When Anna Brooks started fourth grade this year in Anchorage, she had the usual school supplies: notebooks, pencils, lunch box. She also had something not so usual: A free pass to every one of the United States' federal lands and waters.
Now entering its fourth year, the Every Kid in a Park pass program is proving over and over again that opportunity can be a powerful tool.
Every fourth-grade student in the United States, whether in home-school, private school, public school or any other educational environment, is eligible to register and receive a pass to visit parks and other public lands, said Grace Lee, executive director of the National Park Trust, the managing organization for the program.
Why? Because it's more than a "just for a fun" outdoors experience, she said.
"(We) understand the value of parks, public lands and waterways as outdoor classrooms," Lee said by email from Washington, D.C. "By providing real-life lessons in STEM education, history and stewardship, we are cultivating the future caretakers of our parks."
With more than 80 percent of American families living in cities, fewer children are spending time in outdoor spaces. As such, they are not receiving the intrinsic benefits of time spent in nature and knowing they, too, can have a place at the table for conserving and protecting natural places.
Kids ages 9 to 11 are in a sweet spot for becoming aware of the world around them, and they have a natural inclination to share information with others.
"When children learn the value of these spaces at an early age, they are more likely to become a steward of these iconic resources as adults," Lee said.
The Every Kid in a Park pass program introduces fourth-graders to federal public lands and waters at just the right time, when they are likely to form lifelong bonds with nature and feel empowered to help their moms, dads, grandparents and siblings to do so too.
The pass is valid from Sept. 1 to Aug. 30 of a child's fourth-grade year. It allows the fourth-grader and up to three others to visit any U.S. federal public lands at no charge.
It's an exciting and slightly heady responsibility, one that Anna Brooks is taking pretty seriously, said her mom, Robin Brooks.
While in Talkeetna over Labor Day weekend, Anna signed up for the program at the National Park Service's Walter Harper Visitor Center.
"We love it that it's valid for all of our family of four — or some of us with grandparents, or whatever family combination we choose," said Robin. "We have so many different federal lands right here in Alaska, but with lots of family in the Lower 48, it's also a great excuse to make a side trip while visiting."
Some, like Yellowstone National Park and Hoover Dam, are well-known. Others, like Imperial Sand Dunes in California and Buffalo National River in Arkansas, are not. The many choices are part of the beauty of the program, Robin Brooks said.
"We told Anna she could pick any of the parks or public lands to visit for our family vacation this year," she said. "I bought a National Geographic guide to all the National Parks and let her choose, and she was pretty excited about it."
Anna told me her only previous visit to public lands was a trip to Kenai Fjords National Park when she was "really little."
She wanted to do something out of the ordinary. Her first thought was to go to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky to see bats, but after hearing about the latest eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano this past summer, she changed her mind.
"It would be really cool to see lava," she said. And, of course, go somewhere warm, swim in an ocean, look for sea turtles and nene (Hawaii's native goose) and generally infuse some aloha into her Alaska life.
So come January, Anna and the rest of the Brooks family — mom Robin, dad Jeff and younger brother James — will visit Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
While the trip won't be cheap, Robin Brooks said it's worth every penny to give Anna a chance to grow beyond what she sees in Alaska and to show James, a first-grader, that he too will be able to guide the family's travel plans in a few years.
"When I was a kid, my parents were both teachers, and we made the most of summer break, camping mostly in state parks but also making big trips to national parks," Robin said. "That's what I want for my children too."
Children and parents can register for the program at everykidinapark.gov. The website is a treasure trove of interesting information, activities and planning tools.
There, they can download a paper pass that can be redeemed for a plastic pass at any public lands office. In Alaska, a good place to do that is one of four Alaska Public Lands Information Centers.
Teachers can register up to 50 students at one time by visiting the website's educators page.
During the 2018-19 school year, the Every Kid in a Park project will provide access for 12,000 kids enrolled in low-income Title I schools, which will allow some kids to visit parks for the first time.
"We hope that many of these students will be inspired to return with their families, setting them on a pathway for a more active lifestyle in the great outdoors," Lee said.
I hope so too.
Erin Kirkland is a family travel advocate and author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series. She also publishes the website AKontheGO.com.