Fatima’s Great Outdoors

In Case You Missed It: Watch the Recording of Fatima’s Great Outdoors Storytime Live Event 

By: Jackie Ostfeld, OAK Co-Chair and Founder and Jayni Rasmussen, OAK Senior Campaign Representative

Note: Book cover courtesy of Penguin Kids and screenshot from livestream with author Ambreen Tariq. Photo originally posted on Sierra Magazine‘s blog on 4/8/21.

Last week, Penguin Kids and the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) hosted a storytime book reading and conversation with Ambreen Tariq, author of a new children’s book, Fatima’s Great Outdoors! The discussion and Q&A, moderated by OAK Co-Chair and Founder Jackie Ostfeld, focused on getting more kids out in nature, as well as the importance of making the outdoors a place where everyone can see themselves.

Fatima’s Great Outdoors is the story of “an immigrant family embarking on their first camping trip in the Midwest.” Ambreen is also the founder of Brown People Camping, a social media initiative focused on personal narratives and storytelling to promote greater diversity and representation on our public lands and in nature.

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the recording of this fun storytime live event, featuring OAK’s Jackie Ostfeld moderating a live Q&A with the author, Ambreen Tariq. 

If the embedded video isn’t showing up for you, click here to access the recording.

It’s Great to Be a 4th Grader

A perspective on exploring national parks with the Every Kid Outdoors (EKO) pass as a military family.

By Andrew and Hannah Pike

As long-time Northern Virginia (NoVA) residents, our family is fortunate to be located near a myriad of landmarks and sources of natural beauty.  A 30-minute weekend drive gets us to the National Mall in Washington, D.C and within 45-minutes we can visit Great Falls National Park in McLean, VA.

We’ve lived here for 15 years and even with multiple national parks close by, we never visited one until our youngest son entered 4th grade this year. We learned of the Every Kid Outdoors (EKO) program last year during a meeting with the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK). The EKO pass is a great way and a free way for fourth graders and their families to visit national parks, which can be challenging even in the best of times. Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has prevented many families from visiting these iconic spots. We’re lucky we live close to so many easily accessible parks, which allowed us to avoid crowds during our visit this past fall.

The Pike family stops at a scenic viewpoint along Skyline Drive. Photo courtesy of the Pike family.

One of our first journeys beyond the public green spaces within our community was a 90-minute drive to Shenandoah National Park in Luray, VA.  With 516 miles of hiking trails, four campgrounds and 1,046 native plants, there is too much to do and see in a day, so we decided to take in the views from Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs the entire length of the park.  With autumn settling in and the leaves changing color, we stopped at a dozen of the scenic overlooks to take in the spectacular views, and with so many stops to absorb the scenery, we only explored a fraction of Skyline Drive. Following Skyline Drive was a great way for us to enjoy a small part of Shenandoah National Park during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Pike family enjoys the scenery at Shenandoah National Park. Photo courtesy of the Pike family.

Andrew grew up as a military kid and lived in six different African countries and five different state-side military bases. National parks and natural wonders were something his family visited regularly. Most military kids move anywhere from six to nine times before they turn 18 and often have to reinvest in a new area and make new friends each time. While moving regularly can have its disruptions, the ability to explore new areas and regions is a great benefit. Every new place has something to offer and beauty waiting to be discovered. The EKO pass is a great way for military families to explore this beauty. 

But it’s not only military families who benefit from spending time outdoors — we all do. The physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature are undeniable, and that has only become more clear during the pandemic. The EKO pass is a great tool for expanding access to nature and its benefits, and it is so important that those benefits be available to everyone.

The stunning natural beauty of Great Falls National Park in Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Pike family.

This winter, we are already looking ahead to 2021 and the parks we will visit.  It has been almost as much fun watching the kids discover all the natural beauty in our region as it has been to visit the parks. The pride in our 4th grader’s eyes when he presented his pass to the park ranger makes us smile every time we talk about it. He was so excited that he immediately told his best friend about it. His family also downloaded the EKO pass and took the Skyline Drive trip the following week.

With the weather warming, our next destination is still undecided, but we love that the journey has been as much fun as the destination. From my family to yours, thank you to the Outdoors Alliance for Kids for all the hard work and dedication that goes into making this incredible opportunity accessible to families like mine.

Note from OAK: How did your family get outdoors this year, and what outdoor activities are you planning when it’s safe to do so? We’d love to hear from you and feature you on the OAK blog. If you have a story to share, reach out to Jayni Rasmussen at jayni.rasmussen@sierraclub.org.

RELEASE: OAK Statement on House Passage of Outdoors for All Act in Public Lands Package

“PAW+” Act Protects Public Lands, Promotes Outdoors Equity

Friday, February 26, 2021
Contact: Ian Brickey (202) 675-6270 or ian.brickey@sierraclub.org

OAK Statement on Passage of Outdoors for All Act in Public Lands Package

“PAW+” Act Protects Public Lands, Promotes Outdoors Equity

WASHINGTON, D.C. –Today, the United States House of Representatives passed the Outdoors for All Act as part of the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act— a package of conservation bills that will collectively protect public lands and expand nearby nature access across the country. If passed, the Outdoors for All Act would permanently authorize the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) program, which is the only program administered by the Department of the Interior to promote the development of equity-focused parks and green space projects in urban communities. 

