National Parks as a classroom
More often, in my role as a consultant I hear teachers talking about context and I could not agree more. Recently I was working with a teacher who was using 4 Square writing strategy to help her students write an informational piece of the recent wildfires in Tennessee. She was passionate about the topic but was concerned that her students would not be able to grasp the content because of a lack of context. I offered to support in the classroom as I have traveled to the area. It got me thinking about the ways in which we as educators can build a bridge between the classroom and the real world. One such way is our National Parks system (NPS).
The US national park system is extensive, expanding (Stonewall Inn in NYC was just designated part of the NPS) and can feel very overwhelming. I myself still struggle sometimes in trying to figure out what is protected under the NPS. I believe that all too often when you hear NPS you think of places like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, and rightfully so. The reality is The National Park System touches every state in the US and many territories. Some with vast national parks and others with National monuments, historic sites, preserves, lakeshores, seashores, rivers, trails, wilderness, parkways, and memorials. The list is as diverse as it is long, each place providing a unique opportunity to learn and absorb something amazing at the United States.
And while simply just finding yourself at an NPS site will open anyone up to a world of learning. But as a lifelong learner when I find myself in a park, I immediately think how can I make this work for kids. Fortunately, the NPS has already thought of that with their Junior Ranger Program.
What is Junior Ranger
At many of the places run by NPS is a program called Junior Ranger. While some may see as kitschy at first (even I was skeptical) a world of learning awaits. As an educator, what better way to tackle a learning opportunity than with a guide book that is interactive, engaging, and fun. Better still, for children who meet the requirements for their age, a badge is presented to them as a token to commemorate the learning experience and visit.
Each junior ranger book is unique to its park or park system. Often times parks along the east coast are historical in nature and the authentic learning experiences engage children in a myriad of activities. For example,
- At Thomas Edison National Historic Park, students are provided the opportunity to talk with rangers inside Edison’s lab and ask questions. They are able to see first hand the exact place that Edison invented the battery with the actual equipment he used.
- At Hopewell Furnace, students are encouraged to participate in a scavenger hunt (of sorts) that takes them all through the preserved community. The exploration affords them the opportunity to gain deep insight into life at that time and what it meant working on an “iron plantation.”
- At African Burial Grounds students will hear stories about the grounds, as well as complete activities that teach them the importance of symbols and artifacts and how they were used with language.
While parks in the western park of the US tend to be more geographical with the vast amount of land protected. At these parks, the learning is often more focused on the history of the Native People, animals, and geography. For example,
- In Death Valley, students are encouraged to learn about animals that are native to the desert and how are engaged in activities on their survival in the vast geographical differences of the landscape.
- At the Grand Canyon, junior ranger exploration has more focus on how the canyon was formed. Learning about the history of the canyon, animals that navigate the steep embankments, and the reasons behind the colors is also embedded in the guide books.
- At Bryce Canyon exploration is on science, nature, and geography. Students are lead through a myriad of activities on how and why the Hoodoo’s are they way they are. Then they are given a great insight into one of the canyon’s residents – Prairie Dogs!
When a park is not an option
WWhile I believe every teacher wants to get their students out of the classroom to learn, sometimes that is not always an option. Often times, we as educators, spend hours looking for ways to engage our students but again NPS has found ways to bring the parks to the classrooms through Junior Ranger programs that can be done remotely. Topics for these programs include;
- The Underground Railroad – a guidebook has been designed to help students understand the history and significance of the both those who were seeking freedom from slavery and those who were helping “passengers” on their journey to freedom.
- Archaeology – with two different books that focus on the science of archaeology and what it has taught us about the past.
- Paleontology – a fossil lovers dream, this book touches on everything from the smallest to the largest fossils and the science around finding and preserving them.
- Astronomy – a guidebook which has a myriad of activities around the stars, sky and the dark sky, movement. The guidebook helps students understand light pollution and the importance of using light responsibly.
- Speleology (cave exploration) – a detailed dive (no pun intended!) into caves and their importance of protecting them. The learning activities provide real insight into the what lies inside the darkness and why they are so important to ecosystems.
- Wilderness exploration – a great way for students with no context of the wilderness to gain some. With so many kids in cities being able to learn about the wilderness
- Oceanography – a closer look at the oceans, the ecosystems and why they are so important to protect.
- Traveling Clara Barton – this opportunity is great for a class to learn about the Civil War, Clara Barton, letter writing and the US postal system with just a few stamps and patience!
Junior Ranger Resources
There are a number of websites that chronicle their experiences with Junior Ranger. Below are a few that I have visited to learn about their junior ranger experiences.
Additionally, many National Parks have their programs online so you can front load before going to a site.
If all that is still not enough learning to be done, the NPS has gone one step further creating WEB RANGERS!
This interactive site breaks down activities by level and interest. Web rangers is an extension of the Junior Ranger program, allowing students to reach learning experiences that may not otherwise be accessible for them. Broken down into categories, web rangers is highly interactive and packed with learning. It does require the students to have a username and password so it can remember their progress towards earning rewards but it is worth the setup.
Essentially, as educators, an entire learning experience is already created for us at a location which exists, in part to educate.
All we have to do is find our park!