On February 19, 2015, at a ceremony in Chicago, President Barack Obama announced an ambitious plan to encourage every fourth-grade child in the nation and their families to visit a park during 2016. He said entrance fees for the students and their families to national parks and other federal public lands would be waived for a full year. Additionally, he spoke of $20 million that would be provided to the National Park Foundation if Congress approves his budget proposal, used to fund transportation costs for up to 1 million underserved kids in classes or groups to visit a park during this period, as well as other resources that would be available in the coming year such as downloadable educational program resources and activities for kids and families.
NRPA strongly endorses the president’s Every Kid in a Park initiative. NRPA CEO Barbara Tulipane said, “We applaud the president’s action and welcome his support in getting kids and their families to parks. NRPA’s members are already connecting millions of kids to nature and the outdoors every year. The president’s initiative provides us an opportunity to show the nation that all parks in our country are ready to welcome children of every age and every background with opportunities to explore, get healthy and connect with nature.”
U.S. presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have taken pride in our nation’s parks and public lands, but President Obama’s remarks about the designation of three new national monuments and the Every Kid in a Park campaign were an exceptionally powerful testament about the importance of parks to the development of children. He framed the action of visiting parks as being not just about the enjoyment of natural and scenic beauty, but as a life experience that is essential to the health and growth of children as individuals and as citizens. Some who heard his remarks said it was the most compelling speech about the value of parks that they have ever heard a sitting president make.
Some highlights from the president’s remarks:
“I’m here because next year is the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. For a century, rangers, and interpreters, and volunteers and visitors have kept alive what the writer Wallace Stegner once called ‘the best idea we ever had’ — our belief that the country’s most special places should belong not just to the rich, not just to the powerful, but belong to everybody — not just now, but for all time.
“Conservation is a truly American idea. The naturalists and industrialists and politicians who dreamt up our system of public lands and waters did so in the hope that, by keeping these places, these special places in trust — places of incomparable beauty, places where our history was written — then future generations would value those places the same way as we did. It would teach us about ourselves, and keep us grounded and keep us connected to what it means to be American. And it’s one of our responsibilities, as Americans, to protect this inheritance and to strengthen it for the future.
“And that’s why, starting this fall, we’re going to help a new generation of Americans experience our God-given grandeur by giving every fourth-grader in America what we’re calling an “Every Kid in a Park” pass — a pass good for free admission to all public lands, for you and your family, for an entire year. We want every fourth-grader to have the experience of getting out and discovering America. We want them to see the outside of a classroom too; see all the places that make America great. Put down the smartphone for a second. Put away the video games. Breathe in some fresh air and see this incredible bounty that’s been given to us.”
NRPA thanks you, Mr. President. You eloquently and passionately expressed the belief we hold in our hearts about the value of parks, and you correctly placed the importance where it should be — on kids.
But why didn’t you go all the way? Why should this initiative be just be for fourth-graders and their families? Let’s make it possible for every kid in America to visit a park.
Every kid in America deserves a chance to visit a park, especially those in underserved communities who otherwise would not have the opportunity. You are proposing to fund transportation for 1 million kids from underserved communities and that is truly commendable, but what about the rest of the kids who will not have the chance to visit a national park next year?
Every kid in our nation and their families can celebrate the rich heritage of parks in America by visiting a nearby community park, regional park or state park. Our birthright and our heritage of parks is not limited to just our national parks, national monuments and national historic places. It extends to every park and every American can celebrate it.
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has frequently commented that the centennial of the National Park Service is a time for kids and parents to enjoy all parks. “The National Park Service centennial goal is to connect with the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates,” he said. “The Every Kid in a Park initiative is a way to introduce young people to their national parks and other public lands and establish the love for these special places.”
NRPA has embarked on a number of national initiatives that are already making this vision a reality. In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, the 10 Million Kids Outdoors initiative has already counted 5 million kids participating in nature-based activities. Through our Commit to Health program, NRPA has partnered with almost 500 park and recreation agencies that have pledged to support the Healthy Eating, Physical Activity standards for kids in afterschool programs at parks and recreation centers. NRPA gives support to many national special events including National Kids to Parks Day with the National Park Foundation, National Public Lands Day, and many other events and activities designed to get kids and their families out to parks everywhere.
We firmly believe that every kid in America can enjoy a park, and every kid should be able to do so. Tulipane has called for every park and recreation agency in the country to embrace this notion, saying, “I challenge you to be the first to discuss the Every Kid in a Park initiative with your community and offer yourselves as the solution.”
It’s simple: Every kid, every park. Nothing less will suffice.
Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.