In response, the Outdoors Alliance for Kids Founder & Chair Jackie Ostfeld released the following statement:

“We welcome today’s vote to advance the Outdoors for All Act. 

“The benefits of the outdoors, from improving health and wellness to increasing economic activity, are universal. Sadly, access to the outdoors is not. Many kids and families, especially those from low-income communities and Black and brown communities, do not have the same access to parks and green spaces as wealthier and whiter families minutes away. ORLP is essential to addressing that equity gap to ensure all children, regardless of zip code, can benefit from access to the outdoors.

We urge the Senate to act quickly and send it to President Biden’s desk.”


About the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK): OAK is a national strategic partnership of organizations from diverse sectors with a common interest in connecting children, youth, and families with the outdoors. The members of OAK are brought together by the belief that the wellness of current and future generations, the health of our planet and communities and the economy of the future depend on humans having a personal, direct, and life-long relationship with nature and the outdoors. OAK brings together more than 100 businesses and organizations to address the growing divide between children, youth, and the outdoors. 

Join us for OAK Week 2021!

OAK Week 2021 is February 16 – 18! Although we can’t be together in DC this year, we’re looking forward to connecting with OAK members, prospective members and partners over an exciting week of virtual sessions, workshops and networking events. 

About OAK Week

OAK Week, which includes OAK’s Annual Meeting and Advocacy Day, serves as a dynamic, energizing venue for OAK members and partners to connect and network as well as collaborate on and invest in OAK campaigns. This year, OAK’s Annual Meeting will be held across two days, spaced to accommodate virtual conference engagement, and will include networking opportunities. The final day will be a federal advocacy day and training, during which OAK members will make our collective voices heard in the (virtual) halls of Congress.

Who Attends OAK Week?

OAK Week is primarily for OAK members and partners, but we also welcome representatives of organizations interested in joining OAK! OAK members will receive invitations to OAK Week activities through emails and the shared calendar. If you’re interested in joining us for our virtual OAK Week 2021, please reach out to Jayni Rasmussen, OAK Senior Campaign Representative, at jayni.rasmussen@sierraclub.org.

If you’re an OAK supporter and you’re interested in lifting up OAK’s mission during OAK Week 2021, be sure to follow along via social media! Scroll down for more details.

What’s Going on at OAK Week 2021?

  • OAK’s 2021 Biden and Harris Transition Recommendations: Join us as we present OAK’s final recommendations for the Biden/Harris Administration and weigh in on our federal policy priorities for 2021.
  •  #EveryKidOutdoors – Advancing OAK’s Mission to Connect Children, Youth and Families to the Outdoors: Share your input on how to continue the momentum on OAK’s federal policy successes, including our victories around Every Kid Outdoors, over the past decade, by advancing our federal, state, and local policy work and campaigns such as Every Kid Outdoors in State Parks campaign. 
  • Discussion with Dr. Carolyn Finney: Dr. Carolyn Finney is a storyteller, author and cultural geographer working to increase awareness of how privilege shapes who gets to speak to environmental issues and determine policy and action. Join us for a conversation with Dr. Finney on racial equity and connecting children, youth and families to the outdoors.
  • Networking Reception: Join us for a networking reception, kicked off by some of our incredible youth advocates – Robbie Bond of Kids Speak for Parks, Junior Ranger Tigran Nahabedian, and Lily Kay, Every Kid Outdoors in State Parks champion in Texas – with breakout groups to meet and connect with OAK members and partners.

  • OAK Racial Equity Workshop: This workshop is first in a series of courageous conversations to examine the ways in which OAK operates and is structured that may reinforce characteristics of white supremacy culture; and identify ways to decenter whiteness and move towards anti-racist policies, practices, and behaviors. This workshop will focus on developing alignment and a shared understanding across OAK members and partners on how white supremacy culture characteristics and traits show up in our day-to-day interactions.
  • Workshop: Youth Outdoor Policy Playbook: OAK is in its third year participating in an exciting partnership coordinated by the Meridian Institute with partners at the North American Association of Environmental Educators (NAAEE), Children & Nature Network (C&NN) and the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL). Learn about the Youth Outdoor Policy Playbook, a tool to help legislators and community leaders advance state policies that support getting kids outdoors, then weigh in on critical next steps, including policy and partnership ideas that support outdoor learning during COVID-19 and beyond.
  • OAK Action Team Open House: Learn about the OAK National Policy Action Team, which handles federal policy, funding and programs, and the OAK State and Local Action Team, which handles state, local and regional policy, funding and programs (such as Every Kid Outdoors in State Parks) and how you can join as a member or step into a leadership role.

Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill: Starting with a training, participants will join their team leads from the OAK National Policy Action Team on virtual meetings with Congressional staff to advocate for OAK federal policy priorities.

Share Your OAK Week Experience!

Whether you’re an OAK member, partner or supporter, be sure to share your OAK Week 2021 experience by following OAK’s social media handles on Facebook and Twitter!

You can also signal-boost OAK’s shared work by posting on your organization’s or individual social media accounts, using the hashtags #OAKWeek and #EveryKidOutdoors. For social graphics and sample Facebook and Twitter posts, click here.

RELEASE: After Pressure, Interior Extends Every Kid Outdoors Pass

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Contact: Ian Brickey (314) 238-6766 or ian.brickey@sierraclub.org

After Pressure, Interior Extends Every Kid Outdoors Pass
Outside Groups Had Asked for Extension Since August Expiration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, October 28, the Department of the Interior announced plans to extend the 2019-2020 Every Kid Outdoors pass into 2021. The move comes after environmental and youth recreation groups launched a campaign for the department to extend the pass for fourth graders and families that could not visit public lands and waters due to closings instigated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This is a victory for fourth graders and families across the country,” said Jackie Ostfeld, director of Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign and founder of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids. “After months of inaction, Interior has finally responded to our calls to extend the program so no child misses an opportunity to visit our beautiful national parks because of COVID-19. Extending the EKO pass means that our kids and families will be able to find respite and health on our public lands and waters, right when they need it most. Thank you to all the members of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, and thousands of advocates, who helped secure this important victory.” 

The EKO pass offers fourth graders and their families free admission to public lands and waters. The 2019-2020 pass expired on August 31, preventing many families from accessing national parks due to state-level stay-at-home orders and closures of many national parks facilities.

The Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) launched a public campaign to encourage Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to extend the pass into 2021, including nearly 8,000 online actions by supporters. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Sen. Lamar Alexander along with Rep. Elise Stefanik also sent bipartisan letters to the department urging them to extend the pass. The department initially stated they had no power to extend the pass without action from Congress, but after OAK’s campaign made headlines in September, Bernhardt reversed course and began exploring options to extend the program.

“At a time when young people are spending their days in front of computer screens engaged in remote learning, it is vitally important to extend a hand to kids to invite them to get outdoors and experience the amazing things that America’s national parks and public lands have to offer,” said Paul Sanford, National Recreation Policy Director at The Wilderness Society. “The Every Kid Outdoors park pass is a great way to extend that invitation. Providing fifth graders with another chance to use the pass means more kids will connect with America’s public lands and enjoy the health benefits they have to offer. That will make kids healthier and happier and help them learn better.”

“The YMCA applauds the U.S. Department of Interior’s decision to extend the Every Kid in a Park pass for students who weren’t able to take advantage of it this year,” said Kevin Washington, President and CEO of YMCA of the USA. “Experiences that the pass makes possible can help kids develop an appreciation for the historic, cultural and recreational value of our public lands, and can accelerate their growth as the next generation of stewards of these lands. We thank Congresswoman Stefanik for her leadership on this bipartisan effort and the Department for its commitment to ensure that every kid has access to the outdoors.”


About the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK): OAK is a national strategic partnership of organizations from diverse sectors with a common interest in connecting children, youth, and families with the outdoors. The members of OAK are brought together by the belief that the wellness of current and future generations, the health of our planet and communities and the economy of the future depend on humans having a personal, direct, and life-long relationship with nature and the outdoors. OAK brings together more than 100 businesses and organizations to address the growing divide between children, youth, and the outdoors. 

Helping More People Benefit from Positive Experiences Outdoors

This blog was originally published on the Rethink Outside website, and produced in partnership with the Rethink Outside campaign. Learn more.

Recently appointed Vice President for Education and Chief Equity Officer for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) Autumn Saxton-Ross, Ph.D., didn’t experience America’s national parks until she was an adult. She went to college two miles from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and, having grown up in the Kansas City, Missouri, it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that she realized she could get paid for work that focused on getting people outdoors.

“I wish someone would have told me earlier,” she says.

Saxton-Ross understands she wouldn’t be where she is today without the day-to-day connections her family provided early to the outdoors. “We know that people in communities experiencing all types of vulnerabilities can benefit exponentially from these experiences large and small,” she says.

Now she’s working to increase those opportunities for others. A membership organization for parks and recreation professionals, NRPA hired Saxton-Ross to support strategic professional growth that will make parks and recreation more beneficial to more communities. This work includes helping its members become more aware of exclusive, inequitable practices while learning how to approach their work with a lens of equity and inclusion—from contracts to programming to hiring.

Before joining NRPA, Saxton-Ross worked at NatureBridge as the director of its Mid-Atlantic Region. There, she learned the importance of focusing on the individual as a critical part of systems change. For example, she saw the changes that happened when staff members better understood the kids in NatureBridge’s most diverse region, where many are students of color from northern Virginia and D.C.’s public or charter schools.

