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Fixing Philly: Let's go play outside

With a pair of new programs, Philadelphia urging urban kids to reconnect with nature
City officals join campers during this past week's announcment of CAMP Philly. (Hayden Mitman)

School’s out and it’s time to get the kids outside and active during these summer months.

But, in this day and age of binge-watching TV, video games and other indoor activities – this is where we mention the dreaded new fad, fidget spinners – children might be quite content reclining on a couch throughout the summer months without taking a moment to feel freshly cut grass under their feet on a sunny summer day.

In fact, according to Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, “play” has become so structured, thanks in part to electronic devices, that children don’t always know what to do to have fun outside.

“Kids today don’t know how to play. Play has become so structured,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s not great, but it’s the truth.”

But, with a pair of recently announced projects, the city is hoping to get kids out in nature to play and to enjoy the city’s park system.

The first is NaturePHL, a program that not only works to get Philadelphia’s urban youth out into nature, it also allows doctors to prescribe detailed action plans for outdoor activities.

As detailed by the Inquirer earlier this month, “prescription-strength” play is intended to help improve a child’s “motor skills, social competence, problem-solving abilities, and even eyesight.”

The program, #naturephl, is a collaboration between the city’s Parks and Rec. Dept., along with CHOP, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, and the National Forest Service. It will begin as a pilot program in August as a part of standard check-ups for children aged 5 to 12, at CHOP’s Cobbs Creek and Roxborough primary care offices.

Visitors to the online site can put in their zip code and learn about the parks in their area as well as outdoors events that are fun for the whole family.

Also, earlier this week, the city announced CAMP Philly, a new program in which the city’s Parks and Rec. Dept. has partnered with YMCA’s Camp Speers – a 1,100 acre campground with a 36 acre lake, located about two-and-a-half hours north of Philly in Dingmans Ferry – to provide children aged 9 to 11 a chance to escape the city’s urban environment for a week long camping trip.

“I wanted to do something directly to get our kids out of the city and give them the opportunity to be kids,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in announcing CAMP Philly this week.

Through raising $150,000 in partnerships and donations, the city will be able to provide the program to 200 local children. According to Ott Lovell, a trip costs about $700 per camper.

In announcing CAMP Philly, Michael DiBerardinis is managing director of the City of Philadelphia, was reminded of Camp William Penn, a summer camp that the city had operated in Marshalls Creek. He said that the city ran that camp for decades, but “in the early part of the decade” the program was shuttered due to budget cuts.

“We just couldn’t afford it,” he said.

But, with CAMP Philly, he said, local children will be able to have a similar experience as selected children will be able to enjoy the camp and all the programming they want.

Organizers said that kids involved in CAMP Philly will be able to enjoy “archery, horseback riding, drama lessons and swimming, developing key skills such as decision making, creativity, confidence, and teamwork in the process.”

And, getting children out into nature is important, said George Matysik, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, in order to bring them new life and learning experiances. 

"We help kids find their paths to new experiences," said Matysik. "That's part of our role, to get indoor kids to come outdoors." 

And, he said, with Philadelphia's Rebuild effort to improve the city's parks and rec. centers right around the corner, these programs will help get children and their families out to enjoy the city's park system.