When we finally arrived at Grand Canyon National Park, I remember just being happy to get out of the car. We had been driving forever. And now we had arrived at a massive collection of cracks in the ground.
That’s what it felt like, at least, to my elementary school kid self. I was more interested in the squirrels, and flipping over a horizontal bar with my cousin than I was in the insanely beautiful scenery in front of me. My parents must have been exasperated.
But, I remember the trip. That’s more the point, I’m learning, as a parent trying to make sure that today’s digitally-influenced kids are equally as influenced by the world around them. And that includes introducing them to as many national parks as we can, showing them the differences between each one, displaying photos around the house of the ones we visit and talking to them about the push-and-pull between public and private land.
In our view, the more connections they make now by experiencing the protected spaces around them, the more they will advocate for their safety in the future. They’ve only been to a few, so far, but those visits have already sparked an interest at home in political debates about public access and funding, which is a really cool outflow.
It’s just the experience that sticks. Kids won’t understand the magnitude of what they’re seeing, but if adults can help them connect to it on some level, it fosters a positive memory which can then lead to future advocacy.
When we visited Zion National Park during National Parks Week last April, we ate lunch on top of the Emerald Pools, a couple of misty waterfalls that provided a perch unlike anything they’ve ever seen. They didn’t dissect the layers of rock. They didn’t take notes on the ancient natives who lived in the area years ago. They just had a fun lunch, in a beautiful place, with a squirrel and a gecko, and they talk about it constantly.
And when we visited Arches National Park this winter, they didn’t marvel at the area’s origin story that began 65 million years ago. They didn’t want to engage in a lesson on erosion. They simply explored, crawled up to lookouts, and stood under arched sandstone that from the ground didn’t appear nearly as big as it felt while standing under it.
They just experienced it. And from that experience they’ll draw tangible context when they learn about it in a classroom. The National Parks agree, and offer free annual passes to every fourth grader – a pass that extends to the entire family so long as the student is there, too.
Experience is absolutely a teacher, and National Parks act as one heck of an instructor.