National Parks Turn into Classrooms to Turn a New Generation into Nature Lovers

Last Updated by Nancy Rogan on

At the Muir Woods National Monument just north of San Francisco, students learning by seeing, touching and smelling. The education program is administered by the National Park Service in an attempt to expose the next generation to the nation’s parks. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week reports.

ARACELY MONTERO, Park Ranger, National Park Service: Nice big circle. Come on in.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Fourth graders from Pennycook Elementary School will soon see something they have never seen before.

ARACELY MONTERO: So, welcome to the Redwood Forest, everyone.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Even though they live in Oakland, just 45 minutes away, most have never been to a national park.

You might call it a sensory experience.

ARACELY MONTERO: Aaron, can you tell us, what is another way we can observe nature?

STUDENT: Like, with our nose?

ARACELY MONTERO: With our noses.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Ranger Aracely Montero leads the tour. The children approach the first stand of redwoods.

ARACELY MONTERO: We are now inside of the magical forest of Muir Woods.

STUDENT: Oh, my God.

ARACELY MONTERO: Everyone, take a good look up.


ARACELY MONTERO: We’re now standing under one of the tallest living things in the world.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: In this classroom, students use all their senses.

STUDENT: This one feels thick.

WOMAN: It feels really thick, doesn’t it?

STUDENT: It smells like salt.

WOMAN: Look up there. Those are clusters of ladybugs.

STUDENT: It’s like a whole country of them.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Teacher Darlene Wong says that place-based learning, having children learn by experiencing subjects, rather than simply reading about them, teaches skills like critical thinking.

DARLENE WONG, Teacher, Pennycook Elementary School: Show me your evidence. What evidence do you have to prove what you’re saying or what you’re writing here?

STUDENT: Whoa. That’s so big.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The National Park Service’s educational programs serve approximately seven million children every year.

Rangers conduct teacher workshops, go on classroom visits, and, perhaps most importantly, create curriculum for these trips based on state standards. This class is learning about California habitats.

WOMAN: Ooh, look what I found.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Without these programs, Wong says she couldn’t have brought her class to the forest.

DARLENE WONG: In terms of testing and what we have to cover in terms of curriculum and time, it’s really — it would be really hard to justify it.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Julia Washburn went from junior ranger…

JULIA WASHBURN, National Park Service: It still fits.

STUDENT: It still fits.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: … to park ranger. Now she oversees all educational programs for the National Park Service.

JULIA WASHBURN: It’s one thing to read about a wetland, for example, in a textbook. And it’s a very different thing to be standing up to your thighs in mud in a swamp or in a wetland, such as the Everglades.

It just really makes the learning tangible and very relevant, so students can understand why they’re learning something, not just what they’re learning.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The source of the excitement? Long-legged bugs called water striders.

What’s not as easily seen are the challenges facing the Park Service. Budgets are down. There’s 10 percent fewer staff than five years ago, and the next generation of park visitors is uncertain.

Using national parks as classrooms isn’t just about learning. It’s also about growing the next generation of park visitors.

GRACE LEE, Executive Director, National Park Trust: If we don’t engage young people of color right now with our parks, then, 100 years from now, we are very concerned that there won’t be the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the National Park Service.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Grace Lee heads the National Park Trust. They raise money for 20,000 kids to visit parks every year.

GRACE LEE: They have been studies that have done recently that have shown, of the almost 300 million people that have gone to national parks in the last couple of years each year, that a very small percentage of them are young people, and even a smaller percentage of them are children of color.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Fifty years ago, the National Park Service partnered with AAA and Chevrolet to reach returning World War II veterans and their families, creating the generation of park users we see today.

Aging baby boomers remain the largest percentage of park visitors overall.

JONATHAN JARVIS, Director, National Park Service: What we’re feeling now is that there’s a new generation that is more urban, more diverse.

Maybe they are first-generation immigrants to the United States, first-generation citizens. Maybe they came from a country that didn’t have public lands or parks or a tradition of that. And so we are reaching the kids and they’re bringing their parents to the parks.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, says America’s parks must tell the country’s evolving story.

JONATHAN JARVIS: Filling in the gaps, as I would say, in the American narrative. We have added sites for civil rights, like Harriet Tubman. We added Stonewall, which tells the story of the LGBT civil rights movement as well.

We need to be telling that story, so that all Americans feel part of the patriotic and symbolic values that this nation embodies.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Jarvis says they have also embraced technology, Webcams, online chats, even video games.

National Park sites are actually Pokemon GO sites?

JONATHAN JARVIS: They are. They are. The Pokemon GO community has spread these little monsters all over the National Park Service, and we’re embracing that, because it’s getting people outside and getting — using technology in a way that sort of connects them to these places.


KAVITHA CARDOZA: Here in the Redwood Forest, these 10-year-olds have found something better than Pokemon GO characters.

STUDENT: Turkeys.

STUDENT: Gobble, gobble.

JONATHAN JARVIS: The evidence shows that when kids are exposed to the place, they learn, they retain, they become more interested and more excited about learning.


WOMAN: How do you feel right now?

STUDENT: Being in the Redwood Forest makes me feel happy.

STUDENT: Being in the Redwood Forest makes me want to meditate.

STUDENT: Being in the Redwood Forest makes me feel short.


KAVITHA CARDOZA: The director of the Park Service hopes that using parks as classrooms is just the beginning.

JONATHAN JARVIS: What I wanted to do was to say that the National Park Service is a contributor to American education, both for students, but for lifelong learning as well.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: For the “PBS NewsHour” and Education Week, I’m Kavitha Cardoza, reporting from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California.

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