Get Acquainted with the Great Outdoors

National Parks and Recreation Month offers opportunities to improve health and education.

By Erin Bailey


Family in a park

What’s better than a lazy summer afternoon spent at the local swimming hole or under a shady canopy at the park? When was the last time you hiked or biked through a local park, or simply enjoyed the serene atmosphere that an out-of-the-way park bench offers?

July is National Park and Recreation Month

Local and national parks enhance our quality of life, and July is the month to celebrate them. The National Recreation and Parks Association is dedicated to educating the public on the role that parks play in a healthy lifestyle. According to their website, seventy percent of Americans live within walking distance of a park or recreation facility. With obesity, heart disease, and diabetes on the rise, this is a great time to spread the word that parks are good for you!

Parks Battle Screen Time

Recent statistics indicate that children engage in as much as five hours of screen time each day. Parks offer some of the most accessible opportunities for children to counteract a sedentary lifestyle. As teachers, we can encourage more visits to the park with a few activities that begin in the classroom and end outdoors:

  • When studying conservation, have your class adopt a park. Periodic clean-ups can be rewarded with playtime afterward.
  • Kite building is a popular geometry lesson extension. Give your class plenty of room to fly their kites by walking to a nearby open space, which also invites impromptu running around.
  • Ask your students to visit a couple of local parks or recreational facilities. They should make a list of the amenities offered. Back in the classroom, turn their data into Venn diagrams, bar graphs, and pie charts.
  • Nature walks are a great time to collect leaf and rock specimens for later science lessons.
  • Learners can also research birds that are native to the area. With a little help, they can build bird and bat houses to attract native species. Marshall Brain, founder of the How Stuff Works website, offers a simple plan that can be modified just by the size and placement of the entry hole. Such a project will provide significant practice in measuring as well as problem solving.

Resources from the National Park Service

If you are lucky enough to live close to a national park, even more opportunities abound.  Currently, the National Park Service operates 397 areas in every state except Delaware. These include places such as the Denali National Park, Gettysburg, and birthplaces of famous Americans like George Washington Carver. A trip to a national park offers lessons in science, conservation, history, archaeology, and much more. 

If an actual visit is not feasible, the NPS website provides many resources for classrooms. In addition to photos, movies, and podcasts, the NPS website has a sound gallery featuring audio clips recorded in the parks. It includes animal calls, Native American music, cannon fire, rushing water, and even an avalanche.

In the curriculum section, new approaches to common topics promise to refresh lesson plans. Most can be adapted for field trips closer to home:

  • Study animal adaptations with a fun twist. Volunteers dress in props to reflect an animal’s unique traits: scuba flippers for ducks or swim goggles to represent the protective membrane over a beaver’s eyes.
  • Compare the rings of petrified and modern-age trees to determine age as well as growing conditions. 
  • Examine animal skulls to determine diet and what the position of the eye sockets reveals.
  • Explore cave formation using carbonated water, vinegar, and limestone chips.

Lessons that Encourage Movement

The National Recreation and Park Association aims to highlight the connection between local parks and a healthy lifestyle. For teachers, parks are a great resource for hands-on, kinesthetic lessons. In addition to the above ideas, Lesson Planet offers these suggestions for active lesson plans. 

A Close Encounter of the Tree Kind 

Middle school participants observe trees in their natural setting and learn to estimate height and age of a tree. They also discover the importance of tree bark and respiration rates.  As a follow-up activity, students collect leaf and bark samples to create a presentation board. 

Speeding Along in Motion 

Learners explore the physics of motion and speed. On bicycles and skateboards, they calculate average speeds. Then they make comparisons among groups based on leg length, birth date, and type of terrain.

 GPS on the Move: Scavenger Hunt 

Sixth through eighth graders explore how a GPS works and then use one to find locations. Other learning objectives include calculating distances on a map, creating bar graphs, and measuring angles. 

Graphing Heart Rates 

Children in elementary grades predict which activities will raise their heart rates the most. They use stop watches to record their pulse rates and then make graphs from their data.