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National Parks as Learning Spaces – Ideas for Park-Focused Art and Literature Projects

When we think of national parks, we more or less divide them into two distinct subject areas connected with her educational mission; science and history. While it is true that the majority of these special places have been preserved because of its value in showcasing the wonders of the natural world and its processes or the history of our nation. However, each one of these parks has been preserved because it tells a story, and it tells that story better than any other place in the world.

When we begin to look at each of our parks as places connected to stories, we can begin to see how they can be used as learning spaces not just for science and history teachers, but for more artistic and literary pursuits as well. They can be places that inspire us to create, in the form of colorful visuals, music, or the written word. They can become places where we can study and experience different parts of the human experience in many different ways. They can be places where we can use persuasive or creative writing to expose new generations of people to their importance and inspire them to either visit them or take action to protect them.

While there are no substitutes for an actual visit, due in part to the current educational landscape, considering how to use national parks to inspire writing and art can be used to inspire writers and artists how to distance.

Artist in Residence Project

Writers, painters, and photographers across the US have long used National Parks as inspiration for creation. With this in mind, the NPS created the Artist in Residence program where they invite units across the US to periodically host artists in their parks, allowing them to explore the parks interpretive themes through their work. While your students may not be able to apply for one of these competitive positions, Artist in Residence projects can be a great way to get students to explore literary themes or apply and practice art skills in your classroom.

Get students to either search for a park that they have a connection with or want to learn more about and help them to explore it through a medium of their choice. You could also help them to create a virtual inspiration board made up of images, video, and interactive links that help them to get a feel for the park and to give them an idea of what message their work might articulate.

Who knows what they’ll create. Maybe they will compose a piece of music inspired by a Grand Canyon sunrise?

You can see more examples of Artist in Residence programs and installations here!

#WriteOut

This place-based writing initiative is sponsored by the National Writing Project. It culminates in a free two-week event comes in the form of a series of online activities focused on connecting public spaces like national parks to place-based learning practices that help develop students as writers and creative communicators.

Officially launching in October of this year, you can preview some of the activities from past years at this website, or search the National Park website for poetry lessons produced by parks.

If you’d rather not wait, consider integrating parks into your next poetry unit. Parks have long inspired poets, as is evidenced by this collection shared on the website of the American Academy of Poets, and since this artistic form is infinitely accessible to students regardless of age, thinking of how to get them writing poetry within outdoors spaces is a great way to embed literacy goals into a park-focused project. Creating a poetry walk for a favorite park or local open space is one idea. You can also help students learn about how a place can lead to impromptu creation with a Poetry Slam like this one!

Art Focused Parks

While most of us are familiar with battlefield parks like Gettysburg or ecological preserves like Timucuan you might not be aware of just how many parks were actually created specifically to interpret and preserve important artists and artistic movements.

Parks like Thomas Cole, Saint-Gauden, and Eugene O’Neill provide great information about American artists and artistic movements that can help you provide examples or background for students who are interested in painting, sculpture, or playwriting. Of special note is Wolf Trap, the only national park dedicated solely to the performing arts and their YouTube channel has all sorts of content that can inform your next theatre or drama unit. Looking at online Junior Ranger programs, like the one at the home of author and poet Carl Sandburg, might yield great opportunities for young poets as well.

Part of the reason that so many parks honor artists is the long relationship between conservation and art. Since their inception the arts have played a role in the mission of the parks, and in recognition of this the Art in the Parks movement helps to continue and develop this partnership. The webpage for this movement is a great place to connect students to the role art has played in interpreting and sharing our national parks.

Take a look at the curated exhibits, the like the selection of sculptured narratives, and think about how students can use these as models for their own projects. Could students create a triptych that explores the themes of a park. Look at past installations from global artists hosted by the Presidio or watch this series of short films that goes into the relationship between arts and parks.

Art and Story Trails

Trails are the arteries of parks, providing connections between areas and features. Many trails include interpretive panels that share information about science and history, providing the inspiration for the idea of Storytrails.

More and more we see art incorporated into trails, augmenting or complimenting the theme of the trail or an areas scenic beauty. Getting students to think about trails in their own community that could benefit from Storytrail plans like this one makes for a great project. If you don’t have readily-accessible trails in your area, use Google Maps to “virtually” hike a trail, like this one in Petrified Forest, and have them design art or narrative installations that are more focused on stories than scientific information. If performing arts are something you want to incorporate, think about having students write and record a dramatic audio tour for an area of your town or a section of a trail with a connection to historic events or stores. A fantastic example of how trails and dramatic art can combine is the Harriet Tubman Byway app that serves as a companion to many of the sites in Maryland associated with Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park.

There are dozens and dozens of potential projects that can come from incorporating art into trails, and if you’re running short of ideas take a look at this article with examples from across the US.

Park Inspired Writers

“We drifted on, up that miraculous valley. On either side of us were hills from a thousand or fifteen hundred feet high, wooded from crest to heel. As far as the eye could range forward were columns of steam in the air, misshapen lumps of lime, mist-like preadamite monsters, still pools of turquoise-blue stretches of blue corn-flowers, a river that coiled on itself twenty times, pointed bowlders of strange colors, and ridges of glaring, staring white.” – Rudyard Kipling

As we’ve already mentioned, parks have long been places where creatives of all kinds have flocked to find inspiration, practice their craft, or find solace, and writers are no exception. Hawthorne, Emerson, and Poe are just a few of the literary names who have strong connections to parks but there are many more than can serve as inspiration to student authors.

But parks aren’t just connections for creative writers. If you’re teaching persuasive writing, you can look for sites in your community that might make good candidates for preservation and have students write essays, podcasts, or articles advocating for their recognition as national parks or inclusion in heritage areas.

The list of literary connections to parks are enormous, and this list of literature-focused resources is a good place to begin exploring. What will parks inspire your students to write?

The Stories We Tell

Art conserver Heather Becker said, “Art is a narrative and tells a lot of personal stories.” Whether in painting, sculpture, song or the written word, art conveys meaning, sometimes in narrative form. Parks also tell stories, and translating the stories of those people into works of art provides a great opportunity for student projects.

Students can learn about the stories of a parks first people and find artifacts or images that describe their lives or experience, like those captured in the artwork of Pablita Velarde. Artwork can be used to convey the themes present in our national experience, such as conflict, confinement or exploration. Students can demonstrate their understanding of significant events or their understanding of natural processes by creating murals that depict scenes from the park like this mural from Joshua Tree National Park.

To explore the many stories of a park go to the People section of any national park website (click Learn About The Park --> History and Culture --> People)

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