Play is happier in the mud 

Have you ever noticed that when you hike through the forest or dig in the garden with your hands, something magical happens to your mind, body, and general well-being?

March is a muddy month. A wonderfully squishy, mushy, wet muddy month.

Children smile while playing in mud.

Have you ever noticed that when you hike through the forest or dig in the garden with your hands, something magical happens to your mind, body, and general well-being? You may feel happier, breathe easier, have greater focus, or get a spurt of creative energy. But is it magic or is there a scientific explanation for what happens when you connect with soil?   

Mud (soil) is part of our everyday lives. We hike on it, grow our food in it, and touch it in some way every day. It contains living organisms, rock particles, minerals, decayed organic materials, air, and water.  

In Philadelphia, our soil has an extra sparkle thanks to the flaky, glassy mineral called mica. The development of soil takes thousands of years. It is the base of all life and billions of organisms are in it. Soil is a water purifier, media for plants, habitat, organic recycler, and is a material for man-made structures.   

There is a growing amount of research on the physical and physiological benefits of touching soil or mud for both children and adults. The science is complex, but while sorting through the research, I discovered that exposure to soil-based organisms, such as bacteria, strengthens the immune system. An initial study conducted in 2010 by Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks at the Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, found one bacterium in particular, Mycobacterium vaccae, which is in most backyard soil, increases the serotonin levels, also known as the “happy chemical”.  

Two young children explore the mud.

Although adults benefit from exposure to soil bacteria and outdoor play, it is most effective when exposure begins in early childhood and continues through adulthood. Although we are raising our children in more sterile environments than previous generations, the rate of allergies, asthma, and other inflammatory and auto-immune diseases are rising. Without exposure to “germs”, including bacteria in soil, the immune system cannot properly build itself. When babies instinctively put items in their mouths, it is introducing bacteria into their systems. As a child grows and has access to the soil through play, they are consistently building new immunities for a stronger, more complex system. This, along with all the other benefits of outdoor play, builds the body and mind in a more complete form. But whatever your stage of life, getting outside and getting dirty is as important as regular exercise. Luckily you can get everything you need at any of Philadelphia’s and Pennsylvania’s environmental centers and park systems.   

Child covered in mud playing in a mud pit.

We foster exploration of nature with the senses, taking risks, and of course, getting dirty. If you are not a mud loving person or are unsure how you can incorporate dirt into your and/or children’s play, just ask any educator from your local environmental center! For more research-based information about the benefits of soil, play and nature for children, visit  

Photos by Christina Moresi from International Mud Day celebrations, and every day, all-weather play at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation’s environmental centers.


What is—and isn’t—critical thinking

and how we can use it to improve ourselves and those around us

Whenever I’ve talked about the need for critical thinking, I’ve noticed that those who need it most are usually the ones who agree most—but for other people!

Maybe this stems from our volatile society, but our collective exasperation (outrage?) at others’ points of view is certainly exacerbated by a lack of critical thinking by all parties.

I don’t consider myself a master critical thinker, but at least I can see how most political ads break every rule of sound and fair reasoning. (Of course, their purpose is to vilify opponents with innuendo, appeals to irrational fears, outright lies, distortions and half-truths; and a creative lack of depth, breadth, clarity or fairness. For that, they do a pretty consistent job—however unprincipled!)

But let’s start with clarity.

What critical thinking is not: using a judgmental spirit to find fault, assign blame, cancel, or censure.

What critical thinking is: using a disciplined thought process to discern what is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

After all, we are what we think. Our attitudes, feelings, words, and actions are all determined by the quality of our thinking. Unrealistic thinking leads to disappointment; pessimistic thinking spurns joy; practical thinking builds productivity; grateful thinking grows appreciation; and affirmative thinking leads to possibilities and opportunities.

Our brains do a pretty good job in identifying patterns and fixed procedures that require minimal consideration. It allows us to function efficiently in familiar zones and predictable routines. And hardwired in all of us is a prioritized egocentric core to protect our personal interests. But increasingly, our progressively diverse world and its unrelenting pace of change requires analytical thinking that is more vigorous, more complex, more adaptable, and more sensitive to divergent views—if we are not to degenerate into the dystopian futures of our movies!