“Kids show up in different ways, and a specific behavior is not because kids don’t want to be there. It may just be a defense mechanism,” she says. “When adults spend an hour making the kids feel more comfortable, they’re better able to connect. When a young person feels welcome and included, they feel like they belong in that park, and they’re going to open up to science, learning, and nature. I believe young Black children, especially males, who may not connect to traditional schooling, need that spark.”

While Saxton-Ross was working at Nature Bridge, Jackie Ostfeld, director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors For All campaign, and founder and chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK), recruited her to be on the organization’s steering committee.

“Initially, I was recruited to represent Nature Bridge,” says Saxton-Ross, “but as OAK started thinking more about access and barriers and the composition of the steering committee, they decided to be a lot more intentional. It wasn’t just about a person representing an organization. It was also about the voice and perspective that person brings.”

For Saxton-Ross, it was a refreshing approach. “From the perspective of being a minority of minorities, a Black woman in an environmental organization, it makes me feel more valued and less isolated,” she says. Perspectives like hers are critical, especially at a challenging time that magnifies inequities and highlights the necessity of the outdoors to community health and wellbeing.

What excites Saxton-Ross most about her work with OAK, her past work at Nature Bridge and her future at NRPA? “We can help each other,” she says. “It’s not another thing to do. It’s a way of seeing. None of us created the current system. Some of us benefit, and some of us don’t. But by sharing history, sharing language and moving together, we can use that new lens to change the systems or policies that each of us has power over.” With NRPA reaching 63,000 members and 1500 agencies around the country; and OAK, with over 100 member organizations; and all the programs like Nature Bridge connecting individuals, families and communities to opportunities outdoors; that’s no small thing.

Every Kid Outdoors: Lily’s Story

by Jayni Rasmussen, Senior Campaign Representative for the Outdoors Alliance for Kids & Youth at Sierra Club. (Originally published on the American Heart Association’s Healthy for Good Blog; cross-posted with permission)

With the coronavirus disrupting daily life and increasing isolation, many people are turning to the outdoors for recreation. The increased interest in outdoor recreation is good news, because it has many health benefits. Yet national, state, regional and local parks with space for effective social distancing are socially, physically and financially out of reach for many families. Youth advocates like Lily Kay, a 10-year-old in Dallas, Texas, are on a mission to change that.

Lily’s story

It all began when Lily and her family decided to take advantage of the National Park Service’s Every Kid Outdoors program, which gives fourth graders and their families a free one-year pass to national parks. Lily put together a presentation on which national parks she thought her family should visit. It was elaborate and colorful, with the energy and enthusiasm of the character Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation.


The Kay family visited several national parks and sites. As they drove away from Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona and headed to Bryce Canyon for more adventures, Lily thought about using the pass back at home. While the only true national park in Texas — Big Bend — is more than a 10-hour drive from her home, there are more than 80 state parks, some just 30 minutes from Dallas. She wondered, “Can I use my Every Kid Outdoors pass in Texas state parks?”

The answer was no, but Lily — who knew her peers spent lots of time on screens instead of outside — became determined to get involved. Kids today spend less time outdoors than any other generation, contributing to the increase in chronic diseases at an earlier age. She felt that if young people didn’t develop a relationship with nature and outdoor recreation now, it was possible they never would.

An activist is born

Lily’s mom encouraged her to write their state representative, Morgan Meyer. In an earnest, well-argued letter, Lily proposed the KAY BILL (Kids: Active, Young, Brave, Intelligent, Learners and Leaders). The bill would expand on the federal Every Kid Outdoors program by allowing fourth graders and their families free admission to state parks. Texas state parks already offered free admission to kids 12 and younger, but this bill would codify Lily’s idea into law and extend the benefit to families. Representative Meyer was convinced.

After the bill passed in the Texas House, Lily worked with Meyer to find a sponsor for a companion bill in the Senate. Hoping for a female senator to support the bill, Lily inspired Senator Angela Paxton to take up the task. As the bill slowly worked through the legislative process, Lily bravely testified in front of House and Senate committees. And finally, as the legislative session came to an end, the bill passed — with one catch. Unfortunately, the language that would have allowed families to get free admission along with their kids was removed.

When the governor signed the bill into law, Lily and her supporters were thrilled about the victory. But with her goal only partially realized, she knew her work wasn’t finished.

The effort continues

Now Lily has the support of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, a strategic partnership of organizations and businesses that works to reduce barriers to access. OAK has launched Every Kid Outdoors in State Parks, activating members and supporters across the country to expand Every Kid Outdoors to state park systems, including Lily’s idea to include families.

How can you help?

Join the Every Kid Outdoors in State Parks campaign.

What better way to spend your time in self-isolation than working to ensure everyone has equal access to the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor recreation? If a fifth grader can do it, so can you!


Jayni Rasmussen is the Senior Campaign Representative for the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) & Youth at Sierra Club. OAK is a strategic partnership of over 100 nonprofits and businesses with a shared mission of connecting children, youth and families with the outdoors. Previously, she was the Advocacy and Outreach Manager for the National Recreation & Park Association, where she led the organization’s advocacy efforts, including creating the award-winning Park Champion initiative. Jayni can often be found exploring the outdoors with her partner, Marshall, and their dog, Lola.

