The National Parks: An Undervalued Educational Resource

By Scott Sterling

In August, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. This agency manages 59 national parks, many monuments, and other properties with its 21,000 employees. Out of the 84,000,000 acres it manages, every state is represented. Chances are, there is a National Park Service site within driving distance.

Which is strange, because the nation’s other primary resource – schoolchildren – barely know such resources exist.

Public lands can be used to cover topics in every subject area. There are obvious ecological and biological resources, as well as physical education benefits. But historic lands can also be used in language arts, social studies, math, and other disciplines.

Outdoor learning checks a lot of the boxes of the 21st century skills that teachers are so hungry to develop in students. The problems and experiences found outside can be sources of collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

That’s one of the reasons why the Obama administration started Every Kid in a Park, an initiative that grants free admission to public lands to every 4th grader in the country. 4th grade classes can also organize free field trips. The program fits into the government’s goals of combating childhood obesity and STEM education.

But admission is only a  part of the cost barrier keeping many schools from helping their students experience the national parks. The other is transportation. Luckily, the National Park Foundation has the Ticket to Ride program, which provides transportation to 100,000 students per year to the national parks. It’s worth looking into.

Sometimes the distance is simply too great, or class time too constrained, to visit a national park. Thankfully, the National Park Service has truly embraced the Internet as a way to make their resources available to more teachers and students:

  • The National Park Service’s website is a gold mine for teachers. It starts with a database of lesson plans searchable by subject, grade level, or Common Core standard.
  • You can take students on virtual field trips that cover particular parks in the system and allow the students to videoconference with one of the park’s rangers.
  • A few of the parks make traveling trunks available, full of lesson plans and original source materials for study.


Then there is the Teacher to Ranger to Teacher program, which takes teachers from large, diverse populations and details them as park rangers for the summer. The teachers return from their experience with a broader depth of knowledge and a professional development journey unlike any other.

Many schools and districts are discovering the value of outdoor classrooms, but it seems as if they’ve forgotten that the federal government, in the form of the National Park Service, already provides many of these resources. All it takes is the effort to seek them out.

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