephile homebody to a rampant outdoorswoman, constantly pushing my toddlers outside for a bit of fresh air. Because, let's face it, that's what we did as kids: jump on our bikes and ride around the neighborhood with friends until the street lights came on. Exhausted until the sun came up, we would do it again until the school bells rang. And, believe me, we got our share of fresh air and exercise.

But that was before cell phones, before Instagram. Back during the golden age of dial up. When it took so long to get online that it was hardly worth it. Forget it, I would think, and head outside. As technology continues to find its place in our daily lives, and especially the lives of our children, many seek a way to provide balance with the new paradigms in which we live.

Knowing inherently the benefits of the great outdoors for children, many organizations throughout the country have put pen to paper to prove these with facts and figures. Many have even added personal testimony, and have used this to develop programs that are getting kids outside, interacting with nature in greater numbers.

And this is no struggle in our fair, nature-loving city. Grand Rapids has recently been named one in a seven-city cohort of Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) by the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit designed to reconnect children to, you guessed it, nature. Receiving technical assistance funding to develop a strategic plan for children spending more time outside, the GR Parks & Recreation Department and Our Community's Children, along with the mayor and Grand Rapids Public Schools, are doubling down on efforts like parks, outdoor learning labs and playgrounds. With children at the center of their efforts, the city of GR aims to be at the cutting edge of reuniting children with the great outdoors.

Founded in November 2014, "the CCCN initiative offers local officials guidance in establishing new connections between children and nature through exposure to promising practices, access to national experts, and structured peer learning and training opportunities," according to the network. In the summer of 2015, the Children & Nature Network and the National League of Cities sent out a request for proposal to 43 cities for city-wide plans on the topic. After the GR Parks and Rec and Our Community's Children submitted their application, they were selected as one of 16 finalists to attend a leadership academy on the topic in October of that year, and ultimately became one of a seven-city cohort to receive funding for their projects (along with Austin, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; Providence, Rhode Island; Saint Paul, Minnesota; and San Francisco, California).

Each city received a $25,000 planning grant as part of the first phase of the planning process. After submitting the second stage implementation plan, they each will receive $50,000 to put their plans to work, and could later be eligible for further funding if needed.

But why Grand Rapids? Out of a wide array of cities, why was GR selected as a leader in the field of connecting children to nature?

"What GR is able to do is look across departments at real systems change for its communities," says Margaret Lamar, director of strategic initiatives for Children & Nature. Instead of siloing efforts within particular organizations like some of the original 43 applicants, notes Lamar, GR's staff and citizens were working together, each utilizing their particular skill set.

It's this type of partnership that allowed the parks department to work with Our Community's Children, a donor-funded organization that acts uniquely as a city and school partnership to develop beneficial programming for kids in GR. Such programs include the Mayor's Youth Council and Project LEAD, a professional training program. Leveraging OCC's unique vantage point on programs that benefit the city's children, David Marquardt, director of the GR Parks and Recreation Department, was able to craft a new master parks plan that directly benefitted the principal users of parks: children.

"Our young people can have a say in the development of parks and playgrounds for the future," says OCC's Executive Director Lynn Heemstra. With this passion for youth feedback in mind, she worked with colleague Shannon L. Harris, OCC's program director, to collect student testimony on natural spaces during the annual KidsSpeak.

An annual event hosted by the mayor's youth council, KidsSpeak brings together local children to focus on a particular issue, ultimately creating written testimonies that are presented to the community. In April 2016, GRPS students from kindergarten through 12th grade discussed their desires for parks in the city. Designed to directly impact the parks master plan, the children's testimonies were honest and powerful.

Some nervous and some polished, these student presenters bravely expressed their thoughts about the city's natural areas, saying, "green spaces are not something you can brush aside" and "losing [green things] in the city means losing our compassion for the world around us, and ultimately, each other." Many expressed regret over the loss of their connection to nature and time spent in parks and playgrounds. "We don't play outside anymore," said one presenter. "We are disregarding natural spaces more and more."

One younger student expressed her views clearly and with conviction. "No playgrounds? Don't ever say no playgrounds to me," she said. "How would the city look like if there were no trees, flowers or wildlife?…It would look dark and gloomy." Overall, the clear consensus of the GRPS presenters was the desire to increase and improve the green spaces and parks in the city. "My hope for this city is that we not only maintain our parks, but proliferate them. Through that we can allow more children to have experiences of joy and compassion…If we understand the world around us. We can understand each other better," said a teen presenter (the entirety of the event can be viewed here).
This natural spaces-focused KidsSpeak was the most attended in the event's history. "That definitely says something about the topic area," says Harris. After more than 13 years working with the organization, Harris has seen the benefit of "allowing young people to give voice to issues that concern them," she says.

