Some people work full time on behalf of environmental education. Carol Johnson works double-time. As both the Assistant General Manager of Public Affairs for the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) and the Executive Director of the Regional Parks Foundation, her hours are filled both with the “forest” and the “trees”, the big picture and the hidden minutiae of helping to run a regional park system. Recently, she has focused her attention on one particular program, the Healthy Kids Challenge (formerly the Kids Challenge). I spoke with Carol last week about herself and that program.
BN: Have you always lived in the East Bay?
CJ: Yes, I grew up in San Leandro and attended school in Oakland. I did my graduate work at the University of San Francisco while living in the East Bay. Now I live in Contra Costa County.
BN: Please tell me about your background, and how it led you to do this work.
CJ: My family was involved in volunteering in the community as well as working in the public sector in law enforcement and nursing; so serving the community is a value I grew up around. I earned a degree in Public Administration from USF and then had the privilege of working for Lionel Wilson, the first Black mayor of Oakland. I consider him to be my first mentor in public service. He really took me under his wing and showed me that being an effective public official is all about listening, leading and collaborating to make the best decisions possible for the greater good.
BN: Tell me about the Healthy Kids Challenge Program.
CJ: The goal of the Healthy Kids Challenge is to get youngsters interested in playing outside again, getting them away from TV, phones and video games for a while. And to get schools involved by showing them the benefit of teaching kids by utilizing our outdoor resources. This “challenge” incorporates ten basic outdoor experiences, billed the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, that all children should be able to do before they reach high school, things like “follow a trail” or “explore nature.”
|The California Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights
Every child should have the opportunity to:
1) Play in a safe place
2) Explore nature
3) Learn to swim
4) Go fishing
5) Follow a trail
6) Camp under the stars
7) Go boating
8) Connect with the past
9) Plant a seed
— EBRPD Healthy Kids Challenge
The Challenge is part of our “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” initiative to show the connection that parks, trails and open spaces can have to individual and community wellbeing. The District recognizes that parks should be part of a holistic approach to dealing with childhood obesity and people being less active in general.
BN: How did you develop the Healthy Kids Challenge?
CJ: We took an existing EBRPD recreation program and expanded it to the schools, working with elementary school teachers to weave core curriculum standards into a student outdoor exploration guide. The result – our pilot program – focuses on providing 3rd graders and their teachers access to parks and open spaces for fun, learning, and exercise. And to eliminate barriers for cash-strapped schools that don’t have transportation funds for field trips, the Regional Parks Foundation is funding bus transportation for all 33 of the pilot classrooms that are using the Healthy Kids Challenge during this academic school year.
BN: What challenges do you face?
CJ: It’s definitely a challenge to institutionalize this program within schools, working within the confines of what teachers are required to teach. We have heard time and time again that there’s so much that’s required in the daily routine that adding something new or innovative can be difficult. So we’re trying to make it easy for them. For example, our environmental educators will be conducting hands-on teacher training and providing a teacher guidebook and identifying unique “touchpoints” or ways our staff can interact with the classrooms as a resource.
BN: What’s your greatest success to date?
CJ: We’ve enticed a wonderful core group of teachers, some new and others with years of classroom experience, to enhance the learning environment through the out-of-doors. Many of them also volunteered their time to help us develop the curriculum.
And we expect close to 1,000 third grade students will experience a fun connection to nature and the outdoors with the pilot program this year. And at the end of the school year, their teachers will be able to evaluate the learning benefits as well.
BN: What is your favorite outdoor destination in the Bay Area?
CJ: My favorite is Lake Temescal in Oakland. It’s amazing. It’s right in the middle of two busy major transportation corridors, but has so many different amenities. When I get there, all the noise disappears and my stress just goes away.