It’s not often that 7-year-old Joseph gets to play in the water, but the wheelchair-bound boy had a great time doing just that on a trip to Crab Cove at Crown Memorial State Beach in Alameda.
“I got to go swimming!” he said excitedly about the experience. The trip was made possible through a partnership between UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and the East Bay Regional Parks District.
Started in 2014, the SHINE program (Staying Healthy in Nature Every Day) encourages doctors to prescribe visits to the parks for health benefits such as stress relief and improved emotional well-being. Once a month, patients, doctors and their families can take a bus to a park with a guided tour from a naturalist and lunch provided. So far, the program has organized 32 outings and provided 500 park visits for new and repeat participants, said Melinda Krigel, media relations director at the children’s hospital.
Evelyn Cannon-Wright, Joseph’s mother, said the Crab Cove trip was one of several she and her son have attended. She was nervous at first about how it would go with her son’s wheelchair but she said the organizers were attentive and took care of his needs. Cannon-Wright said she loved the trips herself just for the chance to get a break from the daily routine.
“Once you get outside, letting breeze blow through your hair, walking around, looking at nature – that’s great,” she said. “Your mind is not on ‘I should be washing clothes’ or things you should be doing in the house.”
The parks district approached the children’s hospital to start the program. The district had floated the idea with other medical facilities but the hospital was the first to take the idea and run with it, said Mona Koh, community relations manager for the parks district.
The hospital renamed the clinic rooms after different East Bay Parks and put up 18-foot posters of redwood trees as well as other nature scenes and maps showing where the parks are. The clinic also distributed brochures listing information about the parks and the health benefits of getting out in nature.
“Within five minutes of being in a forest, blood pressure goes down and stress hormones go down,” explained Nooshin Razani, M.D., who coordinates the SHINE program. “The quality of human relations improves in nature. There is more intergenerational time, more time to bond with family members and tell stories. There’s a big social component.”
Koh said much of the credit for the SHINE program should go to Razani, who loves hiking and camping herself. Razani was trained as a “nature champion” by the US Bureau of Fish and Wildlife in Washington, D.C. in 2010. “She lives it, she breathes it,” Koh said. “She knows that nature is healing.”
The SHINE program is open to any patient who gets treatment at the primary care clinic. The majority of the patients live below the poverty line, Razani said. The patients have high rates of obesity, depression, anxiety and stress. The clinic serves a diverse population with patients speaking eight languages.
Doctors are advised to especially refer patients to the SHINE program who struggle with social isolation and stress. That could include new immigrants or families dealing with economic hardships.
“Nature is healing at all levels- mental, physical, spiritual and emotional,” Koh said. “It’s not just about exercise. You can do exercise in a gym or in the basement. It’s the whole thing about connecting to nature- being inspired by a beautiful sunset. You see a woodpecker, you see squirrels chasing each other, you see a beautiful river. For that moment at least, it gives you relief.”
Morgan Dill, a naturalist who has led several tours for SHINE participants, said she enjoys seeing how excited the families get in any weather condition. She once led a tour of 16 people through the redwoods in a storm. “They were out in the pouring rain, exploring, putting their face on moss and touching raindrops,” she said. “The fact that we were in the pouring rain didn’t seem to bother them.”
For many participants, it’s their first visit to the parks. “I always emphasize to them that this is their park,” Dill said. “It’s here for them to come to and we want them to come back. I emphasize that now that you feel comfortable with me, come back on your own.”
Zarin Noor, M.D., a doctor who went on a tour with her children ages 4 and 2, said she was impressed how the participants relaxed and had fun in the park setting. “A lot of our kids are sedentary and obsese,” she said. “It gets them outdoors, out in nature, running around.”
The experience shows parents how important it is to give their children nature experiences, Noor added. “Parents see they don’t need computers to have fun.”
Razani said the children’s hospital has been tracking the health of patients who have participated in SHINE and plans to release the results later this year. If the research results are strong enough, the program may become a model for other medical facilities around the country.
While prescriptions to get out in nature may have seemed on “the fringes of medicine” at first, that is not the case, now, she said.
As an example, Stanford University scientists found that walking in nature rather than in an urban environment reduced obsessive and negative thoughts and significantly increased mental well-being, according to a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
“It is a legitimate health intervention,” Razani said. “There are tons of research on how it helps.”