Studies show that green spaces are great for our mental health. Getting outside, specifically to a place designed or maintained to be for recreational or aesthetic purposes, restores our psyche, helps us reflect on emotions, and allows us to weigh decisions that need to be made in our lives. Green spaces have a particularly powerful impact on adolescents with behavioral or self-esteem issues, and are crucial for kids who live in urban settings or who have limited resources to access them. Getting kids outdoors also helps them to be more focused and engaged in the classroom.
The National Park Foundation has been assisting schools in bridging the gap between students and the spaces they need to have a more dynamic and beneficial learning experience through their Open OutDoors for Kids program.
Open OutDoors For Kids provides opportunities for schools to send their teachers and students into our country’s national parks. The program awarded $2.3 million in grants to fund field trips for 188,000 students during the 2018-2019 school year. 90% of the students were from underserved communities in which funding and logistics are scarce; the majority of the program’s funding goes to 4th graders at Title 1 schools where many of the students come from low-income families. These schools rely on financial assistance to provide students the resources they need to meet academic standards.
When a child is stressed, has energy they don’t know what to do with, or has depleted attention, being in a classroom is not only challenging, but it’s hard on the teacher and classmates. Studies consistently show that getting kids outside calms them down and improves their learning experiences. They pay better attention in class after having an outdoor lesson. Other studies found that kids showed more intrinsic motivation and competence by learning outdoors than in. This means they took it upon themselves to learn because it was personally satisfying. They had the confidence to do what they liked in an environment that provided educational and internal rewards. Getting kids outside increases their appreciation for nature and our planet. Giving youth the time and space to explore green spaces through outdoor educational experiences makes them better students and humans.
The National Park Foundation knows this too.
Research has indicated that ten-year-olds are at a crucial age in their learning when they start to have a better and clearer understanding of how the world around them works. Because most 4th graders are ten years old, Open OutDoors for Kids focuses on this grade to get kids to the parks. Kids at this age are more engaged and receptive to nature, which helps them transfer that curiosity into the classroom. The program provides transportation and hands-on learning opportunities through guided projects while at the park. Without the funding by the National Park Foundation, these opportunities would not otherwise be available for most of the students on the field trips.
Kim Bott, a California State Parks guide who works with Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, says: “The students we work with have no idea that these green spaces are here so close to their homes. This is why having ranger-led programs with built-in school curriculum and free transportation is so impactful. We want to instill a lifetime of passion for these parks as early in these students’ lives as we can.”
Another program offered through the National Park Foundation is called Teacher Ranger Teacher. Teachers from Title 1 schools are given professional development through online training and hands-on projects that certify them to create National Park Service curriculum for the classroom; the certification also allows the teachers to bring their students to a park for a field trip.
Through these platforms, the National Park Foundation has engaged more than one million students in outdoor education programs and has invested nearly $14 million dollars in America’s youth since 2011.
According to Vickie Garza, a teacher at Calahan Street Elementary School, a Title 1 school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, it’s paying off. Many of her students come from communities that face barriers to park access, but when they visit the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area they come alive.
“When they see a bird they’ve never seen before, or when they touch a unique type of plant this brings the lessons in the classroom to life for them,” says Garza. “It’s so much more meaningful for my students than it would be had they read about the park in a book, or seen it in a movie. It’s beautiful to see as a teacher.”
Right after the spring semester of my junior year in college, I took a three-week road trip across the United States. The trip was filled with cheap hotels, big cities, long stretches of highway, and the most beautiful parks I have ever seen. Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Arches, Grand Canyon, and Zion National Parks were some of the highlights. But I will never forget the feeling that washed over me when I walked on a trail in Bryce Canyon. The colors and formations of the rocks and the overwhelming beauty of the park took my breath away. I am not a religious person and was not then, but that place had spiritual energy that made me believe in something bigger than me. I couldn’t believe this place was in the United States.
As a poor college student who grew up as a poor kid in the Rust Belt of Pennsylvania, I couldn’t help but wonder how something so wonderful could be so close, yet feel so far away while standing right in the middle of it. My hope was, and still is, that everyone has the chance to experience the wonder of the outdoors in a similar way because it changed me. It made me want to treat the planet better and learn more about the world I live in.
The National Park Foundation agrees. Thanks to their generosity and their conviction that exposure to the outdoors improves a student’s life, more than a million kids have had the chance to be moved by nature.