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National initiative works to bring kids to national parks

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Fourth graders are going to have the chance to better explore Wayne National Forest and national parks across the country thanks to a new initiative from President Barack Obama.

The Every Kid in a Park campaign, announced last week, will provide fourth graders around the country the opportunity to access any federally managed land for free. This means local students will have the opportunity to visit Wayne National Forest, the closest national park to Athens, at no cost.

This opportunity could lead to field trips and other activities for students who might not otherwise get the chance to explore the outdoors.

Andrew Szolosi, an assistant professor of recreation and sports pedagogy at Ohio University, said introducing students to the outdoors is a crucial part of creating an environmentally aware generation.

“For kids, contact with nature is significant if you want to establish a relationship with the outdoors,” Szolosi said. “If we want children to care about the natural resources we have both locally and globally, we need to foster that relationship with the outdoors. Part of that is just getting people outdoors and allowing them to have contact with the natural world.”

That’s exactly the goal of the program, Dawn McCarthy, the Acting Public Affairs Officer of the Wayne National Forest, said in an emailed statement.

“More than 80 percent of American families live in urban areas, and many lack easy access to safe outdoor spaces,” McCarthy said. “The Every Kid in a Park initiative encourages valuable opportunities to explore, learn, and play in the spectacular places that belong to us all and aims to inspire stewardship of these places for future generations.”

According to the same statement, research has found that students between nine and 11 years old “are at a unique developmental stage in their learning where they begin to understand how the world around them works in more concrete ways.”

By offering fourth graders fee-free access to national lands, the program hopes that children of all backgrounds will be able to experience at least one of the parks by the time they complete elementary school. The free pass is good for one year, and with each new school year,  incoming fourth graders will be eligible.

Students can print their own passes at the Every Kid in a Park website, but teachers also have the option to get passes for their classes. Pre-made lesson plans and the potential for low-income areas to earn grants for travel expenses are also meant to encourage field trips.

For students in Athens and surrounding rural areas, that could be exactly what’s needed, since Athens has one of the highest poverty rates in the state.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, three of the five school districts in Athens County fall in the “rural—high student poverty and small student population range” as of 2013. Those districts are home to approximately 43 percent of the county’s fourth graders, equaling over 250 students.

Even those who can afford the trips often overlook local national parks in lieu of the big name parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and Smokey Ridge, according to Szolosi. The opportunity for a low-cost field trip could spark a love of nature much closer to home.

“[Students in Athens] will become more familiar with the treasures that are in close proximity,” Szolosi said. “The fact that they’re creating this initiative provides people with options to have the types of experiences they’re looking for. Wayne National Forest is right there, a hidden treasure by many standards! All you have to do is go and look.”

Over 369,575 passes have already been downloaded from the Every Kid in a Park website nationally, Dawn McCarthy said in an email. The initiative hasn’t amounted to an influx in people heading to the park’s visitors’ centers yet, but supporters of this program believe it could have a great impact on the students in and around Athens County.

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