Guest blog post by Suparna Dutta, Nearby Nature intern, Sierra Club
Nevada fifth-graders! Tie up your shoe laces, put on your adventure hats, and pick up your backpacks. There is exciting news in store for you! Beginning in July, a Nevada law will encourage school children aged 9-11 to visit and play in any of Nevada’s 26 state parks for free.
Nevada’s “Kids to Parks” program was prompted by new state legislation which was signed into law by Governor Brian Sandoval in May. It is modeled after the federal Every Kid in Park program, which offers passes to fourth-graders and their families for free admission to more than 2,000 federal public lands, waters, and shores. Assembly Bill 385 made headlines when fifth-graders from western Las Vegas schools wrote letters to their legislators showing their support and appreciation for the bill. The new legislation ensures that every fifth-grader in the state has access to a pass that gives the child and anyone accompanying them free admission to any state park and recreational area for one year.
With the Every Kid in a Park pass for fourth-graders already in place, Nevada’s new pass means that school children in the state will have two continuous academic years of free entry to its national and state parks, a move applauded by parents, educators, and children themselves! This is the second of Sandoval’s initiatives this year that promotes increased access to the outdoors for Nevada’s children and families. In January, the Nevada governor directed $13.2 million in state general funds to the state park system in order to boost the state’s flagship Explore Your Nevada initiative.
Nevada is not the only state thinking about ways to encourage school children to get outdoors. States such as Indiana, Maryland, New York, Wyoming, Idaho, and New Mexico have been honoring the federal Every Kid in a Park pass in their state parks. Last year, Indiana State Parks declared that they would provide free admission to fourth-graders with the federal pass. Since Indiana State Parks charge park visitors a vehicle entry fee, this allowed for free entry to parks not only for the fourth-grader but also for all those accompanying the fourth grader in the same vehicle. Similarly, in Maryland, Governor Hogan announced that the Every Kid in a Park pass would be accepted by all state parks for the 2016-2017 school year. Not to be left out, New York, too, honors the federal pass both in state parks and in historic sites. In Wyoming, the fourth grade passes are being accepted by the state parks for the second year in a row. New Mexico State Parks allow free entry for fourth-graders with the federal pass and, in the past, have aimed at connecting four million fourth graders with nature through this program.
The importance of bringing children and adults closer to nature cannot be overstated. Studies have shown that for children, connecting with nature translates into enriching social experiences with families and friends. Being outdoors helps children to be creative, curious, explorative, and create great memories that they cherish as adults. Besides contributing towards positive psychological development in children, the natural world also helps them remain fit and healthy. The American Heart Association recognizes childhood obesity as the number one health concern of American children and prescribes outdoor physical activities as prevention. Surveys reveal that Americans perceive nature to be integral for their physical, spiritual, and emotional development. And spending time outdoors during childhood significantly increases the chances that children will develop a lifelong love and appreciation for the outdoors, and continue going back year after year, with or without the pass.
Nevada’s new legislation giving children and their families more opportunities to enjoy nature and the outdoors is a welcomed initiative that should be replicated by the rest of the nation. We encourage other states to follow Nevada’s lead.
OAK is seeking testimonials from children, parents, caregivers and teachers to share the impact of the Every Kid in a Park program. If your organization is planning an Every Kid in a Park event (or has already completed one), please help share the impact of the outdoor experience by encouraging youth participants to fill out the “I love my Every Kid in a Park pass because…” postcard and send it to OAK!
Photos courtesy of Chris Rief, National Park Trust