If your family includes a fourth-grader, you’ve got your ticket to the national parks for this year. The annual pass, which would otherwise cost a family $80 (unless the family includes a senior citizen or member of the military) is the latest in the National Park Service’s efforts to introduce a new generation to all that is amazing about the 401-park system.
While park visitation hit a record 292.8 million people last year, the number of visitors under the age of 15 has fallen by half the past decade. The overall average age of park visitors has increased, particularly at the big parks out West: According to a new report, the average age of visitors to Denali in Alaska is 57; at Yellowstone, which includes parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, it is 54.
Park officials have begun to worry that interest in and support for the parks will dwindle, if the parks don’t become relevant to younger generations. That’s especially crucial with 80 percent of Americans living in urban settings, and the only forests they may ever see are on the wallpaper samples for their iPads.
So officials have been brainstorming and coming up with new programs for kids.
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The free passes for fourth-graders are available at the new website everykidinapark.gov. To get the pass, fourth-graders need to answer a few questions about outdoor adventures. Then, yes, there’s instant gratification: You can print out a pass at home, or trade it in for a more credit-card-like plastic pass.
The site lets kids start planning a trip into nature, depending on what appeals to them. They can see rare animals, explore the woods, visit a national park or find other places to play.
It’s not just fourth-graders who are being courted.
At nationalparks.org, the National Parks Foundation, which promotes and provides private support for the parks, you can download a free guide with 35 park adventures for kids of all ages. The parks have also joined forces with two stalwarts of childhood to help get the word out.
The first is with Sesame Street. A new online series, “Sesame Street Explores National Parks” (sesamestreet.org/parks), features Muppets Elmo and Murray visiting Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona in six short videos as well as accompanying hands-on activities; the videos teach young people about habitats, seasons, plants and animals. They can also learn how to conduct an animal survey, look for nests, identify migration patterns and even listen to the sounds of nature.
The second effort is with Disney, in which a public service announcement that features Disney Channel star Caroline Sunshine encourages kids and families to explore the outdoors. The announcement was a good match for the theme park giant, whose Disney Friends for Change and Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund programs were created to connect kids and families to nature.
Of course, the national parks have always had programs for young people – the Junior Rangers is a longstanding effort – in place at most parks. Though they vary slightly by location, most encourage kids to become outdoor stewards. Youngsters may get a free booklet filled with activities or worksheets on spotting local wildlife or be able to take classes or visit exhibitions on everything from history to safety issues. At the Grand Tetons, for example, kids learn how to keep food locked up to prevent bears from coming into campsites. At Yellowstone, a display at Old Faithful teaches kids about geysers. You can also download booklets and a variety of educational materials at nps.gov/kids/jrRangers.cfm.
In a nod to changing times, though, there’s a new spin on the Junior Rangers theme: Web Rangers. Kids can log in, play games, earn rewards and maybe even get curious enough to want to experience some of that digital world in real time.
Online participation is key to the Find Your Park program, the centerpiece of the National Park Service’s 2016 centennial. Launched last year, findyourpark.com is designed to engage the public and to reintroduce the national parks and the work of the National Park Service to a new generation of Americans. The idea is “to discover a personal connection to a place or a story that provides inspiration or enjoyment,” according to NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.
For instance, first lady Michelle Obama, who introduced the program with former first lady Laura Bush, shared videos describing her connections to two locations: President’s Park, home to the White House, and Pullman National Monument, one of the newest national parks, in her family’s hometown of Chicago,
Find Your Park is also designed to address the mistaken impression held by many that national parks are only in the West – places such as Glacier and Bryce. Not only are they in every state in the United States, but they are about more than just America’s natural beauty. They also note sites of significant historical and national importance and include familiar landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Little Rock Central High School and the Lincoln Memorial.
The efforts to change with the times have gone pretty far – in one case, controversially so. Jarvis recently waived agency policies against partnering with alcoholic beverage companies so the National Park Foundation could sign a multimillion-dollar agreement with Anheuser-Busch – a deal that gives the brewer valuable branding placements during the centennial campaign. The park service hopes Anheuser-Busch will be a key partner in its search for a younger audience, co-branding with the brewer at concerts in the parks and “integration” with its responsible-drinking campaign.