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Improve Brain Function, Reduce Anxiety, and Encourage Social-Emotional Wellness with the New Urban Parks Education Program

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Childhood anxiety, a growing concern in the United States, is more than a short-term disruption. It can severely impact learning and social-emotional development.

Worcester’s new Urban Parks Education Program (UPEP) has a proven prescription: Vitamin N. That’s “N” for nature!

Mason Hendershott of the Bancroft School developed UPEP after years of working as a youth outdoor recreation guide and elementary school teacher. Seed funding was provided by the United Way of Central Massachusetts’ recent Community Challenge.

Increase learning capacity by reducing anxiety and improving focus

Designed for children pre-K through first grade, UPEP aims to increase learning capacity by reducing learning-prohibitive anxiety—a proven effect of time spent outdoors. Childcare programs and groups of elementary school students will enjoy trips to parks and green spaces, with outdoor clothing provided for those who need it.

UPEP, however, isn’t just a walk in the park. Professional development opportunities, created by the Turn Back Time Forest School in Paxton, will help educators adapt standard curriculum to outdoor environments.

“We can teach fundamental concepts, like math number sense, using natural materials, while enjoying the sights and sounds of nature,” says Hendershott. “Children’s brains crave rich and diverse sensory stimulation but screen time doesn’t improve focus or reduce anxiety. Nature does.”

The most important years are the earliest years

Young children, whose brains are developing more rapidly than any other time in life may experience significant, long lasting benefits from time spent outdoors. But first, they need an opportunity.

“Many children don’t get introduced to nature at a young age, and that’s one of the barriers we need to overcome,” says Hendershott. “They don’t see themselves represented in media depictions of the outdoors either.”

Hendershott recently recalled a middle school student who struggled to connect with her peers. She experienced debilitating anxiety whenever she encountered a new situation. But that all changed during an overnight backpacking trip to the top of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock.

“It poured rain, but she didn’t care. She was playing games and dancing. She even made a new friend,” says Hendershott. “My only wish is that she had discovered the benefits of nature earlier in life.”

To learn more about the Urban Parks Education Program, contact Mason Henershott at 508-853-2640 or mhendershott@bancroftschool.org. UPEP is seeking elementary school and childcare program partners as well as additional funding support. The Turn Back Time School in Paxton offers programs for all ages. Learn more at www.tbtinc.org.

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