A walk in the woods will change a child's life. That is, if she ever makes it to the trailhead. This week, President Obama unveiled the "Every Kid in a Park" initiative to connect children and their families with the great outdoors, ensuring millions of kids, regardless of where they live, have an opportunity to take that first step in nature. The initiative will provide free entrance to our nation's treasured public lands for every fourth grader in America -- oh, and they can take their families, too.
This initiative matters, because not every kid has a forest in her backyard. In fact, most don't. More than 80 percent of America now lives in urban areas and this number grows every year. Opportunities to enjoy and explore nearby nature are limited for many children. Fewer than half of all kids in the United States can safely walk to a park from their home, and school testing priorities and funding cuts are reducing opportunities for physical education, recess and field trips. Fears about playing outdoors affect how children spend their free time. And today's youth are able to keep themselves contented indoors with television, video games and computers; they're clocking about 53 hours of screen time each week. The barriers to spending time in nature are high, and they're even higher for low-income communities.
President Obama understands that not all kids have the same opportunities to connect with nature. Whether or not a child will climb a tree, run through a forest, roll down a hill, or splash in a creek depends a lot on where she grows up and the values and interests of her parents, teachers and other adult figures in her life. Last October, Obama knocked down one roadblock to getting outside by increasing close-to-home access to the outdoors, or nearby nature, for nearly 15 million people living in Los Angeles County. When the President established the San Gabriel Mountains as a National Monument, he said "too many children in L.A. County, especially children of color, don't have access to parks where they can run free and breathe fresh air, experience nature, and learn about their own environment." With the San Gabriel designation, Obama protected 346,177 acres, providing improved outdoor recreation opportunities for millions of kids and families.
President Obama's "Every Kid in a Park" is the latest in a series of barrier busting moves he's making to increase access to nature for all. The initiative will provide fourth graders across the nation an opportunity to visit America's great outdoors free of charge. To support "Every Kid in a Park," the National Park Foundation will expand its Ticket to Ride program to award transportation grants to schools in need. The initiative builds on the US Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's youth initiative to get children and youth playing, learning, serving and working outdoors. And it will kick off at the beginning of the 2015 school year, just in time to start celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. As we gear up for the centennial in 2016, "Every Kid in a Park" challenges us to think about the next 100 years. What will the future of our outdoor legacy look like if we don't make sure all kids have a chance to experience it?
Sierra Club shares the President's vision. Whether it's a National Park or a neighborhood park, we'll do our part to ensure the next generation has opportunities to experience nature. Sierra Club's Nearby Nature initiative supports community-driven conservation efforts, like parks, gardens and trails, to help ensure that close-to-home access to the outdoors becomes a reality for kids and families across the socioeconomic spectrum. Our Inspiring Connections Outdoors program has been training and supporting volunteer mentors who empower kids to get outdoors for over 40 years and now reaches 15,000 youth each year with nature-based outings in our local and National Parks and everything in between. And the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, a diverse coalition of over 75 businesses and non-profits co-founded by Sierra Club, supports and will continue to advocate for efforts like the President's "Every Kid in a Park" initiative, that provide quality opportunities for our children to get outdoors.