That kind of elevated thinking is reasoning, which draws conclusions about what we know, or can discover, about anything. To reason well, we must intentionally process the information we receive. What are we trying to understand? What is its purpose? How can we check its accuracy? Do we have a limited, shaded, or jaded point of view? What is fact, what is evidence, and what is interpretation? What is the question or problem we are trying to solve? What assumptions are in our inherent biases, and how can we move away from them? What are the ultimate implications or consequences?

Our reasoning, therefore, needs standards with which to measure, compare and contrast all the bits of information in order to come to a meaningful and fair conclusion. Such intellectual standards include clarity, precision, accuracy, significance, relevance, logicalness, fairness, breadth and depth.

In the absence of these reasoning standards, we default to our self-centeredness, which inevitably leads to gnashing of teeth, biased irrationality, and social regrets. But when we vigorously apply these standards, we develop a capacity for fairmindedness, rational action, and healthy societies. This intellectual clash for the mastery of our own minds frames two incompatible ends:

Virtues for fair-minded rationality          Vices inhibiting fair-minded rationality
intellectual humility                                        intellectual arrogance
intellectual autonomy                                    intellectual conformity
intellectual empathy                                      intellectual self-centeredness
intellectual civility                                            intellectual rudeness
intellectual curiosity                                        intellectual apathy
intellectual discipline                                      intellectual laziness
intellectual integrity                                        intellectual hypocrisy

Here is a starter set of questions for better thinking and reasoning, drawn from the critically acclaimed book Critical Thinking, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder:

Clarity: Could you elaborate or give an example?
Precision: Could you be more specific?
Accuracy: How can we verify or test that?
Significance: Which of these facts are most important?
Relevance: How does that relate to, or help with the issue?
Fairness: Are my assumptions supported by evidence? Is my thinking justifiable in context?
Logicalness: Does what you say follow from the evidence?
Depth: What are some of the complexities of this issue?

Informed reasoning leads to better self-management, better understanding and relationships between people and groups—and ultimately, a better, more cooperative society. And let it begin with me.

Invisible Women

When planners and developers fail to account for gender, public spaces become male spaces by default.

My daughter strongly recommended I read the bestselling book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez. She helpfully loaned me her electronic copy, and I learned so much from it I bought my own copy. And in turn, I recommend it to you.

Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez

In its pages, the author argues that the gender gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male. It was surprising to me (being exclusively male since birth), how widely and how often this bias crops up, and how it distorts the supposedly objective data that increasingly governs our lives.

She covers a lot of territory. The book’s six parts cover Daily Life, The Workplace, Design, Going to the Doctor, Public Life, and When it Goes Wrong; and includes such intriguing chapters as Can Snow-Clearing be Sexist, Gender Neutral With Urinals, and One-Size-Fits Men.

Of particular interest to park and recreation professionals is a section addressing city and park planning and use. She cites a 2016 article in The Guardian that asked why we aren’t designing places “that work for women, not just men” and cautions that the limited datasets that track and trend data on gender make it hard to develop programs and infrastructure that factor in and meet women’s needs.

For example, planners in Vienna found that the presence of girls in parks and public playgrounds decreased after the age of 10. They subsequently found, through collecting pertinent data, that single large open spaces were the problem, because they forced girls to compete with boys for space—who largely chose not to. But when the developers subdivided the parks into smaller areas, the female dropoff was reversed.

They also addressed the park’s sport facilities. “Originally these spaces were encased in wire fencing on all sides, with only a single entrance area—around which groups of boys would congregate. And the girls, unwilling to run the gauntlet, simply weren’t going in.” The simple solution? More and wider entrances. They also subdivided the open areas and sport courts. Formal sports like basketball were kept intact, but they also provided space for more informal activities, in which girls were more likely to engage.

In another example, Malmos, Sweden, discovered a similar male bias in the way they’d traditionally been planning urban recreation for youth. “The usual procedure was to create spaces for skating, climbing and painting graffiti. The trouble was, it wasn’t ‘youth’ as a whole that was participating… It was almost exclusively boys, with girls making up only 10-20 percent of those who used the city’s youth-directed leisure spaces and facilities.” So they began asking what the girls wanted—and the resultant new areas are well-lit and split into a range of different-sized spaces on different levels.

