Oakland Children’s Hospital Doctors Prescribe Parks

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District team up to treat kids and families with a dose of the outdoors.


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Photo by Stephen Texeira

It’s a warm Saturday afternoon, and a group of more than 50 adults and children have gathered near the entrance of Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park.

“This is going to be really good for you,” says Dr. Nooshin Razani, who directs the crowd, a mix of ages, race, and ethnicities, to a nearby picnic area. They chat and mingle as they sit down to a lunch of chicken sandwiches with chocolate chip cookies.

Razani is a pediatrician with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and a nature champion. Each month she and a handful of staff from the hospital join patients and their families on an outing to an East Bay Regional Park District park. “The park visits provide us a unique experience with our patients,” said Razani, a petite, soft-spoken woman who often brings her own children, ages 3, 9, and 10 years old, to the park outings.

There’s increasing evidence that spending time in nature improves physical and mental health, but a recent study found children today spend half the amount of time outside as they did 20 years ago. Green space, explained Razani, has value-added benefits. Getting into nature—forests, waterways, natural landscapes—relieves stress and helps people to think more clearly and feel happier.

At Children’s, doctors are prescribing park visits as a way to improve patient health. They routinely ask patients and families if they have access to nature, and by access to nature, they mean more than just an ability to take a simple walk outside. Based on the patient’s response, doctors can then write a “park prescription” for the patient and any extended family to return to the clinic on the first Saturday of the month when they catch and ride a bus to a two-hour sponsored park outing. “If you are going to recommend that patients get in nature, you have to make it possible,” said Razani.

Children’s partnered with the park district to create this park-visit program, called SHINE, for Stay Healthy In Nature Everyday. The district provides the transportation, food, and a naturalist to guide the group, and Children’s supplies the participants.

After lunch on this recent Saturday, naturalist Michael Charnofsky takes the lead. “Let’s go to the forest. It’s an amazing place,” he says. He guides the group on a meandering, one-mile walk on a wooded trail by a stream. He points upward to a red-tailed hawk, and the group quiets as the bird swoops by. He talks about the hugeness of the redwoods and the hundreds of years they take to grow as the group stands within a cluster of trees looking skyward. A young boy shouts out, “Where’s Oakland?”

Later, Razani reflects on that moment and says, “That’s what I want them to recognize: This is Oakland. These parks belong to them.”

Since SHINE launched in May 2013, the program has taken off. Attendance to the outings has doubled, and there have been almost 40 park outings and more than 600 park visits with many families going more than once.

Kamica Cooper has come to this outing with her five children ages 3 to 15 years old. It’s the second park outing for her family. “The kids have fun and a nice lunch,” says Cooper as she looks down at her youngest son walking beside her. “It’s peaceful out here. It helps relieve the stress I face as a single mother of five.”

Razani has studied the impact of the park outings, and the results look good for nature. “Our study shows that physician referrals to parks can lead to reduced stress,” she said. Recently, Children’s received a $200,000 grant from REI to support a new Center for Nature and Health at the hospital at which Razani and colleagues will continue to explore the health benefits of the great outdoors.

At the close of the day, the group stands in a circle, and Razani asks all the members to close their eyes and silently rate their level of stress on a scale of one to 10. From there, they wander back to the bus for the ride home, a little more relaxed than when they arrived.

Published online on Sept. 12, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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