Let’s Make Every Kid in a Park a Guarantee for Fourth Graders

For the past three years, fourth graders have benefitted from Every Kid in a Park, a program that provides free passes to the national parks and all federal recreation lands. “There’s a whole generation of kids who don’t get into the woods,” says Jon Jarvis, former Director of the National Park Service during the Obama administration and current Executive Director of the Berkeley Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity. “They live in urban areas, their parents have no experience in the woods, or they can’t afford to visit the parks.”

But the Every Kid in a Park program is not guaranteed for future fourth graders. The Department of the Interior must renew it each year, making it subject to political whims. Luckily, Congress could pass the Every Kid Outdoors Act, which would give it more permanence.

Here’s how the program works: Every Kid in a Park provides a free park pass to fourth graders. But it’s not just a giveaway—kids have to earn the pass. In classrooms, it’s often in tandem with environmental education and history already in curriculums. Once earned, their pass admits the fourth graders and their families free to the national parks and all federal recreation lands during that school year. For classes that need financial assistance to get to the parks, the National Park Foundation provides the dollars to cover transportation. Even if a classroom doesn’t participate, any fourth grader can go online to earn his or her pass.

Photo kids walking on a log in the forest
Photo © monkeybusinessimages/iStock.

Thanks to this program, many young kids are hiking their first trails, learning to spy wildlife, and soaking up natural and human history. Some children from urban areas have smelled cedar trees for the first time in their lives. One fourth grader from Hawaii got so jazzed that he started a nonprofit to support the national parks. Every Kid in a Park gives them these experiences.

Every Kid in a Park broadens other children’s programs, too. It extended Michelle Obama’s efforts to get young people moving to be healthy. It also added more educational contact for popular Junior Ranger Programs on federal recreation lands. “The Junior Ranger programs capture kids after they get to the park,” explains Jarvis. “This program gives kids, their families, and their classrooms incentive to get to the park.” And that’s an important distinction. Kids and their parents adore the Junior Ranger Programs, but many kids don’t even get the chance to earn a Junior Ranger badge because they can’t get to the parks.

Originally, the dream for Every Kid in a Park considered all grades. But that was unwieldy, Jarvis notes, so the program limits participation to fourth graders. Yet, if Every Kid in a Park continues for a dozen years, it achieves the same goal—all kids will participate for one year. “In 12 years, we would get every kid across the country,” says Jarvis.

Capturing America’s youngsters is only one of the reasons the program needs to continue. Every Kid in a Park seeks to plant the seed for a lifetime of outdoor activity. Sadly, team sports often create avid later-in-life spectators but not physically active adults. “A lot of good science is out there about the benefits of getting kids involved early on in hiking, biking, and kayaking outdoors. Those become lifetime sports,” Jarvis points out.

Besides the personal benefits of health, exercise, mental well-being, and connections with nature, Jarvis adds something else that Every Kid in a Park produces—pride. Many fourth graders take pride in being the one to gain the family’s admittance into the parks. Some, like one rural Idaho student, have taken on the task of choosing the park and planning the family summer trip there. What better way to build self-esteem than to be the key to a family outing?

After a shaky start to Every Kid in a Park’s renewal this year, the program has been reinstated for this year’s fourth graders. But it’s time to make it more permanent, so future third graders can look forward to their upcoming year to get their park pass.

What can you do? Drop a note to your congressional delegation to pass the Every Kid Outdoors Act. Exposing the next generation to national parks is one of the best ways to support our public lands.

To contact your congressional delegation, go here.

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