Such a gender-equitable approach doesn’t just benefit females alone, but extends to the economy. When sports funding goes mainly to organized sports, which is dominated by boys, that which was meant to benefit everyone equally, simply doesn’t. Sometimes girls’ sports aren’t provided for at all, which means girls must pay for them privately, or not participate at all. Such detrimental consequences then ripple into the present and future health of half the population, and the overall economy. One study concluded that a certain increase in the city’s support for girls’ sports could “lead to a 14 percent reduction in future fractures due to osteoporosis, and the investment will have paid for itself.”

Perez concludes that when planners, developers and programmers “fail to account for gender, public spaces become male spaces by default.” This is not a niche concern: “if public spaces are truly to be for everyone, we have to start accounting for the lives of the other half of the world.” It’s not just a matter of justice: it’s also a matter of personal health, welcoming placemaking, social equity, and simple economics. And it starts with collecting meaningful gender-sensitive data.

Celebrating PA State Parks and Forests Week

Snippet: PA State Parks and Forests Week is a time to get outside and play. It is also a time to consider the other benefits our public lands provide to us – and to give back to them in a way that lets you use your “outside voice.”

by Pam Metzger, PA Parks & Forests Foundation

I bet your mother said the same thing to you as mine to me when I posted a question about there not being a “Kids” day if there was a “Mothers Day” and a “Fathers Day.” “Because EVERY DAY is Kids Day,” she’d say.

You might react the same way to the idea of celebrating PA State Parks and Forests Week. When you are immersed in outdoor recreation, EVERY week is Parks and Forests Week! However, in 2018 (the 125th anniversary of the state parks and forests systems), the week between May 23 and May 30 was officially designated as such by Proclamation of the Governor.

And the Pennsylvania Parks & Forests Foundation has been encouraging its celebration ever since.

Why those dates? May 23 represents the anniversary of the establishment of the Commonwealth’s first state park. And while Valley Forge has now gone on to become a national park, the area was designated as a state park first – on May 23, 1893.

And May 30? That is the date on which the Forestry Commission was formed by the General Assembly tasked with forest fire and to establish a forest reserve system. Their first purchase of 7,500 acres in Clinton County (which eventually became Sproul State Forest) happened five years later.

What does it mean to “celebrate” the state parks and forests? Chances are good that you will take any excuse you have to go out and enjoy the public lands near you. After all, Department of Forests and Waters (now DCNR) Secretary Maurice K. Goddard made it the goal of the agency to place a state park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvanian. So you don’t have to work hard to find one of Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks or 20 forest districts.

Still, “celebration” takes on a few forms additional to recreation. We – as you – take care to remind everyone that time spent in the outdoors is vital to our health and well-being. In fact, we commissioned the creation of several videos on the subject of the outdoors and emotional, mental, and physical health, including one in Spanish. Find them (and share them, please) on our YouTube channel, easily accessed at (along with a video on the economic benefits of those same outdoor spaces).

Finally, to celebrate the outdoors means to “use your outside voice” to speak for those places. Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests alone face a $1.4 billion backlog of maintenance and infrastructure projects. Unstable dams, accessible recreation amenities no longer wheelchair or stroller friendly, trees lost to invasive species like hemlock wooly adelgid or emerald ash borer, restrooms and other buildings crucial to visitor contentment compromised. The opportunity to recapture some of that deficient backlog, in the form of $175 million from the American Rescue Plan, is within our reach.

Let’s all celebrate PA Parks & Forests Week by encouraging our state representatives and senators to support HB 2020 and SB 525. Go to to send a message.

Mind your margin

I used to have an annoying tendency to agree to anything that’s far enough in advance.

My bad habit would kick in whenever I looked at my planner and found a blank space during the requested time. Nothing there? Looks like we’re good to go!

Then the future would show up, and I’d discover that once again I’d overbooked my time, attention and energy—to my physical, mental and spiritual detriment.

You’d think I would have caught on quicker, but it took me several decades to learn to reserve the necessary margin I need in my life.

