A national park childhood

Like many people some of my most vivid childhood memories involve the outdoors—catching frogs and fireflies, playing marathon games of Kick the Can and building sand fortresses along the beach. I was lucky enough to be a ‘national park kid’ and raised to make observations and ask questions about my surroundings: What creatures make their home in that sand and in those waters? What effects do storms have on those resources? What do humans do that causes beach erosion?

When I was seven years old my family spent a summer near Cape Cod National Seashore where I became a Junior Ranger (after taking an oath to “explore, learn and protect” parks). Being a young park ambassador in this wonderland felt as exciting as finding a secret door in the back of a wardrobe leading to a magical land. NPS rangers captivated us with tales of pilgrims and shipwrecks and took us to see box turtles hatchlings take their first tentative steps across warm sand. We tromped through tidal flats and over dunes, learned about lighthouses and cranberry bogs, piping plovers and pitch pine forests. At the end of each day we kids would barely wriggle all the way into our sleeping bags before dropping off to sleep.

That’s more than 30 years ago but if I try hard to remember, my lips still taste the saltiness of those ocean breezes and my toes feel the warm gritty feel of sand still. They are experiences and memories I wish for every child. It’s no mystery how I came to write about science and natural resources, and what fuels my love of daily discoveries be they about nature, culture or history.

Since the first days of the National Park Service—which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016, treating parks as living classrooms has been a core value. Today, with more than 80 percent of American families living in urban areas, many lacking easy access to safe outdoor spaces, strategies aimed at getting kids (and adults alike) to discover what national parks have to offer are even more important than they were a century ago.

To that end the White House recently announced the “Every Kid in a Park” initiative which offers all fourth grade students and their families free admission to national parks for a full year (starting with the 2015-2016 school year). That’s 407 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands including national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House. All for free. That’s quite a bargain.

Support the Every Kid in a Park initiative.

Explore your parks.

Support your parks and the National Park Service.


© Heather Hansen, text and photo (of the author and her sister on Cape Cod National Seashore).