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Geeky Parent Guide: Engaging with Your Kids at National Parks

In today’s day and age, technology is around every corner. There are laptops, tablets, e-readers, multiple ways to stream movies and TV shows, video game consoles, and various types of phones that put the world right at your fingertips. With all of these devices and kids learning how to use them, it might be difficult for parents to find a way to connect with their children.

Parents shouldn’t have to take away devices to spend time with their kids. So, is there a way to spend time together and build a bond that’s as easy to form as sharing status updates on social media?

The great outdoors might be the best equalizer, and perhaps, if we throw in a few tech options to take along as you explore National Parks, you and your family will have a perfect blend of nature and technology. There might be some extensive planning to get to some of these places, but beautiful, one-of-a-kind locations may be a wonderful way for families to discover amazing scenery and build memories that will last a lifetime.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Medora, North Dakota

“The preservation of the useful and beautiful animal and bird life of the country depends largely upon creating in the young an interest in the life of the woods and fields.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Doing much during his presidency to preserve lands, it makes sense for Theodore Roosevelt to have a park named in his honor. Initially named as a tribute, Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, it was changed to a national park once it was realized “the land had special plants, animals and geology.”

Visitors can pick up Family Fun Packs, which are loaned out for 24 hours without any charge, and it comes with an assortment of tools, including binoculars, meant to improve the experience each family has in the park. There are also printable activities for kids to enjoy at home or on the car ride. On location, families can choose from a variety of ranger-led programs. “During the summer, join a ranger for a guided tour, short talk, or evening campfire to learn more about the natural and cultural history of the park’s incredible landscape.” Among available topics, visitors will have the opportunity to learn about the badlands and its geology – or learn about bison, the National Mammal of the United States.

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (and slightly in Montana and Idaho)

Even if you’re unable to visit Yellowstone National Park, you can watch a live feed of Old Faithful. And, there is even a formula used by the rangers to predict the next geyser eruption. Whether you are visiting in person or not, this will be a fun opportunity for parents and their kiddos to take a crack at being right on time. Yellowstone also offers a Young Scientist Program that revolves around solving mysteries through investigation. This program is for ages 5 and up – “Development of this program was funded by the National Science Foundation through a generous gift to the Yellowstone Park Foundation.”

In addition to a bevy of activities available throughout the year, visiting Yellowstone is a perfect chance for parents to relay the importance of safety with their children. With an abundance of wildlife viewing opportunities, there are rules in place to protect you and the animals. They do provide videos online to show previous encounters with animals, but I recommend viewing those videos prior to your children, in case they’re younger and might get scared from seeing animals chasing and attacking people and vehicles. Safety. Safety. Safety. Such rules, with wolves for instance, have made it possible that “there has never been an attack in Yellowstone.”

Shenandoah National Park
Luray, Virginia

For teachers looking to educate their students, or for parents interested in engaging with their kids about the history of a national park, look to the Shenandoah National Park and its Distance Learning programs. Revolving around three specific topics – Spirit of the Mountain, A New Deal to Rebuild a Nation, and A Retreat Fit for a President – anyone can go online and “explore the history of the Shenandoah National Park and to learn about how and why Shenandoah became the special place it is today.”

The Teacher Ranger Teacher (TRT) program is dedicated to providing educators (from K-12 schools) with “a unique opportunity to infuse their teaching skills with NPS-based Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education resources and the use of primary sources and place based learning.” Participants spend the summer learning about the park and then can assimilate what they’ve learned into their own classrooms. As a parent, I would love to know that my children’s teacher(s) participated in the TRT program to then translate it to their routine.

Acadia National Park
Bar Harbor, Maine

If you’re looking to not only spend time with your kids, but be actively involved during your park vacation, then Acadia National Park will be a splendid spot for families to work together. The “For Kids” page includes activities that are geared toward parents who want a group experience, including Acadia Quest and programs like “Super Sand Sleuths,” where anyone can “explore all the things that make this sandy beach so unique.” Families also have opportunities to meet with a park ranger, and for the “Touch Tank Talk,” they will learn how to navigate Acadia’s shores and the creatures that inhabit the area.

Acadia Quest is in its 10th year and it was established by Friends of Acadia – an independent organization that “preserves, protects, and promotes stewardship of the outstanding natural beauty, ecological vitality, and distinctive cultural resources of Acadia National Park and surrounding communities for the inspiration and enjoyment of current and future generations.” Acadia Quest is ongoing from June through November for all ages, with family-oriented activities that emphasize learning and how to protect national parks. It’s important to note that there are a few steps to prep and complete this quest.

