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RSW Living Magazine

Get Outside and Have Some Fun: Former Parks Director Fran Mainella on the Value of Play

Jul 14, 2021 03:35PM ● By JEFF LYTLE

We can count some silver linings to the dark pandemic cloud: 

  • There is a sense of neighborliness in helping others with shopping or errands. 
  • There is a renewed appreciation for medical and other essential workers. 
  • And there is a reawakening of the value of outdoor recreation. Play. 

The good news comes from a leading national champion of play, Fran Mainella of Bonita Springs, who brings special credentials. Mainella, 74, served as director of the Florida parks system under Governor Jeb Bush and moved on to manage the national parks for his brother, President George W. Bush. She was the first woman in both roles.  

Later she helped form the ongoing U.S. Play Coalition at Clemson University, bringing together experts in land planning, architecture, psychology, medicine and more. She continues to be in demand for lectures across the country and sits on business and conservation boards. 

Her crusade to promote parks and play hit home more than ever when the pandemic took root in the spring of 2020, when daily elective activity was curtailed and one of the few permitted outdoor activities was socially distanced exercise. 

Walking and bicycle riding, for example, went from being healthy hobbies to keys for physical and mental health. 

Mainella observes that being outside became synonymous with being safe from the virus. 

The big picture for Mainella is seizing the window of opportunity “for people to better understand play and all its benefits,” she says, adding, “People realized they were happier, healthier and safer outdoors. Look at restaurants, concerts, plays and dances.” 

Open-air camping, she observes, soared in popularity. So did motor homes for people who insisted on traveling as safely as possible—“taking their own bedrooms with them.” 

As a believer in “nature deficit disorder,” Mainella explains that being outdoors offers an innate “calmness and solemnity,” and it fights loneliness, as when looking across a lake and seeing someone on the other side. “That makes you feel more like a real person,” she instructs. “Just being outside is an antidepressant.” 

She goes on to explain that play is a broad concept: It is choosing to do anything you enjoy. “You don’t have to be in a game,” says Mainella, an avid golfer. “You can just sit quietly on a bench or go out to eat.” 

One more Mainella mantra is aimed at children: “Play is not a waste of time that could be spent studying.” 

Mainella is no stranger to larger-than-life situations. She was new on the job with the national parks when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, took place, putting her in charge of the security of parks at national museums and landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, the myriad icons in Washington and Mt. Rushmore. The latter added infrared sensors on the backs of the carved stone heads to detect would-be saboteurs. 

Mainella’s affinity for Southwest Florida developed while working to assemble and open the Lovers Key State Park project in the 1980s. Her voice is on an audio recording for visitors at the park’s new welcome center. 


Other Voices 

Fran Mainella’s views on parks and play are eagerly supported by local professionals. 

Katie Moses manages Lovers Key State Park, which closed for a month in spring 2020. “When we reopened, people stated how happy they were,” she says. “Park visitors were excited.” 

Julia Kroeker, professor of early childhood education at Florida SouthWestern State College’s Fort Myers campus, weighs in: “Play, particularly outdoor play, is absolutely vital for child development,” she relates. “It is also essential for adults’ well-being. Obviously, many individuals and families have struggled in some way during the pandemic, and mental and physical health and well-being are more important than ever.   

“Being in nature has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder. It also increases cognitive functioning, fosters social interaction and benefits our physical health.   

“Unfortunately, as the pandemic drags on, many children and adults are spending more and more time on computers and less and less time outdoors.” 

 Kelly L. Bushéy, associate professor of applied psychology at Hodges University, offers a footnote: “From a psychological aspect, whether a child or an adult, if you tell someone they cannot do something, they want to do it all the more,” she says. “The pandemic disrupted many exercise routines, as with the closure of gyms and fitness centers. At one point even the beaches were closed. However, this was brief. Parks and beaches reopened with encouragement for social distancing. Families began to spend time together again, and it is healthy on multiple levels!” 

Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.