I’ve finally come to view such demands differently, even when my calendar is open, because I can honestly answer that I already have another commitment at that time—to myself!

May is Mental Health month. Do yourself a favor. Give yourself a break.

Mental Health Awareness

by Jason Cerkan, Recreation Manager, A Pocono Country Place, Property Owners Association

The pandemic has been filled with ups and downs and many mixed emotions, information, and knowledge. From isolation to fear of the unknown many people we know may have experienced some form of depression that they may not have experienced before. Isolation led to many unfit people.

When someone is not leading a healthy lifestyle, we often times look at the outcomes in physical fitness terms. Seldom do we talk about mental health and the role it plays in our lives and the illness that may occur. People can not see how another person is truly feeling inside. Mental health impacts everyone’s quality of life and includes our passions, relationships, and experiences. Someone can be born with a genetic predisposition for a mental illness. Our brains can also sustain psychological traumas.

How To Be Supportive

When someone experiences a mental health challenge, here is how you can be supportive:

LISTEN: Let someone really express their experiences. Being someone they can talk to is essential when giving support.

BE NON-JUDGMENTAL: Don’t criticize or minimize the way they feel. You may not be able to understand exactly what they’re going through, and that’s ok.

ASK WHAT, NOT WHY: When you ask questions, avoid asking ‘why’ questions, and instead ask ‘what’ questions. Asking why can have a judgmental tone even if you don’t mean it that way.

GIVE INFORMATION – DON’T DIAGNOSE: Don’t assume they have an illness or condition. Provide direction to resources that can identify and treat mental health issues.

ACT AS A BRIDGE: You can connect someone to mental health resources. Resources include family, school guidance, mental health professionals, and organizations like Navigate Hope.

TEAMMATE IN SUPPORT: Being supportive doesn’t mean your duty is to ‘fix’ someone. Mental health is complicated and solutions aren’t overnight. As a teammate, the best support you can give is by being a trusting ear, helping to navigate resources, and acting as a source of encouragement.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic there were many people who would not have otherwise been lonely, depressed or down. It is important that we acknowledge mental health not only for ourselves but for others. We need to embrace open communication of mental health challenges and be able to provide direction to help others before crisis arises. There is no shame in asking for help. There are tools and treatments to respond, treat and manage mental health issues.

Nurturing a child with Asperger’s Syndrome

As mainstream recreational programming welcomes more children with special needs, I humbly offer some of the simple strategies my wife and I learned in raising our son with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“I’m just going to go across the road and… DIE!”

So declared my then eight-year-old son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome.

What caused him such overwhelming agony that he felt he simply could not go on?

I moved a forsythia bush in the yard from there to over there.

And while the drama was undeniably amusing at the time (and required pains to hide it), it’s a great example of one of the mistakes I made—and the lessons I learned—in nurturing my son’s personal development as he grew up.

As mainstream recreational programming widens to welcome more children with special needs, and the real opportunities to raise these children’s future prospects grow, I humbly offer some of the simple strategies my wife and I learned in raising our young son, which may help in providing a more nurturing aspect to your programming.

1. Practice coping mechanisms. Aspergers kids often suffer from sensory overload, detecting every sight and motion, every sound and smell, every texture and sensation. Our son was unable to tune out the background clamor most people don’t even notice. Because it’s not possible to control all surroundings, we introduced and practiced coping mechanisms that helped him manage the overload. Things like deflecting anger with humor, providing a safe place of retreat (very important!), and teaching him how to read facial expressions helped him cope when tensions ran high.

2. Pick your battles. Because he needed social interaction, but would never choose it on his own, we limited the battles on that front to just two that did him a world of good: Boy Scouts with its outdoor adventures; and marching band with its required precision that appealed to his mathematical mind. Knowing what’s really important, rather than what’s merely a preference, helped us focus our care where he needed it most, and avoid needless confrontations and frustrations.

3. Provide stability. Aspergers kids love their ruts. That’s where they’re comfortably ensconced. They’re happy there, with no need to ever change. Routines are important. Rules are important. So as much as possible, we provided stability at home with our routines and consistency in enforcing rules.