  1. Form Your Team – must include one person under the age of 18 and one person over 18
  2. Register Your Team – although it’s not required, registered teams have an opportunity to win prizes
  3. Get Your Quest Card – you’ll receive an information packet, which includes the registration form, and useful information regarding the park, maps, how to prevent and check for ticks, and information on how to trek and “leave no trace”
  4. Get Your Park Pass – Purchase a pass to Acadia or the National Park Pass to enter the grounds
  5. Document Your Quest – Track your progress on the Quest Card making you eligible for prizes
  6. Share On Social Media – What better way to connect with your kids by bringing technology to the outdoors, capturing amazing moments with photos that you can share on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter
  7. Get Prizes – If you win prizes, they’ll be sent after the quest ends on November 15

This might be a perfect opportunity for parents to look this over with their kids, see if it is something they want to do, and then follow through by completing it. Whether they want to do it with or without mom and dad’s help is one thing, but it will be a wonderful opportunity to share an experience like this, creating a wonderful memory and possibly giving your child a sense of satisfaction for completing it.

About the National Park Service (NPS)

If your kids want to stay online and do not like the outdoors as much, there is still an opportunity for kids to be actively engaged with the park service. Kids can become WebRangers! You can visit the site as a guest or to become a WebRanger. It’s easy to sign-up and begin the process of learning about the NPS. This is a great and easy way for parents to join their kids in ranger activities, whether they’re experienced with the outdoors or not.

Kids will have their own “Ranger Station” where they can decorate their digital room, complete activities, check out their progress by viewing their badges, and they can even view webcams from various parks throughout the United States. Not only can families learn together, there are also resources for teachers, which help “determine how WebRangers activities can be used in the classroom to supplement traditional classroom curricula.”

The NPS also has an amazing program, “Every Kid In A Park,” where every fourth grader can get free passes to visit the park of their choosing, for the entire school year, and that access includes their parents. “The pass admits all children under 16 and up to three adults for free.”

For those looking to increase their involvement, there is a Junior Ranger program available. This program is “an activity based program conducted in almost all parks, and some Junior Ranger programs are national.” Junior Rangers are available for all ages – although, they’re generally between the ages of 5 to 13. In addition to performing activities in parks, there are plenty of opportunities to explore various topics, including booklets dedicated to bats, night skies, fossils, and the abolitionist movement through the Underground Railroad – “The National Park Service commemorates and preserves this history through the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. The program educates the public about the importance of the Underground Railroad in the eradication of slavery, its relevance in fostering the spirit of racial harmony and national reconciliation, and the evolution of our national civil rights movement.”

There is such an amazing opportunity for parents and their kids to share in the history of our national parks, in person and online. As we further along with advanced technology, there an intrinsic value in understanding the importance of our environment and being able to protect and sustain such beautiful landscapes and all creatures living within them.

The National Park System is monumental in its scope, including battlefields, trails, seashores, and other historical locations. “The system includes 417 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.”

If you’re looking for a way to connect with your kids, find your nearest park and explore. Whether you live in California or Colorado, Maryland or Maine, Pennsylvania or Puerto Rico, you are one fun road trip away from sharing a wonderful experience with your family, and there are two “Free Entrance Days” left in the year – September 22 and November 11. Also, be sure to check out any “Plan Your Visit” sections for each park ahead of time, so you and your family can safely navigate your destination with tips the NPS provides. With many parks to visit and online resources to navigate, it might be overwhelming to decide what to choose from. Well, perhaps you can let technology help and have your phone pick the adventure.

For those that do not prefer the great outdoors, consider venturing out with Geocaching. What kids, and their parents, wouldn’t love going on a real treasure hunt? Geocaching is a chance for families to take modern world technology, by downloading the app to your phone, and (hopefully) discover items hidden all over the world. The official blog for Geocaching even lists “15 reasons to love geocaching” from those that take part in the game, making it seem like a perfect reminder to put everything away, except a map – and in this case your phone – and discover new places afar or right in your hometown.

How would you want to explore the National Park System? Would you want to camp overnight and bring your laptop to watch movies? Would you hope to try your hand at Pokémon GO as you go for a hike? Have you already taken an adventure while Geocaching? Share your thoughts with us below or head over to Facebook and Twitter to let us know your favorite places to visit?

If you’re ready to explore right now, take a trip to the Petrified Forest, which “developed and placed geocaches in the park for the enjoyment of visitors,” and get “lost” in the adventure.

Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.


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