A Visit of a Lifetime

The White House and President’s Park’s environmental educational program gives Title-1 students a chance to learn how much they’re capable of.

By Alyssa Chiascione and Kathy Langley

A group of young people stand around a large tree. In front, a girl with a clipboard holds a measuring tape around the tree.
Students studying a tree on the Ellipse grounds.

Image credit: NPS / Grace Anderson

Many students growing up in the metropolitan Washington, DC, area dream of visiting the historic White House and President’s Park. To help fulfill this dream, the park, managed by the National Park Service, created The White House and President's Park Education Program in 1995. Since then, thousands of students have benefited from participating in curriculum-based programs in a wide range of subjects. Global climate change increasingly affects our everyday lives, even in the middle of a city, so the park’s education team developed a curriculum focusing on climate change and ecosystem services. This curriculum strives to teach Title-1 school students about critical environmental topics and instill in them a feeling of responsibility for stewarding our country's cultural and natural resources. For many of these students, this program is their first visit to a national park and their introduction to researching climate change.

An Ideal Backdrop

The National Park Service has cared for the White House and grounds, the oldest, continually maintained, designed landscape in the United States, since 1933. The White House officially became a national park in 1961 during the Kennedy Administration. Arguably the most famous address in the United States, it is surrounded by 82 acres of park land, including Sherman Park, Lafayette Park, First Division Monument, and the Ellipse. More than 1 million guests visit the park annually from around the world; it is a globally significant and emotionally compelling setting for sharing our cultural heritage.

View of the White House and grounds from behind an iron fence
The White House and grounds.

Image credit: NPS / Grace Anderson

The park serves as an ideal backdrop for students to learn about climate change, ecosystem services, and their relation to cultural resources. This is true despite (or because of, depending on one’s view) its location in the middle of a city. Our interactive curriculum is geared towards students in Grades 4 to 6. Its goal is to inspire them to become devoted environmental stewards.

Scientific and Logistical Underpinnings

Regional scientists from the NPS Urban Ecology Research Learning Alliance, interpretive park rangers, and interns from the University of Maryland and American University helped the park develop the science-based educational resources for this program. The National Park Foundation generously supplies funding to support the transportation needs of participating Title-1 school students, who arrive at the White House Visitor Center by bus, subway, or on foot. Specific activities include teacher workshops, a ranger visit, an onsite visit, and a follow-up visit. Our curriculum and lessons are designed to support teachers and students in an urban environment. They are immersive and offered solely at The White House and President’s Park.

Workshops Prepare Teachers

Prior to the beginning of the school year, the park hosts a workshop for teachers to discuss the curriculum, understand logistics, and learn where to find resources. We invite teachers to collaborate and give feedback on how to meet their students’ educational needs. We use innovative tools like Padlet, videos, and workbooks to exchange resources with teachers. We encourage teachers to share lesson materials with students prior to visiting the park by exploring the Padlet website. At the conclusion of the workshop, we give the teachers native wildflower seeds to plant at their school, to support local pollinators and demonstrate that pollination is an ecosystem service.

Every Kid Outdoors pass

Image credit: NPS

Ranger School Visits Set the Stage

An interpretive park ranger or member of the education team visits each participating school prior to the field trip to The White House and President’s Park. The purpose of this visit is to familiarize students with environmental science. During the school visit, the ranger talks about the history, mission, and ecosystems of the National Park Service, including the White House grounds. The ranger discusses the agency’s stewardship responsibilities to preserve cultural and natural habitats. At the end of the visit, the presenter gives students a work booklet and an architectural floor plan of the White House. Participating fourth-grade students get an Every Kid Outdoors pass. This pass is governed by the Every Kid Outdoors Act and allows free park access for students and their family members for up to a year.

A woman standing next to an American flag shows tree leaf shapes on a screen to young students.
Author Alyssa Chiascione giving tree vocabulary lessons to a group of students.

Image credit: NPS / Grace Anderson

The Onsite Visit: Building Students’ Powers of Observation

When the day comes for students to visit the park, they arrive with bright, smiling faces full of anticipation. After the students settle in, the education staff gives them an introductory talk about trees to help build their vocabulary. Next, the education staff divides students into smaller groups, each with one ranger, to explore learning about the trees on the Ellipse, which has many native and non-native ornamental trees. The students visit bald cypress, southern magnolia, black walnut, American elm, crepe myrtle, blue spruce, and eastern white pine trees. Along the way, they observe wildlife like squirrels, birds, and insects, and we use these experiences to encourage them to respect nature.

Most students on this field trip are from urban areas and are ecstatic when introduced to environmental science and nature.

Students examine the leaves and bark of different trees and record their field observations in a workbook. We teach them the importance of weather and how it affects the trees. Then students work together to measure the trees, recording their circumference and diameter at breast height (DBH), two measures used extensively in scientific research. Most students on this field trip are from urban areas and are ecstatic when introduced to environmental science and nature. Through recording and measuring trees, students learn to appreciate tree characteristics and why it’s important for scientists to note them.

A sign proclaims "pollinator garden" in front a colorful display of flowers.
The White House pollinator garden was planted in 2014 to support bees, butterflies, birds, and bats.

Image credit: NPS / Marcey Frutchey

The Onsite Visit: Showing That Natural Settings Can Be Culturally Significant

After measuring trees on the Ellipse, students visit the National Christmas Tree, a white fir that’s beautifully displayed year-round. We explain that the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony has occurred for 100 years. Each year, the ceremony commemorates when America’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, first lit the tree in 1923. We tell them that first ladies and presidents participate in planting a tree to commemorate their administration on the White House lawn adjacent to the national tree. Students also view the kitchen garden and beehive, established by Michelle Obama, wife of Barack Obama, our 44th president, to support fresh food and pollinators. In the spring and fall, students and teachers in the program have the opportunity to tour the White House Gardens. All these experiences enrich the students’ understanding of how nature and culture are interconnected.

