Approaching one of the students as she was staring intently into a glass vial at what she had captured, I asked “What did you catch?” She looked up very seriously and replied, “Looks like a chironomid.” For those not as scientifically trained as this precocious fourth grader, that is the scientific name for a family of flies such as the midge. In her analytical response, I saw a budding young scientist, a future conservation leader, and an intellectual curiosity unleashed via her interaction with nature.
Many of us grew up with nature nearby and explored fields and forests, but today, many kids do not have access to parks and other green places to explore on a daily basis. There are many consequences to this disparity that we are just beginning to understand, including impacts to their career track, education, health and general well-being.
It was my knowledge of the value of the outdoor experience and the disparity in the opportunity that led me to create “Every Kid in a Park” (EKIP) while I was director of the NPS. The idea of broadly engaging children in our parks had been percolating during our planning for the 2016 NPS Centennial, and crystalized in a conversation with John Podesta, then serving as advisor to President Barack Obama. John asked that we figure out how to get every child – with an estimated 55 million school-aged children - into a national park.
With the assistance of the Department of Education, we began to focus on the 4th grade, where students study state history and, as one teacher suggested, they will still listen to an adult. Thus, EKIP was established to give every kid in the nation passing through fourth grade the opportunity to receive the EKIP park pass, providing fourth graders and their families with free access to all national parks for a year. To me, this is an investment that will pay dividends for generations, instilling a love of nature, an intellectual curiosity and outdoor activity that they will enjoy their entire lives.
The other federal land management agencies and even some state parks agreed to support EKIP by accepting the pass. Friends groups and foundations also got on board to support funding for field trips to parks with the pass.
One of those groups is the Rosie the Riveter Trust, the nonprofit partner to the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif. More than 4,000 students visited the Richmond park in 2018 – 1,000 of them from underserved fourth-grade classrooms in the surrounding area, thanks to transportation funds provided by the Trust. Students visited the historical site – located on San Francisco Bay, adjacent to the Bay Trail – where 747 ships were built and launched to help win World War II. Classes and youth groups come to learn about our nation’s history during that inspiring era, and come away with a better understanding of what it took to win the war, as well as the many significant changes that were forged from that effort and still impact us today. And as part of curriculum during their visit, the kids explore part of the Bay Trail, where they are likely to see a host of bay and marsh birds such as egrets, and great blue herons and perhaps even osprey nesting, learning about history and nature together. These kids find that personal connection to nature and to the stories that are key to building relevancy in today’s world.
Our next generation will face ills, from climate change, to political polarization, to world unrest. The places where we can find peace, come together as humans and learn from nature and history are parks. While many issues we face seem insurmountable, making parks accessible to all is achievable. Parks can be created out of vacant lots, abandoned malls and industrialized waterfronts. And in my new role at the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity, together with our work at the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition, we are taking this on, finding existing and creating new collaborations between all the agencies and organizations that can contribute to the goal of having every kid in the nation visit a park and thrive.
Jonathan Jarvis served as the 18th director of the National Park Service from 2009 – 2017 and is currently executive director of the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity at UC Berkeley. During his tenure as NPS director, he and his department oversaw the development and opening of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond. He will be the keynote speaker at the Saturday, April 6 dinner for the park’s nonprofit partner, the Rosie the Riveter Trust, which helped bring 1,000 underserved fourth graders from surrounding neighborhoods to the park in 2018 under the Every Kid in a Park program.