Making Sure Every Child Receives the Benefits of Time Outdoors

This blog was produced in partnership with the Rethink Outside campaign. Learn more.

Ten years before the COVID-19 crisis and the nationwide uprisings for racial justice, Sierra Club, YMCA of the USA, Children & Nature Network, REI and others set out to form a coalition and address an urgent crisis among America’s children and youth: social disconnection and an obesity epidemic caused by far too much time spent indoors and on screens and glaring inequities in access to quality green spaces and outdoor education.

Because of systemic racism, Black, Latinx, and Asian communities are most likely to live in nature-deprived communities, and among these communities of color, families with children at home have the least access to parks and open spaces. These same communities are most likely to live in areas with higher levels of air pollution, and experience the highest rates of childhood obesity, and related chronic illnesses.

To help address these problems then and now, the coalition became the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK). A national strategic partnership, OAK focuses on making it easier for young people and their families to develop a life-long relationship with nature and the outdoors and the health benefits they provide.

By organizing across sectors that included the environment, public health and youth development, OAK quickly gained public attention and support. One of its first major achievements involved persuading First Lady Michelle Obama to broaden her “Let’s Move!” campaign to “Let’s Move! Outside” in 2010, encouraging kids and families to get outdoors as one solution to the national obesity crisis.

“It was a great launchpad for OAK to get its work started,” says Paul Sanford, National Recreation Policy Director of the Wilderness Society and current OAK vice-chair. To bolster the campaign over the next few years, the Y, in collaboration with OAK members across the country, led 50 summits to raise awareness and increase collaboration among land management agencies and community organizations at the city level.

Crucial Connections

“We knew that if obesity was the current crisis of the day, and kids weren’t getting outside, that the two were intertwined,” says Katie Adamson, original OAK co-founder and long-term steering committee member and YMCA Vice President of Health Partnerships and Policy. “The future of health and the future of the environment are completely linked.”

In 2015, the Obama administration worked with OAK to develop and ultimately launch its Every Kid in a Park initiative. Welcoming a new and diverse generation into the outdoors and celebrating the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, the new program gives all U.S. fourth-graders and their families a year of free admission to national parks, waters, forests, monuments and wildlife refuges. OAK amplified and championed the program, hosting dozens of launch events across the country to make sure the pass got into the hands of kids from Baltimore to Hawaii. Within the first two years, over 2 million children signed up for the program, and more than $5 million in private investments were made to support transportation costs to ensure all children could participate.

“It’s more than just giving kids a freebie,” says Sanford. “It really lets them know that public lands are theirs, and to enjoy them with their families.”

When the program later came under threat, OAK successfully worked to save it. The alliance collected 1000 hand-written postcards from children across the country to show the program’s impact, and military children personally delivered them to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke during a meeting organized by OAK members National Park Trust and Blue Star Families. Days later, the Secretary announced the program would be continued for another year. And, when the Trump administration floated a proposal to raise park entrance fees by more than 200%, OAK helped defeat it by releasing a bipartisan poll that voiced Americans’ concerns and mobilizing its members to advocate, demonstrated once again the power of partnerships.

In 2019, the alliance worked with policymakers to pass the Every Kid Outdoors Act, to ensure the program would continue, regardless of administration, to serve nearly four million children and their families with an invitation to their parks and public lands. The legislation renamed and formally authorized the Every Kid in a Park initiative for seven years. Along the way, OAK continued to gain important allies including young people such as Robbie Bond, Lily Kay and Tigran Nahabedian.

Working Side-By-Side with The Next Generation

Robbie Bond grew up in Hawaii, experiencing and learning about the outdoors from his grandpa, the manager of Hanauma Bay working for the Honolulu City and County Parks Department. Robbie wanted other children to have the same kinds of opportunities he enjoyed. In 2017, when he was just nine years old, Robbie founded the nonprofit organization Kids Speak for Parks. Last year, he spoke to the Director of National Parks and the Deputy Director in the Office of External Affairs at the Interior Department and visited Washington, D.C. to speak with members of Congress to help the Every Kid Outdoors Act pass. He’s also connecting with more kids with his own comic book character and documentary as part of Marvel’s Hero project, which features young people making change in their communities.

“What grade do kids need to be to get into Texas parks for free?” Lily Kay wondered because there were many more state parks in Texas than the one national park, which is about an 8-hour drive from where she lives. The answer was “they don’t.” So Lily wrote to her state legislator, asking him to expand free admission to state parks for 5th graders and their families. The KAY BILL passed, named by Lily and standing for Kids: Active, Young, Brave, Intelligent, Learners and Leaders, was signed into law. However, the language mirroring the federal law to include free admission for family or friends in the car was removed. Now Lily and OAK have joined forces to continue to voice the need for access to parks in Texas and nationwide so that other kids and their families can fall in love with exploring outdoors.

