On Feb. 19, over a thousand people crowded into the gym of the Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, a four-year magnet high school located on the south side of Chicago. They were there to see and hear President Obama name four new National Monuments – including one near this school – and to announce the “Every Kid in a Park” initiative.
As high school students clambered up into the bleachers, National Parks Service Director Jon Jarvis told me how excited he is about “Every Kid in a Park.” If it thrives over the next 16 years, he said, an entire generation of children will have visited the parks—some of them many times. And many of those kids might have otherwise never set foot in a National Park or other federal natural lands.
The “Every Kid in a Park” initiative, which begins in September, is an ambitious plan to provide all fourth-grade students and their families with free admission to National Parks and other federal lands and waters. This won’t be a one-time-only pass. Children, their families, adult chaperones, and their schools will be able to use the pass for multiple visits over the course of an entire year.
The initiative was launched in anticipation of the 100th birthday of the National Park Service in 2016. The National Parks are often called America’s greatest idea — or the second greatest idea, after equality. Access to these and other great lands has not been equal.
Yes, anyone can go, if they have the way and the means. But the barriers to the experience, and other meaningful contact with the natural world, are daunting for many children and families, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods: distance, lack of transportation, the disappearance of school field trips, the hegemony of testing and tech, a general devaluing of nature’s gifts, and fear of strangers and nature.
“Fewer than half of all kids in the United States can safely walk to a park from their home,” according to Jackie Ostfeld, citing a CDC statistic. She is co-founding chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, one of the many organizations, including the Children & Nature Network, that supported the initiative.
1. Who will pay for “Every Kid in a Park”? The initiative is a joint effort by the White House, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Department of the Interior, The National Park Service, The National Park Foundation, and many non-governmental organizations. Supporters of the initiative are already working to raise millions of dollars from private and corporate contributions to support school trips and to engage educators and parents. The administration’s 2016 Budget includes $45 million for youth engagement programs in the Department of the Interior, including bringing 1 million fourth-grade children from low-income areas to the parks and hiring park youth coordinators.
2. Who gets the free passes, and how? More details are coming, but according to the Initiative’s information website, “One way that these passes will be accessible and distributed to 4th graders and their families will be through schools and youth organizations.” Through the National Park Foundation, the initiative will provide transportation grants to schools with the most need.
3. Why is this important to education? Jarvis is especially excited about the potential: to use the trips to encourage schools to incorporate more nature studies into their curricula and to recognize the growing research that suggests improved cognitive functioning in natural environments. The initiative will help schools and families identify nearby public lands and waters and connect with programs that support youth outings, as well as provide K-12 teachers with educational materials, including science labs, lesson plans, and field trip guides. In addition, the Park Service, BLM, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and the Department of Education will promote a national network of field classrooms and agency resources for teachers, families, and volunteers.
4. How will this benefit the parks and other federal lands and waters? Some observers worry that busloads of kids may hurt fragile environments, and they’re right–if the students are poorly supervised. But if future generations do not experience these parks, the constituency for them will shrink. So will support for protecting endangered species. Jarvis hopes the push will introduce young people to potential careers connecting people to nature. And he hopes the initiative’s focus will help raise the odds that future park employees and conservationists actually look like Americans.
5. Why not make this available to allchildren? That’s a logical question, especially considering that the hike in park admission fees in recent years is one of the barriers. The initiative is starting with an invitation to 4th graders “because we know that children who interact with nature and natural areas before age 11 are more likely to have positive attitudes toward nature and the environment as adults,” says Theodora Chang, National Park Service Special Assistant to the Director. “Fourth grade is also when many schools are teaching local, state, and national history, and many of our parks, lands and waters units have already developed programs for this age group.”
Let’s hope this good initiative evolves beyond fourth grade, and seeds the idea that our public parks should be free to all children.
In the meantime, government, parent-teacher organizations, conservation groups, and others should amp up their efforts to educate the nation’s educators, parents and grandparents about already existing discount passes for families with kids of all ages.
As Forbes magazine points out, the parks aren’t a bad deal, when compared to other forms of recreation: “Going to a movie for a family of four can cost around $80. Bowling for four for two hours on a Saturday can cost around $90, not including food. ….Normally an unlimited [annual family] pass to the parks costs $80; it’s free for members of the military and those with permanent disabilities. Seniors can get a $10 lifetime pass.” And using that pass, grandparents and grandfriends can fill their cars with kids.
One last point. People may disagree about the means while agreeing in the end. Among the first government supporters for the children and nature movement were Republicans, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and then-U.S. Park Service Director Fran Mainella. In recent years, First Ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, along with many others in both parties, have shared their concern about the nature-deficit among our children. So this initiative should receive broad support.
Ultimately, the government can only serve as an additional catalyst for the wider cultural movement to reduce our society’s nature-deficit disorder, and to connect children, their families, and their communities to the natural world. All of us can do more to get more kids into more parks.
Richard Louv is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.