Parks4Kids in Richmond, California: Urban Students Explore History and Climate Change

Less than a mile from the massive, buzzing I-580 Freeway, 1,200 inner-city kids had a transformative outdoor experience that taught them about history, climate change and the too-often unseen nature in their own neighborhood.

By Kristen Pope September 28, 2016

Perhaps the name Richmond, California, rings a bell. That’s because it’s made national headlines in the past two decades, and not the good kind. In 2004, it was ranked the 12th most-dangerous city in America. In 2007, the city—desperate to curb its crime rates—actually began paying likely perpetrators of gun violence up to $1,000 a month in cash if they could demonstrate good behavior.

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to understand why kids in the area weren’t getting outside. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to accept. Especially for California’s Outdoor Engagement Coalition, whose mission is to “expand transformational experiences for youth (ages 5-25) in California, who reflect the overall demographics of the state, to play, learn, serve and work in the outdoors.” That’s why, in anticipation of the National Park Centennial, COEC partnered with the West Contra Costa Unified School District and the National Park Service to create a program that would help give 1,200 4th grade kids from Richmond an opportunity to get outside, safely and affordably. Thanks to funding from OIA’s Parks4Kids program, the program became a reality.

Less than a mile from the massive I-580 freeway the 4th graders caught sight of something incredible: newly-hatched geese were swimming in the water. Then, the ranger pointed out another sight: crabs were scurrying down below the waterline. As the group of eager students made the mile-long walk together, they learned about the animals and plants they saw, as well as fog, water, and the impact of climate change on the local ecosystem. An ecosystem they didn’t know existed so close to home.

Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park

Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park

Students spent time at the Rosie the Riveter Memorial and Visitor Center and walked the mile-long trail that hugs the bay—a perfect location to explore the issue of climate change and sea level rise. Along the way, students completed activities about climate change, learning about greenhouse gases, and even wrapping a chaperone in a space blanket to simulate a warming effect.

“Making sure each 4th grader in Richmond understands these issues every year will go a long way towards adults tackling climate change,” says Kelli English, chief of interpretation for Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.

On the field trip, students also learned about Richmond’s World War II history and explored the similarities between the Greatest Generation meeting the challenges of World War II and the current generation’s need to face climate-related challenges.

“We try and connect climate change to the struggle everyone went through during World War II and show students we can, as a nation, come together like during World War II,” explains Paola Flores, program manager for the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition. Flores spent last year as one of 10 UC Berkeley interns who worked alongside National Park Service rangers at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II park presenting the programs to 4th graders. “[We] show them climate change is something we can come together to combat.”

In addition to presenting programs, the interns also acted as role models for the younger students. “The UC Berkeley interns were mostly students of color, and a lot of us could relate to the backgrounds of these students,” Flores said. “[I was] able to tell them ‘I come from somewhere like where you come from, and this is where I am now.’ … We tried to make genuine connections with them on a personal level.”

Park Ranger Nate talks to fourth grade students from Olinda Elementary School at the Rosie the Riveter Memorial during an Every Kid In a Park field trip.

Park Ranger Nate talks to fourth grade students from Olinda Elementary School at the Rosie the Riveter Memorial during an Every Kid In a Park field trip.

Developing a sense of hometown pride was also a critical part of the program. Students learned that World War II ship-building happened right in their own backyard. Old photos in the museum showed familiar locations, and kids excitedly realized these locations weren’t far-flung historical relics: They were close to home.

 “Kids would get so excited and say, ‘I live next to that!'” recalls Flores. “It’s one thing to bring kids outside but another to start making connections so they can really start building a relationship with that space. Next time, they can come with their families. We really do have to start making genuine connections in the community that these parks exist in. If we don’t, they become irrelevant and the spaces become obsolete.”

 “It’s one thing to bring kids outside but another to start making connections so they can really start building a relationship with that space. Next time, they can come with their families. We really do have to start making genuine connections in the community that these parks exist in. If we don’t, they become irrelevant and the spaces become obsolete.”— Paola Flores, program manager for the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition

In order to encourage these connections and help kids learn to embrace the outdoors, starting at a young age is key.

“There’s a lot of research that shows you want to get kids [outside at an early age] in order to really build that love and exposure to the outdoors,” says Jenny Mulholland-Beahrs, founder and director of the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition. “[Every Kid in a Park] is about really exposing as many youth as possible to the beautiful wonders of our public lands and waters and making sure they’re aware of these cultural resources and natural landscapes that are owned by us and are, in many cases, free.”

Experiences like these field trips help young people foster connections with the outdoors at an early age and cultivate a love of the parks. It also helps kids see that nature is accessible, and they don’t have to travel far and spend a lot of money to enjoy it.

“For a lot of folks in urban areas, the idea of being in parks and outside is great, but there’s an idea of having to go somewhere else to find that,” English says. “We’re showing kids they can walk outside their door and find the outdoors. You don’t have to be in the Sierras to find wildlife, be able to see birds, and experience being outside.”


Learn more about Parks4Kids and donate to a project close to your home or heart.