This youngest child of four shared household chores with his siblings. Saturday was yardwork, Sunday was church. Every evening at 5:30 the whole family sat down together for supper. And after we were done eating, we lingered together to share in a variety of subjects—from listening to a piece of music to discussing current events to admiring artwork, or something from science, history or literature. One springtime we read the entire book of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer aloud in small segments after supper. Provide stability.

4. Prepare for changes. You thought you hated change? Try being an Asperger’s kid with absolutely zero tolerance! Here was my mistake in moving the bush: I never warned him. While he was at school one day, I decided on the spur of the moment to transplant the shrub. It was already a done deal when he got home. NNNOOOO!! He simply could not cope with its suddenness. His life was over. The only thing he could do was to go across the road and die!

We learned to prepare our son for changes that will come. One year, we had a great three-week vacation at the end of the summer. When we arrived home, we realized, “oh, yeah, school starts next week.” What! A! Disaster! From that episode we learned to prepare him for transitions. “Son, school starts in 4 weeks, 3 weeks, 2 weeks, next Tuesday… ” “You’re going to have to start wearing pants again soon instead of shorts, because the days are getting colder and you’ll freeze your buns off!” Prepare for change.

5. Persevere in unconditional love. No matter the depth of his meltdowns or how he acted out, our love and acceptance as a vital part of our family was never questioned. We approached it from this truth: “Son, you have an amazing gift in being able to view the world from a unique perspective—and you will find purpose in it. Hang in there. We love you intensely!” Persevere!

So for those who have or are working with young children on the autism spectrum, I offer this encouragement and hope: My son —the nuclear physicist with a Master’s degree!—is now working two research jobs with Penn State University. Hang in there! It’s hard to predict the ultimate destination of these kinds of adventures. But you have both the opportunity and the ability to make a difference in these children’s lives and their futures. My absolute best to you!

Considering Love, Gratitude and Generosity

Jeff Witman, Collier Township Parks & Recreation

“When I started counting my blessings my whole life turned around.” Willie Nelson

The essence of love, for me, is when you realize that you care about someone or something to the extent that their joys/their sorrows feel like your own. You’re truly excited at their accomplishments; you’re deeply distressed by their setbacks. They are part of you and you are part of them. Two powerful ways we can demonstrate love are gratitude and generosity.

Thanksgiving is not the only day of the year when gratitude is important! It’s needed every day and it contributes to our mental and physical health as well as to the quality of our relationships. Consider making the following a part of your routine:

Keep A Gratitude Journal: On a weekly basis write down the things you were thankful for. You might also include challenges/obstacles/tough situations you were able to get through.

Write a Thank- You Card or Letter: Acknowledge someone who you appreciate. Let them know what they mean to you. Here’s a way to do this:

Let Them Know!

In the spirit of the thought from Albert Sweitzer below consider the impact others have had upon you and say thanks.

“At times our light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has to pause to think with gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

Now put some action into those thoughts. Consider who lit the flame for you in regard to one or more of your interests (your faith, your work, a special hobby, your politics, etc.). Write or call and say thanks including specifics of how they inspired you. If the person has passed do something that would make them smile.

Three Good Things: At the end of the day think of three things that went well for you that day.

What Went Well: Replace the traditional program/event critique of “wrongs” to considering “rights” and how we can repeat them in the future.

Catch People Doing Something Right: Be intentional about identifying what those around you are doing that deserves recognition and give it to them!

Dollars donated is not the only measure of generosity. Consider how people and organizations can benefit from your time and your talent. These gifts often transcend monetary ones in their impact on others and on you. Here’s a way to approach this:

Showing Some Love

Consider the loves of your life and how you can show them some love. Include a person, an organization/group and a place and be specific about what your gift to them will be.

Love is often depicted as difficult to describe but Mother Teresa gave a thoughtful frame when she said “Love begins at home, and it’s not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.” She also explained “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Get busy!

Fewer toys, more joys. Consider your time and talent not just your wallet in extending love, gratitude and generosity to others.

Keeping Connected to Nature

Incorporating nature connection into the work day

by Hilary Hirtle, WeConservePA

If you have worked from home since the beginning of the pandemic, then you may (in some form or another) be returning to the office, or planning a return to the office in the near future. 

