Doug Siglin; photos by Becky Harlan

Recently I was thinking about the proposed plan for the modest children’s environmental education campus on Kingman/National Children’s Island, and I happened to see an interview with someone named Jason Morris. Morris is the Environmental Education Senior Program Officer at the Pisces Foundation. Pisces is a charitable foundation based in San Francisco. It focuses its giving largely on water quality, urban life, and environmental education.

I was struck by these lines in the interview:

“What we need is to connect children with nature. Not just some children—all children. Every child not only deserves access to nature, every child requires it. In order to deliver this to every child, we can no longer imagine nature only in the iconic treasured landscapes. To give every child the opportunity to form a lasting connection with nature, we must find nature nearby. We have to re-imagine what and where nature is.
Research has shown that environmental learning levels the playing field, across gender and ethnicity. We know that outdoor experiences improve children’s self-esteem, leadership, and character. We know that unstructured play outdoors improves mental and physical health. We know that environmental learning sticks with kids more than traditional learning, that it stokes interest in science, and that it sparks the curiosity that makes kids better learners. We know all of this, yet the average American child spends 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.”
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Here in DC, there are nonprofit groups like the Living Classrooms Foundation, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and the Alice Ferguson Foundation striving to provide nature and environmental experiences and learning to DC schoolkids. But they are very limited in what they can do on and around the Anacostia, which ought to be a great learning environment close to most of the city’s lower income school kids. There isn’t a single decently-sized classroom space or laboratory space on the entire 1200-acre Anacostia waterfront that can be used to teach kids about the wonders of nature in their backyards. None. Not a single useable classroom in an area of urban waterfront bigger than New York City’s Central Park, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, or any of Chicago’s lakefront parks, right in the center of the nation’s capital.

We have been talking about the 50-acre, mostly wild Kingman/National Children’s Island in the center of the Anacostia River as a place for a kids’ nature center since at least 1999. In fact, we’ve been talking about it as a family-oriented park since at least 1966. And yet today there is almost nothing there except some trails and clearings, some porta-johns, and a huge signboard for a beautiful nature center that never got built.

The plan that was requested last year by the DC Council would provide some sheltered outdoor classrooms, a floating lab, some bathrooms, and a secure storage area. It isn’t that beautiful nature center painted on the signboard, but it’s a start. 

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But here’s the rub. There is no funding budgeted for the Kingman/National Children’s Island education plan, public or private. Without funding, the plan is just another pretty document to go on a shelf until the next office move. If the project is ever going to happen, it must have committed advocates willing to talk to the Mayor, Councilmembers, and private funders about getting together the $2 million or so that it will take to start building it. This is a beautiful opportunity for a public-private partnership: some funding from the DC budget, some from philanthropic givers who care about the future of DC’s children.

Of course, the physical infrastructure isn’t enough. The nonprofit providers of environmental education are doing the best they can with the money they can raise. But they certainly can’t raise enough to serve all the District’s children, which is why the Trust is putting together a “Year of the Anacostia Fund”. I’ll write more about that next time.

I happened to see another quotation this week by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Here’s what she wrote, in part:

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach…. It is not given to us to know which acts by whom will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good…What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.”

The Kingman/National Children’s Island kids’ environmental education campus doesn’t need everyone on earth to advocate for it, just a small, determined group. It needs people with a vision for a better, more equitable future for DC.  People with a burning desire to make life better for not just some children, but all children.