The National Parks: “America’s Best Idea” for Authentic Learning

KEFJ EducationOur National Parks have been called “America’s Best Idea” by novelist Wallace Stegner. Congress’s vision was to set aside our most significant places as public lands for all to enjoy, in contrast to monarchies that sequestered spectacular properties for the the few and privileged. Nearly 100 years later, we are learning that these 401 sites, ranging from soul-stirring Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields to the grandeur of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, are outdoor classrooms that can inspire and engage a generation of students in ways that no other experience, in or out of the classroom, can.

As states throughout our nation transition to new, higher learning standards and new, more challenging assessments, we should also be addressing what all children truly need, in their academic, social, and emotional lives. This larger view can be vital to their success. But for too long, we’ve held to a much narrower view that teaches children, as Sir Ken Robinson says, only “from the neck up.”

Ranger Rik Penn

Ranger Rik Penn facilitating a pot-washing activity with 3rd graders at the Presidio Nursery in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, CA

The National Parks Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and Everglades National Park represent the spectrum of what students can learn. The former confronts the story of slavery and our nation’s continuing struggle to address race and human diversity; the latter displays the wonder of and need to preserve biodiversity. These experiences address the “whole child,” their hearts, as well as their minds, combining outdoor physical activity, real-world relevance, and learning with a larger community of peers, teachers, parents, Park Rangers, and partners who specialize in STEM, history, and culture.

In National Parks, students literally “come to their senses.” Through a group called Spoke ‘N Revolutions, teenagers from Chapel Hill, N.C., biked 1,800 miles of an Underground Railroad Trail, from Mobile to Niagara Falls. They visited museums and safe houses, stayed with local families, and, in tracing the paths followed by slaves bound for freedom, discovered some hidden personal resources of their own.

Even our best and brightest college students have often led narrow lives devoted to grades and test scores. When a group of Stanford sophomores spent two weeks rafting the Colorado River, arguably America’s most important river, hiking and camping in the company of faculty experts on environmental law and American history, they returned with first-hand knowledge of water issues and a deeper understanding of themselves.

The National Parks are a key institution in the redesign of our American educational system, recognizing that higher standards require more and different types of learning time, in school, after school, and out-of-school. The U.S. is uniquely positioned with informal learning institutions that are the envy of the world–from museums and libraries to youth development groups and our National Parks.

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