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Connecting Children with Nature

Children visiting Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to learn about maple sugar. Photo by Indiana Dunes  National Lakeshore, used under Creative Commons. Children visiting Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to learn about maple sugar. Photo by Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, used under Creative Commons licensing.

On February 19, 2015, President Obama announced that fourth grade students across the United States and their families would receive free admission to the national parks for one year. The President’s “Every Kid in a Park” announcement was a welcome and exciting new federal initiative designed to introduce the nation’s youth to our common cultural and historical heritage and to induce them into getting outdoors to explore nature. This initiative, which extends across the federal public lands, is plainly good for conservation, good for public health, and good for sustaining the ties that bind us together. The national parks, as highlighted in To Conserve Unimpaired, are one of the nation’s foremost educational settings. The National Park Service, its Advisory Board, the National Park Foundation, and numerous educational, recreational, and conservation organizations have long recognized and promoted the national parks for their educational value and potential. The Park Service, unlike the other federal land management agencies, has embraced public education and interpretation as central to its mission; it has a lengthy history of delivering enthralling and informative messages to its visitors through campfire talks, park museums, ranger hikes, and other programs. Further, the agency already engages in an array of programs designed to reach out to disadvantaged youth through local school systems and to bring them into the parks or to bring the parks into their classrooms. Indeed, the President’s Every Kid in a Park initiative presents an incredible opportunity to entice the nation’s increasingly urbanized youth enamored with technology and video games into the outdoors to encounter the wonders of natural world and the challenges that nature presents. It should help to address the nature deficit disorder malady that stretches across socio-economic groups and to bring the rich tapestry of American history, warts and all, into sharper focus for these students. It will also help to promote physical activity and to improve personal health for this generation. The fact that the President’s budget request would provide $20 million to the Park Service to support this initiative should ensure that it reaches a broad cross-section of our populace, including parents who may never have contemplated a national park visit as a family vacation, weekend option, or day trip. For once, public funds will be going to subsidize the younger generation’s national park experience. Until now, the federal government has primarily subsidized senior Americans to visit the national parks through the Senior Pass, which is available to every citizen for the mere cost of $10 once he or she reaches the age of 62, guaranteeing free admission to the parks for the rest of that individual’s lifetime. Though there is nothing inherently wrong about this entitlement, the reality is that we need to induce the nation’s youth—not its senior citizens—into visiting the parks, learning about them, and playing in the outdoors. Our elders are already attached to the national parks, and many of them do not need a free pass to visit them. What we really need is to instill that same sense of attachment and commitment to preservation in our younger citizens, who will soon hold the fate of these very special places in their hands. After all, the nearly 100-year-old law establishing the national park system admonishes us to ensure the parks are conserved unimpaired for the benefit of future generations. What better way to meet that vital goal than to welcome the nation’s youth into these repositories of our natural and cultural heritage and to share these incomparable places with them? It is an important step toward making this enduring legacy of the American experience available to this generation and assuring it will also be there for the generations yet to come.