Educator James Fester wrote this post.
It’s that time of year again. In the Northern Hemisphere, the days are some of the longest all year, and in many places, temperatures are at their hottest. People spend summer in all sorts of ways: engaging in outdoor activities, exploring their communities, or trying to toast the perfect marshmallow over a flickering fire. Sadly, that last one eludes me to this day.
This summer, millions of people will visit a national park in the United States. With over 420 units in the National Park System, these special places will host visitors from abroad along with some of the millions of Americans who live close to a park, monument, or preserve. Factor in other public lands such as national forests and state parks, and many people will find they live within minutes of a protected natural area. Fortunately, however, learning doesn’t require physically traveling to a park; there are engaging ways to explore parks remotely too.
People love national parks for different reasons, including the chance they provide to experience the remarkable natural and cultural history of the United States. Learning in national parks is a great way to sneak some knowledge-building into the summertime, and if you aren’t sure how, National Geographic can help. What follows are some ideas and resources to help you take advantage of the informal opportunities for learning you will encounter as you explore “America’s best idea.”
The activities and projects I have done with my learners have helped me understand that true exploration requires two things: a methodology (the “how”) that helps define the process for exploration and spark questions; and resources (the “what”) that can be synthesized to provide the answers. The same is true in our parks. By their nature, they inspire wonder and curiosity, making them perfect forums for learning with an Explorer Mindset. After you read through these tips and suggestions to create your own learning expedition, consider adapting some of these approaches for your classroom. These approaches can help students develop important skills, delve more deeply into content knowledge, and become more engaged and curious.
The “How”: The Explorer Mindset
National Geographic’s Explorer Mindset can help guide your park visit, especially if you want to focus on learning opportunities as much as on traditional activities like hiking and photography. If you aren’t yet familiar with the framework, this page will give you some background. By looking ahead to what you expect to see and do during your visit, you can connect those activities to questions or learning resources you expect to encounter at the park.
For example, if you were headed to the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, you (or your student or your child) might wonder how the striations in the canyon formed. By using the Explorer Mindset value of curiosity, you could create a set of questions then consider the different opportunities to get answers that a visit to the park provides. The Explorer Mindset lends a focus and purpose to your visit on top of simply having fun and getting fresh air. For more tips on creating questions and seeking answers, check out this Explorer Mindset toolkit.
The “What”: Virtual and In-Person Resources
A process alone will not give you what you need to unlock the wonder of our national parks. You’ll also need facts and context that, when synthesized using the Explorer Mindset, will help you make sense of the things you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing.
National Geographic provides some great resources to get you started, some of which highlight parks specifically. On the Learn Anywhere hub and in the Resource Library, you will find a wealth of information to absorb before you even set foot in the park. What’s more, if a national park visit is not on your summer itinerary, or if you’re reading this after you’ve taken your trip, it’s not too late! You can also use the resources to create hybrid or distance learning experiences.
Of particular interest within this expansive resource is “Adventures on the Road,” three amazing collections to help people learn about three equally amazing national parks through mapping, fun facts, activities, reading lists, Indigenous heritage, and more. They are great on their own or can serve as examples for finding other resources to match the park you are visiting.
The resources from National Geographic are effective for building knowledge prior to visiting the park. Once you’re in the park, make sure also to take advantage of informal learning opportunities that complement what you’ve gathered before your visit. Check out the visitor center to see the themes, stories, and opportunities for learning that you’ll be able to take advantage of during your visit. Attend ranger programs on topics that interest you. Also, see if the park has a YouTube channel, cell phone tour, or content loaded onto the National Park Service Tours app, which you can use for self-guided learning anytime, anywhere.
For more ways to bring learning experiences like these into your classroom, consider joining this educator community focused on connecting classroom learning to national parks!
Explore the National Geographic Society’s Resource Library for nearly 3,000 additional free resources, including articles, videos, activities, maps, and lesson plans. Use this idea set to enhance your national park visit or learn about parks too far away to experience in person.
James Fester is a consultant and author passionate about project-based learning (PBL) and experiential learning. His educational experience includes classroom teaching, instructional coaching, technology integration, and, most recently, serving as a member of the PBLWorks National Faculty. In addition to his consulting work, James is a National Park Service volunteer who collaborates on educational programs for parks across the country. His writing has been featured by National Geographic, TED-Ed, KQED, and in a recent book on PBL and environmental science published by ISTE. He currently resides in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Learn more about his work or how to work with him on his website.
Distinctive geological formations characterize Colorado National Monument, a National Park Service site in western Colorado. Photo courtesy of James Fester.