Grand Rapids gets grant to create outdoor experiences for kids and families

GRAND RAPIDS, MI - The Outdoor Foundation is investing $1.8 million into Grand Rapids and three other communities to get kids and families of diverse backgrounds outside to enjoy nature’s health and wellness benefits.

Officials said Monday, April 15, the city received a three-year, $410,000 grant. The Parks and Recreation Department will work with Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Grand Rapids Environmental Education Network (GREEN) to create outdoor experiences.

The other three communities selected for the Outdoor Foundation’s inaugural Thrive Outside Community Initiative are Atlanta, San Diego and Oklahoma City.

“Grand Rapids has established a national reputation as a progressive leader,’’ said Grand Rapids Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.

“For our city to be among the few selected nationwide, speaks to our unique public-private partnerships and how we collaborate to improve the outcomes of children and families.’’

In December, Grand Rapids schools announced it was teaming up with the Grand Rapids Environmental Education Network to create outdoor education experiences for its more than 16,000 students beginning the 2019-20 school year. The Wege Foundation provided a $300,000 grant to plan and organize the effort.

The core goal of the Thrive Outside Community investments is to create healthy individuals, communities and economies by making the outdoors a habit.

Fewer than 18 percent of Americans spend time outside for recreation once per week and fewer than 50 percent report getting outside for recreation even once per year, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Participation Report.

"We didn’t become an indoor species overnight, and the decline of outdoor activity in the United States is a problem that requires collaboration, funding and scale,” said Outdoor Foundation Executive Director Lise Aangeenbrug.

“For a variety of reasons, the days when children were outside playing more than they were inside have passed – this has to change for the health of our children, families and communities.''

Aangeenbrug said the organization, based in Boulder, Colorado, is helping to fuel an outdoor movement with the grants to bring back that connection by supporting local community partners to create a network focused on getting as many children and families as possible experiencing the outdoors in a positive way.

The grant allows Grand Rapids to build on the foundation set forth through the Connecting Children to Nature initiative, and brings to scale through planning and partnerships a citywide effort to engage children in nature.

"This award will kick-start a comprehensive outdoor program for Grand Rapids youth to connect with nature, play outdoors and serve as leaders in neighborhood and park projects that engage families and children,'' said David Marquardt, city parks and recreation director, in a statement.

The plan is to engage kids of all ages but with an emphasis on those in fifth through 12th grades. This investment leverages additional foundation support and is expected to pave the way for further public and private investment.

Time in nature provides benefits of improved mental health, reduced depression, reduced anxiety and stress, improved social connection and, for those being active outdoors, improved physical health, according to the foundation.

Marquardt said the city and school district have a dynamic partnership and joint commitment to environmental education, parks and schoolyard activation and sustainability.

He said the Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside Initiative is a perfect fit and remarkable opportunity to advance their mutually desired goals and outcomes.

The cities were chosen by the Outdoor Foundation Board of Directors, based on written applications, location visits, in-person interviews and third-party consultant research.

"Over the next decade, the Outdoor Foundation will connect and engage a diverse constituency of participants, advocates and volunteers in at least 32 cities, with the goal of getting 3 million people outside,'' Aangeenbrug said.

Each Thrive Outside Community grant requires the recipient community to provide a one-to-one funding match in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the network.

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