Celebrating National Parks Through Real Life Learning

The kids are obviously excited as they file into the library at Vista Ridge Academy, whispering and pointing at the various stations set up around the room. There are bear canisters, climbing harnesses, animal pelts, goggles, axes, helmets, and other specialized equipment. They show remarkable restraint—not touching a thing!—and take their seats on the floor to listen to a presentation by two rangers visiting from Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Riley Cavanaugh and Sarin Lomascolo are two of the five rangers assigned to the Environmental Education Program at RMNP. They do both onsite and offsite programs for school children, teaching them about the national parks through interactive activities and experiences. After a short presentation about the purpose of protected places in the U.S.—including national parks, national monuments, and national historic sites—they direct the kids to explore the stations, trying to determine for themselves the kind of work a ranger might do with the tools and equipment provided. The students try on clothing and harnesses and ask questions to figure out what some of the less obvious tools are. At the end of the session, they present what they’ve learned creatively through drama, speech, and by demonstrating the items and tools used in the park.

The third and fourth grades’ theme for this year has been “Celebrating National Parks.” Classroom teacher Shondra Cizek explains, “This was one of our project based learning or real life learning  projects. Our project had many components including a discovery unit about camping which integrated math, science, writing, critical thinking, art, research, design and building. Students built 3D campsite models and researched camping sites across the world. They planned many details for their camping trips and wrote in their camping booklets.” The students also took a walk where they collected nature items which were later displayed in shadow boxes. They wrote and published a class book on national parks, with each student choosing a particular park to research, illustrate, and write about. They presented their learning to the fifth and sixth grade class.

Stewardship was a focal point throughout this theme and for the visiting rangers as well; they repeatedly emphasized the importance of of protecting resources. The kids were enthusiastic in their support of this concept. When asked about a place he’d like to protect, William Barton, a third grader, chose his aunt’s house, “because of all the frogs.” Jonathan Wernick, also in third grade, talked about how important it is to protect “the beauty and the animals” in our country.

Vista Ridge Academy believes experiential learning is vital, particularly during the elementary school years when children are naturally so energetic, curious, and engaged in discovery of the world around them. Mrs. Cizek says, “I find these kinds of real life learning projects provide long-term retention and improved critical thinking skills. In this case, the project has really helped the kids develop greater passion for God’s creation and the National Parks.”

Vista Ridge Academy is a private Christian elementary school north of Denver, operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It offers holistic Christ-centered and values-driven education to children from preschool through to the eighth grade.

—Becky De Oliveira is director of communication at Boulder Adventist Church, one of three local constituent churches that support Vista Ridge Academy.