NatureBridge brings Environmental Education to D.C.

I am an environmental anthropologist, outdoor enthusiast, and KEEN employee travelling the country, connecting with KEEN fans, and advocating for humans and environments under threat. As a brand built for the outdoors, KEEN also feels a responsibility to protect and preserve the places we play. One way we do that is by supporting non-profit organizations through our KEEN Effect Grants. This new monthly blog series highlights just some of our 2016 grantees and their missions:  invasive species in the backcountry, diversity in our National Parks, companies leading with environmental values, and the next generation of environmental leaders.

This month we discuss one of the most important factors in the long-term support of our public lands: the youth of America and its interest in going outside. Utilizing a 2016 KEEN Effect Grant, NatureBridge is in the process of transporting and accommodating 435 fifth graders and 35 teachers from D.C. public schools for three day/two night trips of immersion in Prince William Forest Park. I sat down with senior grants officer Cassie Hughes to learn more. Enjoy!

– Mark Steinbuck, from somewhere in the Great North Woods

Forest Park, Virginia; courtesy of

Bordering the Quantico Marine base outside of Washington D.C., a massive deciduous forest awaits the next bus filled with ten and eleven year olds. Just thirty-five miles south of the city, Prince William Forest Park’s ocean of oak and beech trees and impeccably clean streams provide refuge for bear, beaver, dozens of amphibian species and even freshwater sponges. Yet growing every year since 2012, Prince William Forest has also served as a refuge of environmental education for over 4,000 D.C. and Prince William County’s public school fifth graders.

“Everything, even bugs or mud, is entirely novel to these kids. Even silence is a shock to them…” remarked Cassie Hughes, Senior Grants Officer for NatureBridge, a 2016 Keen Effect grant recipient. As America’s kids become more sedentary and isolated from nature, NatureBridge is reconnecting them to the natural world. NatureBridge is the environmental science non-profit immersing under-served urban kids in multi-day nature trips in an effort to curb what is quickly becoming a multi-faceted crisis: poor scientific test scores, low levels of exercise, and an accelerating detachment from nature and our public lands.

Bridging the Gap

Cabin camp 3, Prince William Forest Park; courtesy of

Back in 1971, when middle school science teacher and NatureBridge founder Don Rees visited his local Yosemite National Park, he knew awe-inspiring public lands could educate our youth better than a textbook, classroom or TV screen. Today, NatureBridge is the largest environmental education organization operating within the National Parks system. Their environmental literacy programs bring out over 30,000 kids a year, including their newest program nestled within the nearly century old cabins of Prince William Forest Park.

D.C.’s stats are grim, but they make for a perfect fit for intensive environmental ed. 76% of eighth graders have below a basic understanding of science, 54% of all youth report little to no regular exercise, and according to a University of Maryland study detailed in Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods”, middle school children have reduced their outdoor play time by over 50% since the late 90’s. A childhood once dedicated to free, unstructured play is now occupied by screen time (to the order of about forty-five hours a week) or studying indoors, up 20% in recent years.

NatureBridge’s evidence-based educational philosophy is founded on physicality, stewardship of the environment, and inquiry-based learning. While out in Prince William Forest, students have time to explore and think freely. “Kids come up with their interests, and then NatureBridge instructors help them answer the questions – why are frogs bumpy, why is there more light here than there? This is continuing the tradition of science,” noted Ms. Hughes.

Multiple studies have shown environmentally-based education like this to not only boost comprehension of science, math, and language, but also bring improvements in less quantifiable virtues like critical thinking skills, classroom behavior, conflict resolution and self-esteem. Merely being exposed to mundane nature like a line of trees along an inner city street can cause noticeable psychological improvements, and being immersed for multiple days in the woods like they are at NatureBridge improves emotional well-being, increases attention span and boosts creativity.

NatureBridge proves the impacts of their work with scientific monitoring from Stanford University, but are most rewarded by the reactions they get from the kids themselves:

“[The NatureBridge program] made me realize looking at things under a microscope in a lab wasn’t the only part of being a scientist. […] we got to study outside and catch and observe living things. Things like this I think can really bring a kid or anyone into science,” said a student at Murch Elementary School in Washington, DC.

Students conducting field research at the NatureBridge campus, Prince William Forest Park; courtesy of NatureBridge.

Supporting Our Future Stewards

By 2018, NatureBridge will have opened a landmark net-zero-energy National Environmental Science Center campus in Yosemite that can serve 225 students at a time. Working from her office in San Francisco, Ms. Hughes urges action: “We need to build the field of environmental education.  We need to show schools and leaders the kind of impact this type of education can have.  It is so positive to get kids out of the classroom.”

KEEN and NatureBridge are both passionate about building a future full of inspired young environmental stewards for a younger and more diverse audience. Inspired? Visit to find ways to support their mission, and let your local representatives know how much you value our public lands.