When Tigran Nahabedian was just five years old, his family took him to his first national park, where he participated in the junior ranger program. “It became a family tradition to visit parks together,” says Tigran. After participating in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Outside campaign, he was selected as the first National Park Trust Buddy Bison Student Ambassador at age 10. That gave him the opportunity to join with Buddy Bison to help launch the Find Your Park Campaign in Washington D.C. Now in high school, and as an alumnus of the Buddy Bison program, he mentors 17 new ambassadors entering the program.

Pandemic and Racial Uprising Underscore Importance of OAK’s Work

Early in 2020, OAK moved forward with efforts to connect more kids and families to the outdoors and geared up to launch its Every Kid Outdoors in State Parks campaign, to expand the impact of the federal program to state park systems. Right now a fourth grader in Pueblo, Colorado, one of the lowest-income cities in the nation, would have to travel an hour and a half to use their free pass at the nearest national park, but would pay to get into Lake Pueblo State Park, just outside of town. The campaign to expand to nearby state parks was just about to activate when the COVID-19 global pandemic struck.

Within a matter of weeks, the nonprofit sector and all the many organizations within OAK worked to respond to a new reality that magnified existing racial and social inequities. OAK quickly mobilized its members, big and small, to support and share CDC guidelines and promote resources for staying safely engaged with nature during the pandemic. The YMCA went into emergency response mode. The Wilderness Society worked to ensure public land organizations providing valuable public services survived. The American Heart Association created a multi-faceted response that spans from research to community care. And alliance members saw how the work of OAK became even more relevant and important.

“The pandemic is highlighting the fact that green space is much more available to some people than others. That shouldn’t be the way it is,” says Sanford.

As OAK enters its tenth anniversary, it does so with the understanding that all of its significant accomplishments will be for naught, if the alliance doesn’t make a dedicated effort to address the structural racism that pervades society. “In addition to the pandemic, Black, Indigenous, and people of color live under a constant threat of racist violence and harassment from police and individuals, and these threats extend to our public lands,” says Jackie Ostfeld, Director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors For All campaign, and Founder and Chair of OAK. We need to create a tomorrow where every kid can safely restore their mental and physical health outdoors.”

Today, OAK is redoubling its efforts. By welcoming more kids and families outdoors, OAK increases the nation’s social and emotional health and ensures that parks are protected and available whenever and wherever people need them. Find out how you can join in getting Every Kid Outdoors.

Making Sure Every Child Receives the Benefits of Time Outdoors | OAK

How to Connect Young Students to Nature During the Pandemic?

by Jackie Ostfeld, OAK co-founder & chair, Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign director; text originally published in SIERRA Magazine (photos added here by author)

Our kids are not all right. It’s been more than six months since schools across America closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sending children home and, in many cases, into isolation from friends and extended family. While I feel fortunate that my children, at ages five and two, are too young to fully comprehend the state of the world, I know they are feeling the weight of not being able to play with their friends, go to the playground, or take out a new book from the library. 

Our kids may be largely spared from the physical illness and death caused by the novel coronavirus, but the mental health impact of living through a pandemic will likely take its toll. During these challenging times, the CDC recommends getting outside for both the physical and mental benefits. As families increasingly seek the outdoors, now is the time to examine the role outdoor spaces play in the lives of our children and to ask ourselves how to make nature truly accessible to all.

While other countries took early, decisive, and science-driven action to curb the spread of the coronavirus, President Trump downplayed the severity of COVID-19 and politicized the US pandemic response. Six months later, New Zealand, South Korea, Finland, and many other nations have reopened their schools safely. Meanwhile, we’re now approaching 25 percent of the world’s confirmed cases. Black communities are dying from COVID-19 at the highest rates, its lethality exacerbated by comorbidities rooted in systemic racism. At the same time, school districts serving Black and brown students are facing the greatest pressures to reopen for in-person learning in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately claiming their communities’ lives.

Earlier this summer, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos threatened to cut funding for public schools unwilling to fully reopen for in-person learning. The economic downturn is likely to cause steep declines in tax revenue for schools, and the Trump-DeVos plan would be particularly harmful for school districts that primarily serve students of color, which already receive $23 billion less than districts that serve primarily white students, forcing them to potentially expose their teachers, students, families, and communities to COVID-19—or risk losing critical funding. In fact, some experts recommend that Congress triple Title 1 funding for the next three years, just to maintain the pre-COVID status quo.

While the administration may fail to lead during this pandemic, we have learned a few things over the past few months that can inform communities and educators’ decisions going forward. For one, the virus spreads with less virulence outdoors, and early on, the CDC recommended physical activity, like spending time in nearby nature, as “one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy.” With that knowledge, some countries and cities are dramatically expanding their outdoor classroom environments, while others are just beginning to experiment with the concept of outdoor learning. 