The Onsite Visit: Calculating the Quiet Work of Trees

After lunch, students learn how significant their tree measurements are for science and how important trees are for the environment. Using the ITree carbon calculator developed by the U.S. Forest Service, a member of the education team calculates how much carbon dioxide each measured tree will store, or sequester, an important ecosystem service this tree provides. For example, a bald cypress at the park has a DBH of 22 and a circumference of 68 inches, so it can sequester 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. The calculations tell students that this single tree is saving the United States 25 dollars annually that may have been spent on remediating air pollution. After 20 years, that number goes up to 500 dollars. When multiplied by all the trees in the nation, it’s a huge saving.

Students are in awe when they realize just how important one single tree is for the environment. They begin to understand how every single tree in this world provides ecosystem services.

Students are in awe when they realize just how important one single tree is for the environment. Even more so when they add this to all the other tree benefits they learned about during their visit. They begin to understand how every single tree in this world provides ecosystem services that are crucial to building a sustainable world. Data collected from students are recorded in a journal. Through these recordings, students can visualize how trees change (for example in size or if struck by lightning) and how those changes affect the environment over time.

A group of children stand around a counter holding containers. A man and woman in NPS uniforms look on.
Students with their ice-melting experiments in the White House Visitor Center classroom.

Image credit: NPS / Grace Anderson

The Onsite Visit: Melting Ice to Learn about Climate Change

Students have the opportunity to create their own hypothesis for an experiment about melting land ice. They work in small groups to complete the experiment. We show them a video created by the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program that describes the experiment. Once they have finished, the students compare their results to their original hypothesis. This fun, interactive activity helps them understand why ice melts on land, how it raises sea levels, and the impacts of that on coastal areas around the world.

Visit our keyboard shortcuts docs for details
2 minutes, 18 seconds

This video demonstrates how melting land ice raises sea level, but melting sea ice does not. See how warming in far-away places like Antarctica matters to people on coasts world-wide. Teachers can repeat this demonstration with inexpensive materials.

Children stand around a table while examining models of dishes and foods
Students exploring the White House Visitor Center food display.

Image credit: NPS / Jody Shampton-Moore

The Onsite Visit: “Best Field Trip Ever!”

While students wait for their ice experiments to melt, they’re invited to explore the White House Visitor Center. Rangers lead them through the center as they explore and observe the film, interactive displays, artifacts, and artwork. An exhibit table displays some pretty interesting foods enjoyed by previous residents of the White House, like squirrel soup (a favorite of the 20th president, James Garfield).

At the completion of these activities, students take the Junior Ranger oath, promising to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources for future generations and to share what they learned with friends and family. Students sometimes vocalize their feelings about their day at The White House and President’s Park. One student declared it was the “best field trip ever!” At the conclusion of the trip, we give each student a native wildflower seed kit to plant at school, in their neighborhood, or at home.

Following Up Fosters Lifetime Lessons

After their field trip, a ranger schedules a time to meet with the students again virtually. Through fun and engaging activities, the ranger helps students review what they learned during the field trip. This helps them carry their newfound knowledge with them for life. Inspired by the trip, some schools create green spaces, which may include recycling, starting a garden, or composting. This is often a direct result of their participation in the park’s Climate Change and Ecosystem Service Education Program. As schools develop their green space plans, our education team provides technical support and guidance. We encourage teachers to bring their classes back to the park to learn and explore more.

Going Virtual and Increasing Accessibility

The White House and President’s Park education team plans to offer a virtual version of the program to schools beyond the metropolitan area. Ensuring that all students have equal access to these resources is vital to our success. When asked for feedback, 74 percent of teachers participating in the program noted the need for bilingual resources. To accommodate this, the education program plans to release all its onsite resource materials in both English and Spanish by 2024.

The Most Important Job

In collaboration with educators, experts, and partners, we deliver captivating and interactive educational encounters for Title-1 students. Our program allows them to engage in scientific activities like measuring and recording tree data, experimenting with melting land ice, and exploring artifacts.This helps them advance observational and research skills and promotes their success as students and when they venture out into the world. Some of them become inspired to pursue careers in environmental science. We offer these children opportunities to create once-in-a-lifetime memories and understand why we need to take care of our cultural and natural resources. What could be more important?

About the authors

Alyssa Chiascione

Alyssa Chiascione is a student at the University of Maryland, majoring in environmental science and policy with a concentration in marine and coastal management. She recently graduated from a two-year program at the Institute of Applied Agriculture, University of Maryland, earning a certificate in sustainable agriculture. Alyssa has worked in environmental education for over three years. In her internship with the National Park Service, she helps improve the quality of education programs, using her strong background in science to assist in creating unique and engaging lessons for students. Image courtesy of Alyssa Chiascione.

Kathy Langley

Kathy Langley has worked for the National Park Service for 35 years. She manages the White House Visitor Center and has overseen the education programs for The White House and President’s Park since the early 1990s. She has developed and carried out many education programs in the U.S. and abroad. Kathy also designs and installs temporary exhibits for the visitor center. In the past, she worked at Yellowstone National Park as an engineering technician and at Valley Forage, Death Valley, Prince William Forest Park, and the Old Post Office Tower as an interpretive park ranger, volunteer coordinator, and supervisor. She also worked for the Forest Service in Halfway, Oregon. Kathy holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife management and biology from the University of Idaho and an associate degree in forestry from Paul Smith’s College. Image credit: NPS

The White House and President's Park

Last updated: March 13, 2024