Have you ever noticed that most schools are within walking distance, if not next to a park of one kind or another? Some are big open green spaces with a few trees. Others may be primarily concrete with play ground equipment and small patches of lawn. And yet others may be wooded areas with wetlands and small paths. Whatever the kind of park, many seem to be an underutilized resource for teaching and learning within the school day. I suggest that schools should tap into this underused resource and “adopt” a local park.
I do not use the word adopt lightly. In fact I would suggest a school go through a formal adoption process as this suggests a strong sense of commitment between a school and the entity that controls the park. It is stronger than students’ picking up trash once and a while for a service learning project, and it shows a deeper commitment by the park board to be invested in the school. Adopting also requires a long term commitment toward the well being of the park.
How does a school go about adopting a park? To begin this process, the school (parents, administration and students) must agree on the goals of what they want for this park and how they might utilize it as a place of learning. During this time, a social studies class (or classes) could conduct the background research needed for a formal adoption. They might go about finding the controlling entity of the park (city, county, state DNR, Federal etc.) and who are the people (including politicians) who are most closely connected to the particular park. The basic history of the park, how it was named, and how it is funded could also be part of the research. While this is happening, other students would put together a draft contract based on the goals and commitment expected. Students would begin drafting letters to the park board and the appropriate officials. Once this is completed the school could invite members of the park board to come to their school, or the students would ask to attend a park board meeting. At this point a draft contract would be presented. While the contract would not carry any financial commitment and would not be officially binding, it would be a show of public commitment on the part the school and the park board.
Once a park is “formally” adopted, the park becomes another academic classroom. In order to examine how it may be used, I will break it down by subject area. It would be better if lessons were interdisciplinary, and classes worked cooperatively, however since various academic standards must be addressed, it is easier to look at using a park through the lens of subject areas.
Beginning with math, there are multiple ways to use a park and address standards at the same time. Younger classes can use the
park as they learn shapes, measure distances, count species, and estimate height and length of objects. They can figure out the square footage of the park or determine the ratio of lawn to
concrete. Playground slides can be measured for height and length to determine slope. Older students can examine budgets and upkeep costs, measure daily or weekly usage and
Science classes can identify animal and plant life that live in the park, monitor seasonal cycles, and determine the physics and engineering properties of the playground equipment. If the park has a natural water source, water quality can be measured and monitored. If the park is close to a major road or other high traffic areas, sound decibels could be measured at various locations and then plotted. Soil samples could be taken at various locations and then analyzed for the make up and potential toxicity.
A park is a rich place to hold Language Arts classes. Poetry can be inspired simply by listening, seeing and experiencing nature or the outdoors. Technical writing can be accomplished by describing various aspects and attributes with in the park. Short story themes might be written around observed behaviors both within and around the park. Authors such as Thoreau or Aldo Leopold can be read and discussed in the context of nature and open space.
There are many ways a social studies class can tie in lessons to an adopted park. The history of the land the park is located on can be researched. When was it developed, who was the original planner or advocate and why did it become a park? What did the land look like prior to being a park and who were the original inhabitants? The park land could be mapped out in detail according to geography standards.
The possibilities for the Arts are endless. Whether it is drawings/sketching, painting, sculpting, taking photos, or simply exploring the beauty of nature, there are many ways of incorporating arts into a park. Many parks even incorporate public art into the makeup of a Park. What a great way to showcase student art work and projects. Parks also offer many opportunities for performing arts as well, whether it is using open space for performing, or through the inspiration
Physical education is almost made to be carried out in a park. Is there a basket ball court or a tennis court that might be used? How might a playground be used in an obstacle course? Open green spaces offer multiple opportunities for team games or challenges.
How do you know a student is leaning what they should if they are out in the park frequently? It is important to have specific goals tied to outcomes for all academic activities that take place in a park. This includes authentic assessment outcomes which require specific measurements. Therefore, students should be producing products based on the work and research they do around and within their adopted park. They may produce a brochure that gives the history, basic park facts. The flora and fauna, the overall attributes and recreational offerings, size and map of the park. They might hold a public symposium and invite people associated with the park, local politicians, people who spoke to their classes about the park, parents and others. A book with students writing that was inspired by the park could be developed and even published on line. The possibilities are endless, as long as they are all well thought out, tied to the original goals and understood by the students.
Parks are designed to be used. While some parks set aside land for habitat or species preservation, most parks are designed to be accessible and useful. Parks provide a place for people to come together and mix with each other. A deeper sense of connection and ownership of a community is developed. This is not only true for students in the school, but also for other park users and those that live nearby. This may lead greater civic engagement, lower crime rates, or even more funding and grants available for future park development.
Finally, and possibly most important, the students will develop a stronger sense of engagement and contentedness to the school and the community it is located in. They will be active participants in their own education as they learn in the context of the real world. Students will develop a sense of pride and commitment to their community. All of this brings on higher attendance rates, lower discipline issues and ultimately greater academic achievement. Adopting a park can truly be a win for all.