Doug Siglin

Twenty-one years ago, a federal law transferred the 45-acre “National Children’s Island” to the District of Columbia government to use as “a cultural, educational, and family-oriented park.”

You would be justified in wondering if somehow in your exploration of DC you’ve totally missed a great cultural and educational park on an island.

Rest easy. You haven’t. There is an island, but not the one envisioned in the law.

National Children’s Island is in the Anacostia River. It is more commonly known as Kingman Island, after the head of the Army Corps of Engineers who died while Corps’ contractors were making the island from dredged mud 101 years ago. You can see it while crossing over the East Capitol Street or the Benning Road Bridges. You can visit it by means of a wooden footbridge from the moonscape of empty parking lots north of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

Entrance to Kingman Island from the RFK Stadium parking lots. 

Entrance to Kingman Island from the RFK Stadium parking lots. 

The boardwalk to Kingman Island.

The boardwalk to Kingman Island.

The “cultural, educational, and family-oriented park” language from two decades ago had its roots in a detailed proposal for Kingman Lake and Island commissioned by Lady Bird Johnson’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital 30 years before that. In 1966, the famous landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, fresh off San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, planned a recreational boating lake and an “American-style Tivoli” recreational and cultural center on the island.

Halprin borrowed the idea of a protected lake in the river from the Senate Park Commission, which had proposed a swimming and boating lake and an Anacostia Water Park of “extraordinary beauty and value” in 1902.

Halprin’s Kingman Lake and Island ideas were never built. Nor was the large-scale cultural, educational and family-oriented park envisioned in the 1996 legislation. Nor was DC’s memorial to the victims of September 11th, 2001. Nor was the green state-of-the-art educational nature center that was designed in a national architectural competition in 2005. 

More than two decades after National Children’s Island was transferred to DC, there is a wooden viewing platform and some trails but not much else—no shelter, or even working bathrooms. 

Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with kids in Baltimore and DC, does basic maintenance of the island on behalf of the DC government, mainly using volunteers.  It also uses the island as a living classroom, taking kids there for environmental education programs, and stages a once-a-year bluegrass festival to help support its work. Have a look here at the amazing range of programs the Living Classroom Foundation does in Baltimore and DC.

In 2010, the National Children’s Island law was slightly amended to say that the island must be used for “recreational, environmental, or educational purposes in accordance with the Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan and the Comprehensive Plan.” 

Our lives, and those of our kids and grandkids, are increasingly about sitting and staring at glowing screens. Yet there is a huge body of peer-reviewed academic research showing how kids reap a host of health and academic achievement benefits when they get connected to nature. A nonprofit group called the Children and Nature Network has compiled the research, which is stunning. Just of few of the benefits include improved cognitive ability, academic performance, social relations and self-discipline, as well as reduced stress and symptoms of ADHD.

Click to enlarge. Image: Children and Nature Network. 

Click to enlarge. Image: Children and Nature Network. 

Among the inequalities of DC is this: there are a lot more opportunities for kids to get out in nature on the west side of town than on the east, both in terms of well-outfitted natural areas and in terms of schools’ abilities to provide programs.

National Children’s Island has the potential to be a wonderful and important resource for the District’s kids—particularly those east of the Anacostia River—but it badly needs investment. 

Last year, there was a hint of movement. The DC Council asked the Department of Energy and the Environment to “assess the feasibility and cost of developing, maintaining, and managing a state-of-the-art nature center and other possible structures consistent federal law, the Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan, and the Comprehensive Plan.” The report, put together by multi-sector team of contractors, recommends a phased plan that starts with some basic educational and practical infrastructure and works up to the long-envisioned nature center.  You can read the report here:

Since National Children’s Island was transferred, a whole generation of DC kids has grown up who could have profited immensely from some basic infrastructure on the island to provide more and better programs in and about nature.

116 years after the Senate Park Commission, five decades after Larry Halprin, and twenty-one years after DC got National Children’s Island from the federal government, it is long past time to deliver on the promise. Both the DC government and the many charitable institutions concerned with the future of Washington’s children should step up to help build the necessary infrastructure and create the outdoor programs on the island that all our kids deserve.