February 3, 2022
By Jackie Ostfeld
This blog was originally posted on SierraClub.org. Photo courtesy of Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.
For nearly two years, children and youth have seen their family, social, and educational lives disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has cut young people off from their support networks, and rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, and loneliness in our youth are soaring, according to mental health professionals. In December, Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy declared that we had entered a “youth mental health crisis.”
Getting kids outdoors can help relieve their depression and anxiety, and even help heal their traumas. Study after study shows that spending time in nature has positive effects on physical and mental health. It boosts concentration, improves social skills and even helps kids perform better in school.
Unfortunately, for many families, getting into nature isn’t as simple as a walk in the park. In fact, an estimated 100 million Americans, including 28 million children, don’t live within 10 minutes of a high-quality park or green space. And visiting a national park, already an undertaking for any family, is out of reach for families who cannot afford the expenses for travel, lodging, and entrance fees.
One program brings our national parks into reach for millions of youth. Since 2015, the Every Kid Outdoors program has offered free entry to more than 400 national parks and public wilderness areas for all fourth graders and their families. It enables every fourth grader, regardless of ability to pay, the opportunity to build a direct connection with nature.
Every Kid Outdoors is simple, popular with families, and supports local economies in communities near our national parks. However, the program has never received adequate funding to address the inequalities that prevent many youth and families from experiencing nature. Public transit to public lands is limited, putting many places out of reach for kids whose families don’t have cars. And without sufficient funding, parks haven’t been able to build the infrastructure that would make them accessible to the disabled community. It’s essential that we address the causes of the “nature equity gap.”
Having a direct connection to nature has never been more essential for our youth, and that’s why it’s critical that Congress give this program the support it needs. Investing in Every Kid Outdoors will ensure that the ability to pay isn’t a prerequisite for experiencing nature. All people, regardless of race, income, or ability, deserve access to nature.
The outdoors offer all of us a chance to rest and heal. We need nature to recover from the physical and mental health effects of COVID-19, and that’s especially true for children. The Every Kid Outdoors program is a simple and commonsense way to give young people another opportunity for healing from the mental and physical stress of the pandemic – that’s why it’s popular with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. It’s time for Congress to support Every Kid Outdoors.
Jackie Ostfeld is the Director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors For All campaign, and Founder and Chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids.