Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Parents and caregivers: if you haven’t visited a National Park or National Historic Site recently, there is probably one near you, and it might make the most memorable day or weekend trip of your summer. These places offer a unique, hands-on opportunity for kids to explore, learn, and satisfy their thirst for adventure while getting excited about nature and history. (Park and Historic Site finder here.)
Does your child thrive on physical activity? In National Parks, kids and their adults can climb to mountain waterfalls near the continental divide, watch the sun rise over layers of geologic time in the Grand Canyon, or canoe through lakes and rivers rich with both natural and human history (multiple parks). Young park visitors and their families can trek past rock formations in Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns, explore forest and desert habitats, scale ladders to abandoned Native American cliff dwellings, and learn about the earth’s crust through the force of geysers and volcanoes.
Is your child obsessed with paleontology or archaeology? Kids can see dinosaur skeletons still embedded in rock at Dinosaur National Monument, or they can examine ancient petroglyphs in New Mexico. Budding history buffs can trace American history – walking right where it happened – from settlements like Historic Jamestown to the buildings and battlefields of the Revolutionary War and Civil War, important sites in African American and Native American history, and memorials from the Civil Rights movement.
Many sites offer Visitor Centers with educational exhibits and/or guided programs by Park Rangers, and at any Park kids can practice photography or journal writing. (Tip: some sites have limited tour availability and recommend advance reservations – check the website before you go.) For young adults, National Parks can offer even more in-depth learning and internship opportunities: the Mosaics in Science program, for example, provides on-the-ground, science-based NPS work experience to youth underrepresented in natural resource science career fields. NPS includes accessibility solutions for guests with disabilities, and it offers several resources for teachers, as well. Visiting Parks can even be good for your health: the benefits of exercise and spending time in nature are so significant, this year marked the 2nd annual Park Prescription Day around the country – an opportunity to reflect on both self-care and the value of our natural environment.
To help younger kids process and remember their experiences, you can ask about the Junior Ranger program – most National Parks, historic, and battlefield sites offer educational activity packets (available from a Park Ranger, often at the main Visitor Center). Activities vary by age, and additional programs are available in some parks. (Tip: some activities ask kids to record details from the site, so you may want to pick up packets early in your visit.) Kids can earn collectible “Junior Ranger” badges after completing assignments – in my family, these have been treasured souvenirs of adventures together.
National Parks are inexpensive, and in some cases, free: fourth graders and their families can sign up for free access to the National Parks for a year, and NPS offers free U.S. military passes, free Access passes for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities, and a few free entrance days for all. Until August 28, 2017, seniors can pay $10 for a lifetime Senior Pass.
For some learners, it can be hard to find inspiration in textbooks and articles alone, and many students thrive on hands-on immersion. Let them dive in and surround themselves with learning, and consider visiting natural wonders and historic places during your family adventures. Your children can expand their knowledge and discover new interests – and together with you, will make lifelong memories.
p.s. If your family feels (as mine does) that these sites should be preserved for future generations, you can visit https://www.npca.org/advocacy and contact your elected U.S. representatives to request protection for National Parks land and funding. For children, writing letters to Senators and Representatives can be a multidisciplinary learning experience, too.