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Arlene Hernandez

While riding in the car, a precocious 8-year-old passively absorbs her parents’ preferred NPR programming. At home after dinner, she often hears the nightly news blaring in the background. But she shows no outward signs of comprehending the barrage of media coverage dedicated to the upcoming presidential election.

One day, out of the blue, she looks up with a crinkled nose at Mom and inquires, “How does somebody get to be president?”

What would be your strategy for answering that third-grader’s question? You could ostensibly start at the beginning with basic prerequisites, like birth in the U.S. and being at least 35 years old. On the other hand, jumping straight to a discussion of the Electoral College might be a bold move that's not exactly reasonable.

The website Kids.gov — the federal government’s official web portal for children — offers something of a one-size-fits-all solution to just such an inquiry: a poster titled “How to Become President of the United States” that measures 22-by-34 inches. It can be downloaded as a PDF or ordered free of charge, and is simple enough for a first grader to understand yet includes enough fine print to satisfy even the thirstiest 13-year-old minds.

“The poster is very, very popular, especially this year when it’s an election year,” said Arlene Hernandez, director of Kids.gov.

The newly redesigned Kids.gov entertains American children from kindergarten through eighth grade while teaching them important lessons about their government. And because Kids.gov is completely kid-friendly, it’s a free tool that teachers and parents can employ with peace of mind.

Origins and history

Kids.gov is a subsidiary of USA.gov, the official web portal of the U.S. government. USA.gov launched in 2000 and operates as a primary mechanism for distributing government information. To put USA.gov in some historical perspective, 40 years ago the government outreach most analogous to today’s USA.gov was a series of telephone kiosks at federal buildings.

“Federal Information Centers were actually little kiosks in federal buildings, and they had telephone lines where citizens that wanted to know how to get a passport, things like that, would actually call,” recalled Robert Lesino, a public affairs officer for the government’s General Services Administration. “Now any question that you have about the federal government — no matter what department — you can find it on USA.gov.”

When Kids.gov first came online in May 2001, it quickly became a hub for links to kid-friendly features on the websites of various government organizations.

“Each individual agency had its own kids site, but you just wouldn’t know where to go to (find) those kids sites,” Hernandez said. “We have collected them, and put them in order by career topic.”

After 11 years of steady growth, Kids.gov attracts approximately 1.7 millionvisitors annually.

Aggregate and create

Hernandez and her co-workers, Dawn Gusky and Mary Goetzinger, harvest most of Kids.gov’s content by linking to other sites for educational games and activities. Those outside sources need not be governmental, but all sites that get linked to must satisfy several specific parameters in order to ensure that children aren’t exposed to unsavory content via Kids.gov.

“We’ve been growing the website (by) finding the best-of-the-best content out there for kids,” Hernandez said. “No. 1, it has to be free and educational. There shouldn’t be any ads, and there can’t be any log-ins. It has to be compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

“And it has to be appropriate for one of our categories — and that’s either ‘Kids,’ kindergarten through fifth grade; or ‘Teens,’ grades six through eight.”

Kids.gov not only aggregates links to other sites, but also creates its own original content. Indeed, Kids.gov has its own YouTube channel with videos that offer kids a glimpse into the lives of government employees with interesting jobs.

“When kids think about government they think about presidents, but there’s so much more to the government and so I think our videos help explain that,” Hernandez said. “I want kids to realize that there are a lot of different opportunities here with the government, not only federal but state level. It’s not just one thing.”

In June, Kids.gov received a significant redesign that makes it more navigable for students, and also includes enhanced resources for educators as well as a new section especially for parents.

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Speaking of parents, Hernandez channels her own experience as the mother of a 5-year-old son in pinpointing pertinent government-related topics that her site’s new original content can cover. For example, when she searched online for a resource that could help explain to her boy why he needed to receive immunization shots, all she could find was information directed at adults.

“So,” Hernandez said, “I gathered all the links for my friend Jessica, and she wrote ‘Why Do I Need to Get Shots?’ — a nice article for kids explaining, step-by-step, why they need immunizations.”