We all have cultivated our own experiences, opinions, and preferences about working from home. Reflecting on my own, I was surprised at how much more likely I was to incorporate a connection with nature into my day, as compared to when I was working within an office 100% of the time. Things like going on a short walk before the start of work, taking my lunch break outside, and opening the windows to just listen to the birdsong were some habits that I developed. These were mindful and meaningful connections that became a part of my day that made me feel more grounded, even energized, especially when each day felt like it was on repeat. As working from home transitions to working from an office once more, I’m resolved to keep up these habits in the best ways that I can. If you’re looking to do this as well, hopefully the following tips will be of help.

Connect with nature at start of the day
Do you read the news or check your email first thing in the morning before even starting work? Trade that for sitting quietly outside or near a window at the start of the day, being mindful and present to your immediate natural surroundings.

Taking a break or lunch? Take it outside!
Whether you have 15 minutes or an hour, taking your breaks or lunch outside is a great way to incorporate time spent in nature into your day. When doing this, try to leave your phone behind to provide you with time to disconnect. If you can’t or don’t feel comfortable doing this, turn your phone off or on vibrate, and try not check email or messages until it is time to return to work.

Move your desk closer to a window
The opportunity to just view nature is linked to a decrease in stress and increase in mood and self-esteem. If your office space doesn’t have a window or it’s not possible to move your desk, consider adding some nature-themed artwork or even plants to your office space as a way to bring the outdoors, indoors.

Listen to the sounds of nature
Do you listen to podcasts, music, or the news while working? Why not listen to the sounds of nature? There are many online recordings of birdsong, ocean waves, falling rain, and more. Personally, one of my favorites is BirdNote’s Sound Escapes.

Are we building people—or just running programs?

If recreation and parks are really essential services, are we measuring what truly matters?

Part of why recreation and parks doesn’t receive more of the rave respect it deserves, in my opinion, is because most people notice programs far more than the objectives behind them.

That’s not surprising. It’s always easier to focus on outward expressions than on internal improvements of the mind, body and soul.

When the summer pop-up gathering space arrives on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, so do outdoor yoga, fitness challenges and games galore. Tucked between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Philadelphia’s City Hall, the family-friendly urban park attracts a friendly, laid-back crowd with food, music, beer gardens, movies, golf, games and more. Credit: Visit Philadelphia.

But that’s where the common disconnect begins, I believe.

When we providers declare that recreation and parks are essential community services, what does that mean to our constituents? What is our bottom-line purpose of enabling quality leisure experiences? And are we cognizant enough of it?

• Is it just a walk in the park—or is it physical exercise, stress relief and mental rejuvenation?

• Is it merely a Paint With Me class (with wine!)—or is it stretching skills and enriching relationships?

• Is soccer practice just about scoring a trophy—or is it developing fine motor skills, building teamwork, modeling good sportsmanship, and growing cooperative social interactions among diverse teens, teams and talents?

• Is it merely an object of public art—or is it celebrating a cultural heritage, invigorating a downtown district, connecting destinations, and attracting visitors, tourists and new businesses?

• Is it just an evening activity—or is it character development, anti-ganging intervention, and preventative treatment for abusive and addictive behaviors?

Are we strategically planning with such measurable outcomes in mind, or are we satisfied that it was “fun”?

Here’s the crux: Are we building people—or just running programs? Are we purposefully collaborating with experts from other disciplines in meeting people’s needs? And are we measuring what truly matters?

Because here’s the other just-as-important part of our jobs: we must show it.

Moving beyond ROIs, attendees, and social media stats, are we documenting personal and social good in our value statements? Can we point to specific cases of cleaner resources, less waste, crises averted, problems solved, and healthier lifestyles? Are we enriching our neighbors’ lives, improving the livability of our cities, and ensuring a more equitable future?

If we are to convince a wider audience of the great worth of our indispensable services (and, in turn, influence higher funding and priorities by decision makers), we must deliver whole goods. We can’t merely insist that recreation and parks are essential, we must intentionally demonstrate it—and prove it!

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