When I was a kid, we lived on the suburban edge of a small city, with scrubby woods nearby, and streams, and open fields. I cut through them—slowly, usually—on my walk to school. On weekends, my friends and I pretty much ran wild. Both my parents were teachers. They understood this as important learning, and encouraged it. Those experiences shaped who I am today.
My friend David Smith, who lives in Ward 7’s Deanwood neighborhood, had similar experiences. In a video interview a couple of years ago, he reflects on playing in an Anacostia River tributary growing up. “Just being a kid…in a safe environment. The water was pristine. Crayfish...turtles…frogs…you name it. One of my buddies always said it really developed us. It stimulated our creativity, and our perspective of what the world could be like.”
When my kids were growing up, they played a lot outside, but they got something Dave and I didn’t. Their public schools taught environmental education units in several grades. My son and daughter learned, as Merlyn says in The Once and Future King, “why the world wags and what wags it”, not just from playing out in nature but also in the classroom.
It’s not easy for kids in eastern DC to get outside to learn about the world’s woods, streams, birds, animals, fish and all the rest. Sometimes it’s hard just to be safe outside. Like kids everywhere, those in Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8 spend more and more time indoors, staring at TV, tablet and smartphone screens. Most of them don’t get any environmental education in their schools. Not having natural experiences or classroom lessons about nature shapes kids, too.
A significant and growing body of scientific evidence testifies to the many real benefits of children getting outdoors and learning about nature. Being outdoors and learning about nature has a huge impact kids’ cognitive abilities and social and emotional health. Those are important growing up experiences, not just for some kids, but for all kids. Much of the research is compiled on the website of the Children and Nature Network. Spend a little time there and you’ll get a sense of it.
In the middle of the Anacostia River, near RFK Stadium, lie Kingman and Heritage Islands. The two islands comprise fifty acres of century-old, man-made near-wilderness, surrounded by a slow, gentle river, and a restored marsh. The islands are safe and easily accessible. They are a perfect place for getting DC kids outdoors and teaching them about the natural environment.
But here’s the rub: these islands of natural wonder need some help to be all they can be. There are no facilities there – not even any restrooms, and barely any shade. The Living Classrooms Foundation and the Anacostia Watershed Society take some school groups there, but the experience for the kids is far from what it should be.
Last year, the DC Council asked the DC Department of Energy and Environment to study the “feasibility and cost of developing, maintaining, and managing a state-of-the-art nature center and other possible structures, consistent with the National Children's Island Act of 1995…the Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan, and the Comprehensive Plan.” All of those plans call for a kid-oriented natural recreation and education area. The last two call for a nature center, trails, and other amenities.
To produce the report, DOEE worked with a multi-sector team of Hickok Cole Architects, Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects, Real School Gardens, the Anacostia Watershed Society, Environmental Leadership Strategies, Skanska, and Greening Urban. The team developed a great, creative proposal for an environmental education campus. You can read it here.
The study that Hickok Cole, DOEE and Mayor Bowser have forwarded to the DC Council suggests investing in Kingman and Heritage Islands in two phases. The first would be a “light touch” phase on Kingman Island – a ranger station and some bathrooms, some outdoor class space including a floating “lab”, a dock, and a canopy walk—followed by a more ambitious Environmental Center on the RFK parking lots at the entrance to the islands.
A modest campus designed for environmental education on Kingman and Heritage Islands would become the city’s best location to achieve the State Superintendent of Education’s commitment to environmental literacy for all DC school children, including the goal of a “Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience” once per grade level. A “meaningful watershed educational experience” is somebody’s long way of describing a hands-on learning experience about nature, particularly water. That’s what would happen for a lot of kids if the plan became a reality.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about five years of nearly vanished history on Kingman and Heritage Islands. One of the key pieces of that story is how the DC government, several agencies of the federal government, and the philanthropic community partnered to work on an ambitious vision for the islands. In the end, the project was just too complicated. DOEE’s current proposal is comparatively simple. Some federal agencies have already expressed interest in helping. Maybe we could recreate that special cooperation, but really get the project done this time.
The critical thing now is a commitment from Mayor Bowser and the DC Council to begin funding the project. Mayor Bowser’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 is being put together now. It will go to the Council for consideration in the spring. The Council doesn’t approve everything that the Mayor asks for, but it’s an important first step. With no commitment for funding, the study is just a bunch of pixels sitting in a folder.
People who believe, as I do, that Kingman and Heritage Islands could play an essential positive role in the education, and the social and emotional health, of the District’s children need to let Mayor Bowser know that they want it funded. We have created a very easy way to do that. Just go to this link on our website and fill out the simple form to join the many people signing a request letter to Mayor Bowser. You can also tweet her a message while you're there. It’s a simple way to take an important action for the future success of a lot of deserving DC kids.
Thanks for your help. See you on the islands.