In Denmark, community parks are being reserved for young children during school hours to accommodate outdoor learning. In Scotland, city officials are encouraging schools to use public parks as outdoor classrooms. New York City announced an outdoor learning plan that encourages schools to utilize any outdoor spaces possible, including nearby parks, and to work with local officials to close down streets to traffic in areas without outdoor learning spaces, echoing the city’s response to earlier pandemics. School districts across the US are considering outdoor learning as either an alternative or a complement to remote learning.

Nearly 20 years ago, I started my career as a field-based environmental educator, using the natural world as a classroom to teach thousands of kids about a range of topics. I’ve seen firsthand the transformational power of time in nature. I’ve seen fear turn to awe. I’ve seen rivals become close friends. I’ve seen a school bully transformed into a nice kid after just a few days walking on trails with his classmates. And I’ve seen that light bulb go off over a kid’s head when suddenly something she learned in the classroom finally makes sense. Nature changes us and heals us. Every child deserves the physical, emotional, social, and even academic benefits of time spent outdoors.

I’ve seen a school bully transformed into a nice kid after just a few days walking on trails with his classmates. And I’ve seen that light bulb go off over a kid’s head when suddenly something she learned in the classroom finally makes sense. Nature changes us and heals us.

Nature may not be a panacea, but it can help get us through these trying times. We now know that it really only takes two hours of nature each week to significantly improve mental health, and that parks and community green spaces improve the wellness of entire communities. An immersive experience in nature can also serve as adjunct therapy for individuals experiencing post-traumatic stress. Access to nature, from neighborhood parks and gardens to national parks and open spaces, should be respected as a basic human right. 

But the reality is that access is not universal, and people of color are most likely to suffer the consequences of environmental destruction, such as pollution and the impacts of the climate crisis, and are least likely to have community-level access to nature. People of color are three times more likely than white people to live in communities with limited nature access, and 100 million people in the US, including 28 million children, do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. These numbers are staggering, the results of racist and discriminatory land-use policies and practices that have shaped our communities and left a legacy of inequity. Across race and ethnicity, Black, Latino, Asian, and white adults highly value getting outdoors for physical and emotional health. At the same time, Black and brown parents harbor the most fears and concerns about allowing their children to be outdoors on their own.

Where the system has failed to ensure all kids have these benefits, an entire field of outdoor environmental education has been actively working for decades to ensure that children can access their human right to nature. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on outdoor environmental education. It’s estimated that more than 11 million kids will miss out on opportunities for environmental and outdoor science learning due to program closures, with 60 percent of those children coming from communities of color or low-income communities. Nearly 65 percent of outdoor environmental and science educator organizations are unlikely to reopen their doors after the COVID-19 pandemic. Without assistance, these organizations will cease to exist.

It’s estimated that more than 11 million kids will miss out on opportunities for environmental and outdoor science learning due to program closures, with 60 percent of those children coming from communities of color or low-income communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened our understanding of the value and necessity of outdoor time for the health and wellness of our kids and communities. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine our schools and our children’s connection to nature. As the director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign, the founder and chair of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, a former educator, and a mom, I have a few ideas. 

First, we need to work to make sure that all children have neighborhood-level access to quality public parks and open spaces. Congress recently passed legislation to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, providing a unique opportunity to invest in economically disadvantaged communities with limited park access through the fund’s Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program. Next, schools and after-school centers across America need financial and technical resources to develop park-like outdoor play and learning environments, wherever possible. When space is not an option, schools should be supported to establish partnerships with nearby parks and open areas. As we work to advance park equity and proximity to schools, there will still be a need for alternatives—cities across the country are closing streets to traffic to make more room for physical activity. Schools and nearby communities should consider turning adjacent streets into outdoor learning environments, if only during school hours. Unfortunately, there will be tens of thousands of trained field educators looking for work. So we might consider developing an outdoor environmental education corps to support schools and teachers across the country as they try outdoor learning for the first time.

Additionally, we should dramatically expand the national Every Kid Outdoors (EKO) program to ensure children can benefit from a more immersive experience in nature. Since 2015, the program has invited children to visit their national parks and public lands with a free entry pass for fourth graders and their families. In the first two years of the program, nearly 2 million children downloaded the pass, and more than $5 million in private funding was raised to ensure that children from Title 1 schools had transportation to visit a park and participate in the program. Over the next few years, we need to dramatically expand the program to truly ensure that every kid can benefit from a park experience. 

First, let’s extend the benefits of the pass from fourth graders to all pre-K to 12 students, and encourage state and regional park systems to follow the lead of Maryland, Nevada, and other states to either adopt EKO or establish a similar pass program. We should provide training and resources to park systems at all levels to ensure all children have a positive and welcoming experience upon arrival. Providing a pass is not enough, however. We will also need to make sure schools have the financial means and support to participate in the program, by funding transportation expenses for Title 1 schools to embed field trips to nearby parks into each academic year for all students in primary and secondary schools. Investing in our children’s connection to nature will support their health and wellness and prepare a new generation of leaders to help address our climate and environmental challenges, all while contributing to a growing outdoor recreation economy, which is valued at $887 billion. While getting every kid outdoors won’t solve all of our problems, it will make for a good start.

