National Wildlife Refuge System

Rx: Go Outside!

By Karen Leggett

photo of kids playing in snow
Children play in snow during a Nature Club outing at New Jersey’s Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, which has enthusiastically embraced the Nature Champions idea.
Credit: USFWS

A physician in the San Francisco Bay area is posting maps in his waiting room showing local parks and refuges. A pediatric cardiology practice in Las Vegas is organizing monthly field trips to wildlife refuges. A social worker in New Jersey has given 50 “Rx for Outdoor Activity” prescriptions to children at Gilda’s Club, a clubhouse for families touched by cancer.

These efforts grew out of a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) to help families make the connection between going outdoors and staying healthy. The idea was first discussed at a 2006 Children and Nature Summit, when Service staff began talking with doctors, educators and outdoor professionals about ways to overcome “nature’deficit disorder” in children.

An initial training for staff from seven national wildlife refuges and several other federal agencies, along with health care professionals from 11 states, was held at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in September 2010. These “Nature Champions” are expected to partner with additional health care providers in their communities to provide training and encourage children and families to get outside.

Perks for Playing

Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, NV, brought five health care providers to the NCTC training, including a school nurse, two physicians and an exercise physiologist. These five have now trained 30 more. The nurse has written 11 “prescriptions” for outside activity, most during a family fitness night at school.

The Children’s Heart Center, a pediatric cardiology facility in Las Vegas, serves primarily inner city families without easy access to the refuge. Desert Refuge Complex visitor services manager Angelina Yost is helping the center organize monthly field trips of young patients and their families to one of the four refuges in the complex. Children also can win prizes provided by NCTC and the National Audubon Society, including plush birds, totes, children’s binoculars and birdhouses.

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, CA, is providing similar prizes when children have a special card punched each time they visit. “Nature has its rewards,” says a brochure. “Follow your doctor’s instructions for a healthier and better you by visiting the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.”

In addition to planning specific outdoor activities such as a hiking club, geocaching and even yoga, the refuge’s outdoor recreation planner, Carmen Minch, is working with several local pediatricians. Dr. Paul Espinas is writing nature prescriptions and creating maps of local nature sites, including Don Edwards Refuge, to post in waiting rooms in three local medical centers.

At Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, NJ, refuge volunteer Barry Keefe—a social worker who has started handing out prescriptions—is working with AtlantiCare Health Systems and Richard Stockton College to train 30 pediatric health care providers over the next two years.

The Forsythe Refuge Nature Champions project was launched with a Saturday morning hike last December. Children who had a prescription for exercise could request a prize after the hike. Teens were encouraged to bring along a younger child. The continuing hikes are sponsored by Forsythe Refuge’s Nature Club, which provides about an hour of group exercise outdoors once or twice a month. Eventually, the club will meet at the refuge’s outdoor nature discovery area now being created by refuge Friends, volunteers and Eagle Scouts.

For additional information about Nature Champions, contact, or

Karen Leggett is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.

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Refuge Update March/April 2011

Last updated: April 12, 2011