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.

The National Park Service has led a renewed emphasis on learning in and through its parks, including:

  1. NPS Director Jon Jarvis’s 2009 creation of a Directorate for Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers to coordinate national efforts from Washington, D.C., with the appointment of Julia Washburn, a former NPS interpretive ranger and executive at the National Park Foundation as its first Associate Director;
  2. Signing of a 2012 memorandum of understanding between the Department of Education and the Department of the Interior, leading to an historic first meeting between Secretaries Duncan and Salazar and Director Jarvis, with agreements to work on teacher development and integration of STEM, civics, history, and environmental education;
  3. Launching of a redesigned education portal in 2013 providing lesson plans, workshops, and online Ranger chats.

A 28-member education committee of the NPS Advisory Board is providing ongoing advice and support, with leaders from national education associations, schools of education, agencies such as the Smithsonian and NASA, educators, and researchers. I’ve been honored to chair this committee, which held its annual meeting this month at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. We laid plans for “21st Century interpretation” to address complex topics such as climate change and addressing diverse audiences and stories; improving technology access in Parks and harnessing the world of apps for mobile learning experiences; and planning an education summit on the evolving role of the National Parks.

Public surveys repeatedly find NPS to be the public’s favorite federal agency. As it approaches its Centennial in 2016, “America’s Best Idea” is becoming even better in the lives and learning of its children. Watch this performance by students from Watkins Elementary School in D.C. on stage at Ford’s Theater. They are performing the words of Abraham Lincoln that led to his Gettysburg Address 150 years ago, standing in one National Park site inextricably linked to another.

Dr. Milton Chen, a senior fellow at The George Lucas Educational Foundation and chairman of the Panasonic Foundation, is a member of the NPS Advisory Board and a former trustee of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.


  1. I think this is a great idea, we need to encourage our students to think outside the classroom. I am surrounded by National Parks and will have to take my students out to explore.

  2. The national park system is an amazing laboratory for learning…I have a life time pass.

  3. This link to the education portal doesn’t work:
    3.Launching of a redesigned education portal in 2013 providing lesson plans, workshops, and online Ranger chats.
    11/22/13 at 12:27 pm

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