A Trailblazer

Working for Latino Outdoors, Ruby Rodriguez wants to ensure that others can more easily follow in her footsteps

“Today, I’m the person I knew I could be—if given the opportunity,” says Ruby Rodriguez.

That includes connecting her community in Fresno, California, to Yosemite National Park. The project is funded by the National Park Trust, and it’s part of her work as the director of programs and operations for Latino Outdoors, an organization that connects and engages Latino communities in the outdoors.

“I’ve come full circle,” Rodriguez says.

She first visited Yosemite in 2009 while going through intense personal and marital issues. To cope, she would drive in an area that she considered to be “the country,” because it felt calm and soothing. She liked to look at the scenery because it brought back memories from her childhood of playing outside in a ditch—what she would later recognize as riparian habitat. Those comfort-seeking drives eventually brought her to the majestic park. On her third such trip in 2010, she brought water and workout clothes. She parked at Nevada Falls and embarked on her first-ever hike.

It was the most physically challenging thing Rodriguez had ever done. It was also tough emotionally. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I saw other people in gear and happy, and I was way out of my comfort zone.” Part of that discomfort came from not seeing anyone who looked like her, nobody from her nearby community.

At the same time, Rodriguez experienced the benefits of being outdoors in a beautiful and awe-inspiring place. She felt the presence of a higher power and the sense of being part of a larger story. She remembers thinking, “Damn, I have potential.”

Finding Purpose

In that moment, it all came flooding back: the happy times Rodriguez had spent outside as a child and the growing disconnect from nature she experienced as she aged. But her return to the outdoors wasn’t instantaneous.

Rodriguez became a mother when she was only 16. Finding her identity as a parent would have been challenging at any time of life, but she had the additional struggle of trying to resolve her own trauma of being told she wasn’t good enough and yet knowing she could do better for herself and her child.

When she wanted to transfer from community college to a university and was scrolling majors at the California State University at Fresno website, she saw Recreation Administration. “That’s something I could stick with,” she thought.

Her moment of resolve came a couple years after that as she was going through a divorce and expecting her third child with no degree and no job. She thought, “This isn’t the life I want.”

Determined to earn her degree, she discovered that Humboldt State was the only school still accepting applications. She’d never heard of it before. She looked more closely at the school and its recreation program and thought, “This place is amazing.” But when she submitted her application, she received an error message. She nearly gave up, but a couple weeks later tried again. It went through, and soon her acceptance letter arrived.

As she prepared for this new path and after a trip to Hetch Hetchy with her newborn, she decided something must be done about the lack of Latinx people at Yosemite. Craving connection, she found Latino Outdoors on Instagram.

Skill Building

At Humboldt, as an older student and single mom, Rodriguez wasn’t the typical recreation major. As she did her best as a mom and student, she grew more confident in her sense of self. She learned more about the benefits of being outdoors and thought, “I’ve experienced this.” Rodriguez also used outdoor recreation to promote wellness and strength in her children. Her youngest learned to walk while hiking.

In 2016, the year she would graduate, Rodriguez became an ambassador with Latino Outdoors and participated in her first-ever leadership campout. With support and encouragement from her academic advisor, Dr. Marchand, Rodriguez pursued her interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion within the outdoor recreation field. She knew what it felt like to be uncomfortable on trips with her young, white classmates and then making the same trip with Latino Outdoors and feeling like she was home.

The summer after she graduated, she became a student intern for the Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Nation challenge, designed to help with diversity and inclusion in outdoor spaces. The competition included 87 universities competing for the title of Most Outdoorsy College in the nation. As the student coordinator, she helped plan the messaging, outreach, and events with students logging their activities on an app. “I learned so much,” she says. “And we won the competition.”

Coming Home

When she first graduated, Rodriguez thought she would become a park ranger. “But I quickly realized that those positions weren’t created with single women with children in mind.” Instead, Latino Outdoors hired her. She continued to grow in her roles and responsibilities, balancing the challenges of work and parenting.

In 2020, the pandemic offered more opportunities to reflect and grow, and included taking on the role of teacher for her children. That experience made Rodriguez think about home. “I was born and raised in Fresno. I have a small but mighty circle of caring family and friends there. All the healing and growing that I’ve done has contributed to improving my relationships. Having a better relationship with my mom was another motivating factor,” she says.

Now, Rodriguez is back at the place that started it all, leading others to the same kinds of awe-inspiring experiences, connections and opportunities. She’s especially proud of how she’s grown as a mother and a leader. “It’s hard to be a woman of color in a leadership position. It’s an ongoing challenge that requires you to heal those parts that have been sent messages that you aren’t enough,” she says. But now she’s showing her children and others what’s possible.

“I’m doing all the things I imagined I would,” she says. “And nobody can take that away from me.”

This article was produced in partnership with the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, a national strategic partnership of 100+ organizations from diverse sectors with a common interest in connecting children, youth and families with the outdoors. This article was originally published on RethinkOutside.org.