Teaching Opinion

National Parks at 100: Outdoor Classrooms for Experiential Learning

By Milton Chen & Jonathan B. Jarvis — August 25, 2016 4 min read
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As schools begin a new academic year, a hidden key to unlocking student success lies beyond the school building. The long-standing achievement gap is also an experience gap. In U.S. cities such as San Francisco or Washington, there are high school students who live near the Pacific Ocean or the Potomac River, respectively, but have never seen their waters. Many students have never grown a flower or a vegetable. Though the current generation faces dramatic threats to the environment and should learn about the natural world’s current plight, many students’ experiences of nature are limited.

Recent studies show that U.S. children spend, on average, less than a half-hour outdoors every day, but more than 7½ hours indoors with technology, according to the National Wildlife Federation. As one Oakland, Calif., teacher described her middle school students’ lives outside the classroom: “These boys carry guns, but they’re afraid of bugs.”

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this month, its staff is joining with schools, universities, museums, libraries, and other youth-serving nonprofits to close this nature-experience gap. To that end, President Barack Obama launched Every Kid in a Park last year. It’s an initiative that gives every 4th grader and his or her family a free pass to visit national parks and public lands each year. Teachers can also take their 4th grade classes. This initiative allows parents and educators more opportunities to expose their students at an early age to the parks’ resources.


In more than 400 national parks across the nation—from the iconic Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, to the Nez Perce sites spanning four states, to the historic homes of César Chávez and Frederick Douglass—students are getting authentic experiences in restoring habitats; documenting flora, fauna, and artifacts; and gaining insight into national triumphs and struggles. In these places, abstract ideas—from biodiversity to cultural diversity—come alive. Students come alive, too, through experiential learning. Preserving our nation’s landscapes and historic sites, not for a wealthy aristocracy but for all members of society, is important for education.

Recent research, including findings from neuroscience, supports the engagement of students’ bodies, as well as their minds, for deeper learning. In his 2013 book Education and the Environment, author and educator Gerald A. Lieberman, who studies the connection between natural surroundings and school improvement, reviewed research connecting place-based experiential learning with improved academic achievement, classroom behavior, and preparation for college and careers. This learning can also energize teachers and build deeper relationships between schools and communities.

When children are transported to real parks, they can engage in new types of learning.

Students who visit the parks can experience collaborative learning and gain context for the history they study in the classroom. When students work in teams to measure water quality in the New York Harbor or support each other while biking 1,800 miles of the Underground Railroad, they are exercising their social and emotional muscles and preparing to become valuable team members in the workplace. When students stand where soldiers fell on the Gettysburg battlefield or Pearl Harbor’s USS Arizona Memorial, the phrase “hallowed ground” takes on new meaning.

Teachers can also learn alongside their students. Through the national parks’ Teacher-Ranger-Teacher program, educators work with park rangers over the summer to develop lessons to bring back to their students.

The park service’s core goals include a new push to reach diverse student populations with a focus on the next generation through the Find Your Park/Encuentra Tu Parque initiative. New urban parks are being developed to attract more diverse youths and families of color with interpretive programs and signs with translations in multiple languages. These sites all reflect a commitment to tell a more complete story of our nation.

For those students who can’t get to the parks in person, the service also uses an increasing array of online learning technologies. The National Park Service website is full of lesson plans, including videoconferences with park rangers. Google Expeditions, a free application that teachers can use for virtual-reality field trips, is partnering with a new app startup called WildEyes to release virtual footage of national parks around the country.

And this year, events known as BioBlitzes, which allow people to identify as many species as possible in one place in a short period of time, are expanding to more than 200 national, state, and city parks through a partnership with the National Geographic Society. Amateur scientists of all ages will have the opportunity to become part of a larger scientific community as they identify flora and fauna for species inventory. Students might discover species previously unfound—an unforgettable experience that can lead to a lifelong love of science.

But these online and virtual experiences supplement, rather than supplant, actual park visits. For this reason, through the Ticket to Ride Program, the National Park Foundation provides transportation funding for class trips. When children are transported to real parks, they can engage in new types of learning. They learn curricula, but also learn about themselves.

As we celebrate the centennial of our national parks, leaders in education need to remember the important role of outdoor classrooms in connecting school lessons to real life. In this age of technology, schools should not forget that Mother Nature is still our most marvelous teacher.

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2016 edition of Education Week as 100 Years Old, Our National Parks Are the Best Outdoor Classrooms


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