Engaging and Educating Youth in Our National Parks

Rebecca WatsonNPF Blog
A student poses with a clipboard on a field trip
Field trip to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve - NPF Photo / Dawn Kish

Our national parks are America’s largest classroom, offering unparalleled opportunities to connect with nature, as well as our history and culture. Educational programs tied to our parks enhance curriculum taught in the classroom, increasing critical thinking skills, knowledge, self-confidence, and motivation to learn – all while having a transformative impact on students.

The National Park Foundation (NPF), together with our partners, supports youth engagement and education programs that provide ways for kids to enjoy, understand, and connect with our national parks, cultivating the next generation of park stewards.

Open OutDoors for Kids

A group of students walk along stones on a beach

Open OutDoors for Kids program at Olympic National Park

NPF Photo / Dawn Kish

Research demonstrates that kids who engage with the outdoors are healthier and do better in school. Similarly, a young person’s understanding of history improves after experiencing sites of cultural significance. NPF’s Open OutDoors for Kids program introduces all kids to experiential, outdoor experiences that promote physical and emotional health, civic engagement, and a long-term appreciation for nature. By providing transportation, programming, and free entry to parks for children, teachers, and families, Open OutDoors for Kids creates pathways to experience nature, history, and culture, as well as create lifelong connections to these treasured resources.

“The value of this support is immeasurable. It opens life-changing opportunities for kids to bring nature and parks into their lives.” – Mississippi National River & Recreation Area

In 2016, NPF launched a Focus City model for the program, enabling parks to reach new schools, teachers, students, and community partners. The model awards large grants to parks in urban areas, with funding allocated for both transportation costs as well as capacity building for the park and its local park partners. This is helping bring together communities around our parks and innovating the way parks and their partners can build sustainable programs.

Since its launch, Open OutDoors for Kids has helped connect over 1 million kids to our national parks. From students spotting native birds through binoculars at Gateway Arch National Park to a classroom learning the history of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, each door opened to our parks represents another kid newly connected to the outdoors, its majesty and history, and all of its possibilities.

Hybrid Learning Grants

A ranger stands in front of a tablet and a sign that reads 'Virtual Field Trip in Progress'

A ranger facilitates a virtual field trip to Joshua Tree National Park

NPS Photo / Hannah Schwalbe

Sometimes a student or a classroom is not able to make a physical visit to a park. With the recent growth and shift to online learning, many schools and parks have adjusted in-park programming to address this need. To that end, Hybrid Learning Grants, an extension of NPF’s Open OutDoors for Kids program, are piloting innovative distance learning techniques that connect students, teachers, and families to the resources found in our national parks.

Programs supported by these grants are as varied as our national parks themselves. In Montana 7th and 8th grade students are working with Martin Van Buren National Historic Site to complete the Voting is my Superpower program, embracing the skills and knowledge required to be well-informed voters. In Massachusetts, eight teachers are creating educational programs with Salem Maritime National Historic Site to engage students with local Black history. Meanwhile in Alaska, remote and Alaska native students who may live 300 miles apart are enjoying a hybrid education program from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve while students brainstorm alongside park rangers at Texas’s Palo Alto Battlefield National Park on ways to preserve history and nature. Wherever students are learning, these Hybrid Learning Grants are making classroom lessons come to life through the wonder of our national parks.

Field Science

A group of people, holding nets, set out into a grassy field

Field Science program participants study ecosystems in Badlands National Park

NPF Photo

Our parks are magnificent living laboratories that show us the vast and dynamic natural world and serve as great classrooms for those seeking to learn about the world around us. NPF’s Field Science program, formerly Citizen Science 2.0, provides students and teachers alike the opportunity to enter these living classrooms and participate in hands-on learning experiences that bring science to life. Begun in 2017 with a three-year pilot program, Field Science has engaged dozens of schools from across the country, exploring lessons in watershed health, wildlife monitoring, and more.

Through Field Science, students from local elementary schools took field trips to Badlands National Park to observe animals and study insects and arachnids native to the park, culminating in an overnight camping trip to learn about bat ecology and echolocation. In Saguaro National Park, students from the greater Tucson area collected and analyzed data from saguaro cacti alongside experts in the field. And in Washington, D.C. over 400 second grade students visited Anacostia Park to collect data on the freshwater mussel as part of the park’s ongoing restoration project. Field Science provides real examples of scientific principles in action in our parks, enhancing students’ understanding of concepts and introducing them to future career opportunities in national parks.

Educational programs tied our national parks enhance the lessons taught in our school classrooms, be they virtual, hybrid, or in-person. NPF and our partners are proud to continue the support of youth engagement and education programs such as these to connect students to these unique and treasured places, inspiring the next generation of park stewards while inviting them to explore the world around them. Donate to the National Park Foundation today to help support programs and projects such as these – together we have a powerful impact on our parks.

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