Marquardt was able to directly utilize this youth testimony in revamping his master parks plan, which was coincidentally being crafted during the application process for Cities Connecting Children to Nature. Thus, the plan itself became the bulk of the city of GR's application to the nonprofit, showcasing the serious efforts the city would undertake to improve children's access to nature. "David has both an innovative approach to creating equity across the city, deeply committed to community input, and just a real commitment to serving all children through the parks department," says Lamar.

In addition to fantastic timing and a potential to revamp outdoor city spaces with its new master parks plan, GR's proposal showcased the city’s dedication to programming for its younger denizens. "One of the things that really stood out about GR is the long-standing track record that GR has in serving its children," says Lamar. With city/school partnerships like Our Community's Children and the mayor's close relationship with Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, GR demonstrated its dedication to serving all kids in the city, right where they are.

"GR gave us a very good proposal," says Andrew Moore, director of Youth & Young Adult Connections in the NLC's Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, who played a part in distinguishing GR among the final seven cities that would move on to the implementation phase. Including cities throughout the country that varied in population and geography, Moore and Lamar included two other midwest cities in the seven, Madison, Wisconsin and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Utilizing the city's unique geography was one of the proposal's selling points, as Marquardt and Heemstra seek to potentially revamp school playgrounds at GRPS, converting them into outdoor learning spaces that work with the natural landscape, such as trees and wildflowers. "Parks are natural classrooms where children can encounter hands-on experiential learning," said Mayor Rosalyn Bliss. Leveraging the natural geography in the literal backyards of GR's schools will hopefully serve as a major part of GR's implementation of the funds.

This dedication to children is an "example of how GR really is a leader in systems change," says Lamar.

While GR staff stood out to the Children & Nature Network, so did its new mayor, elected in August of 2015. Planning a dedication to parks and green spaces during her tenure, Mayor Bliss attended the leadership academy in October herself, before she even took office. "The leadership of Mayor Bliss on this issue is unique," says Lamar. "Nature is not always the top of the priority list for mayors."

"It was the mayor's priority," says Lynn Heemstra, executive director of Our Community's Children. Noting the development of parks as a major part of her upcoming work as mayor, Bliss stated the goal of having a park within walking distance for every child in Grand Rapids during her State of the City address on Feb. 2, 2016.

"We know that nature is important to children's development, in every single way: intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically," Bliss said during the speech. Understanding these benefits, Bliss worked hand-in-hand with the Parks and Recreation Department and Our Community's Children after they were selected by Cities Connecting Children to Nature as one of 16 cities invited to apply for basic training in the development of outdoor spaces for children.

Demonstrating a desire to improve the city's parks and a mayor who was personally willing to get her hands dirty in that effort, GR quickly distinguished itself to the committee. "We are seen as one of the cities that is capable of advancing the initiatives that the children in nature network is interested in," says Marquardt.

Having just submitted the next phase of the initiative, the implementation plan, Marquardt and Heemstra still have a lot of work to do in the next 12 months, putting to good use the next portion of the funding, a $50,000 grant that help them realize their original plan. At the heart of it all is a question posed by Moore, "How can we leverage the role of city leaders and the power of city government to go farther, faster in terms of connecting kids to nature?"

Knee-deep in efforts that involve local schools, the mayor, parks and recreation, donor-funded organizations, national nonprofits, students, parents, and passionate citizens, the city of GR has already taken many steps in the right direction. Exploring what it means to "green a playground" and planning to utilize playground designers instead of buying one-size-fits all equipment, GR's parks are right on the cutting edge. Identifying key neighborhoods that are a priority for increasing park access, like Plaster Creek on the southwest side, Marquardt and Heemstra can't wait to get started.

Having already received public input during numerous community meetings throughout September and October, Marquardt looks forward to implementing precise and passionate feedback. Such community desires for the parks are: improved pedestrian walkways to and around parks, more diverse and accessible recreation programming, increased tree-planting programs for families, bilingual signage and educational labeling of wildlife, among others. Above all seeking to increase access to parks and natural spaces for children that do not currently have it, the city of Grand Rapids will get to work in the southeast, southwest and northeast sections of the city.

"We're helping to shape how cities can connect children to nature," says Heemstra. All onboard in the joint mission of lowering childhood obesity, improving academic skills, increasing social learning opportunities and cultivating environmental stewardship (all benefits of children accessing nature, according to the Children & Nature Network), the seven-city cohort can't wait to implement their plans in the next phase. Here in GR, the potential has been identified, and those involved in the initiative are forwarding their mission with every day and dollar spent. "Children spend an average of 6 hours a day in front of a screen," said Mayor Bliss, but with the city of Grand Rapids and the Children & Nature Network, they're working to change that.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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