When John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life, it is life itself” he may not have been specifically referring to National Parks, but anyone who has spent any time in these remarkable places know that they provide an important window into the natural and cultural life of our nation. As such, they are great educational resources that some teachers take advantage of, but many others overlook. So if you’ve never integrated the study of “America’s Best Idea” into your lessons, here are nine reasons why you may want to reconsider that;
1. National Parks are well-known and universally loved.
In 2017, 331 million people visited a national park, monument, or historic site. This means that there is a better than good chance that your students have, or will, visit a park in their lifetime, and using them as tools for learning will help them get more out of the memories they make in these special places.
National Parks aren’t just well-known, they are also one of the few things that can unite Americans in this age of political division. A poll conducted by Hart Research found that 3/4ths of voters polled recognized the value of national parks to the nation, and that equal amounts of Democrats and Republicans believe that protecting and restoring our parks should be a top priority for lawmakers. There are few other issues that receive this kind of bipartisan support, which speaks to their importance in American society and are another reason to consider their inclusion in your classroom.
2. National Parks can save you time and money when you lesson plan or need gather teaching resources.
The mission of the National Park Service is to “preserve for the enjoyment, inspiration and education of all Americans”. To this end, they have a wealth of educational resources that have been created by subject-matter experts that are free to all teachers, provided you know where to look. No matter what subject you teach or what content standard you are looking to unpack for your students, there are instructional resources a few clicks away. In addition to full lesson and unit plans, parks offer opportunities to converse through video conferencing technology or attend webinars. They can also send you trunks full of artifacts and natural objects for your students to interact with or may even be willing to send a park ranger to your classroom. Gathering and producing these resources would be a huge endeavor and take a lot of time if you did this on your own, but luckily you don’t have to. Many educators spend tons of their own money on websites like Teacher Pay Teachers because of the time it saves them on curriculum planning, but ask yourself this; would I rather spend no money to download high-quality, standards-aligned resources created by experts in the field or spend too much money on sub-par worksheets produced by overworked, underpaid teachers?
3. National Parks help authenticate standards.
Have you ever heard a student say “Why does this even matter?” When students know that the content they are learning in class actually affects the real world or is observable and connected to an actual place in a way they can understand, they are better engaged and retain more of what they learn. Looking for observable evidence of geologic timescale? Check out Bryce Canyon. Want students to see the remarkable achievements of America’s peoples before the arrival of Europeans? Look no further than Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon. There are so many ways to connect classroom learning to real places that you’d have to try hard not to connect your standards to park or monument.
4. Many park staff are trained experts in the areas of inquiry, communication, and critical thinking.
For more than 60 years the National Park Service has been providing formal training in interpretation, a presentation and instructional model that connects park visitors to resources through the use of questioning. If this sounds to you like inquiry-based learning, then you’re getting it. Park staff are essentially trained facilitators who can help support many aspects of your projects and lessons. Not only do many of them have expert-level knowledge on topics in the sciences and social science, they are well-versed in many of the 21st century skills that we need to helps our students build, such as communication, critical thinking, and collaboration.
5. Most schools are within driving distance of at least one National Park
At the time this post was written there were 419 units in the National Park system. When you sit down and actually do the math (we did), almost every person inhabiting the fifty states lives within one hour of a national park, making them the most widely accessible external educational resource available to schools and teachers. This is particularly advantageous for students in rural areas who do not have the same access to cultural resources like museums or galleries that suburban or urban students have. Even if transportation and time are obstacles you can’t overcome during the school day, incorporating park units close to your classrooms can encouraging students to visit on their own, thereby independently enriching their learning and providing them with a gateway to recreational opportunities.
6. They are usually free for students to visit
National Parks were first created to ensure that our country’s “best places” were always accessible to the people of America. However, when confronted with entrances fee which sometimes top $20, gaining access can seem a lot more difficult. Knowing how financial barriers like these can keep children from visiting, many parks reimburse teachers who bring their classes. You generally have to call ahead and fill out a little paperwork, but it’s a small price to pay for being able to bring students into parks. If you teach 4th grade, your students are totally free under the Every Kid in a Park initiative, and their families get in free as well! If you happen to try and visit a park that doesn’t reimburse educational visits, inquire about the dozens of free days that are offered every year.
7. You own them and pay for them, so you might as well take advantage of them.
If you pay taxes, you pay for National Parks, whether you visit them or not. So why not visit them? This is also a good vehicle for students to learn about stewardship, the responsibilities of government, and what taxes pay for other than roads and schools. Building messages of civic responsibility and joint ownership into your lesson can help students become more involved citizens when they grow up.
8. They are full of challenging problems that need solving.
The National Park systems currently faces an 11 billion dollar backlog of maintenance, and that’s just one of the many challenges facing some park units as the entire system passes its 100th birthday. Lack of resources, outdated visitor centers, lack of visitation by minorities, sustainability challenges, climate change, overcrowding, fluctuating wildlife populations, and trying to remain relevant in a technology-focused future are just a few of the problems that parks will have to overcome to continue fulfilling their mission. Do any of those problems sound like ones that could provide fertile soil for student projects, investigations, or inquiry? Students could create habitat restoration plans based on their knowledge of the needs of living things, graph inequalities to suggest budgeting, or use technology to design new and more interactive visitor experiences. The opportunities for exploration are limitless, as are opportunities for creating partnerships for displaying student work.
There are many advantages that come with working National Parks and the resources they provide into your next lesson. If you’re looking for a place to get started, check out the link to the educator hub located below!