Teach Outside
Resources and inspiration for current and aspiring outdoor educators and those interested in a natural learning environment.

Youth Engagement in Parks


Youth Engagement in Parks*

by Sierra Zacks

Speech to the Western Governors Association, Date Unknown

Good morning governors, staff, and community members. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today on behalf of today’s teens.

My name is Sierra Zacks. I am a 16 year-old junior at Yucca Valley High School. While I spend much of my time with friends and athletics, my true passion is math and science. I am currently ranked number 5 in my class and my academic ambition is to study neurobiology or biomedical engineering at USC.

As with many local teens, I grew up in the Morongo Basin. Unlike many of those same teens I spent a considerable amount of time in Joshua Tree National Park. I was 4 months old the first time my parents took me to the park. My parents tell me I watched everything in wonder. They took my hands and helped me touch rocks, sand, water, and plants. They started to teach me not to touch “pokeys”, an important lesson for desert kids.

It is in the national park where I learned to walk, ride a bike, rock climb, ride a horse. I learned to trust myself jumping between rocks. I learned trail and backcountry manners. I had my first job in the park and learned responsibility and care for others. This spring I will go on my first “walk about” in our park. I was exposed to wilderness because my parents are comfortable in natural places and made sure I was exposed to state and national parks from infancy. 

Sadly, many kids and teens today don’t have the opportunity I’ve had. Their parents are too busy, too impoverished, or too uncomfortable themselves in natural places. We don’t share with our children that with which we are unfamiliar. As a result we have an epidemic of what Richard Louv, in the book Last Child in the Woods, calls “nature deficit disorder.”

As a result, the challenge of parks today is to find a way to provide teens with outdoor experiences, to be a "surrogate parent" if you will, for kids who don't have parents able or willing to take them to parks. Throughout my life I’ve watched this type of “surrogacy” change students’ lives. My mother, a teacher at Yucca High, takes many students on their first camping trips, even their first trip of any kind to a national or state park as part of her Field Ecology class. I’ve been going with her on these trips since I was five. Students love these experiences. The question we have to ask is what makes these trips so pivotal in the lives of students? I believe security, feeling safe emotionally and physically, allows teens to open their minds to a new experience and to the beauty around them. This is what parks need to encourage teen involvement.

So, what can parks do? What do teens want from parks? They want adventure, challenge, experience, but they also want safety. For those of us who have grown up in the outdoors, this is a given, but for kids who haven’t it is a necessity. The smallest bug is worrisome. The idea of getting lost is paralyzing. One of my mom’s students insisted on wearing an orange safety vest so she wouldn’t get lost.

How do we do this? We get parks connected with the one place kids feel safe outside of their home – school. State and national park staff need to become regular visitors in the schools. They need to connect with kids on a personal level and from a young age. The ranger uniform should represent safety to kids, not just authority.

Visit the schools. Become a team. The parks have so much to offer schools. We tend to think of nature being an appropriate back drop for science, but we forget how instrumental visiting a park can be in artistic development. Bring art classes to the park. Draw real landscapes, not ones from a book. Bring history classes to the park. During 11th grade U.S. History students study westward expansion and the pioneer experience. Most parks have historical sites. Bring history alive by seeing, hearing, touching it. Students will remember it better. Tell the stories of our pioneers. Study math. Use triangulation to determine the heights of trees and rocks. After a unit on poetry in English, bring kids to the park for an on-site poetry lesson.

While this is happening in a structured, non-threatening way with adults kids trust, they will develop confidence. The natural world will become a welcoming place associated with fun. It will cease to be so scary. Then starting encouraging kids to visit on their own.

Have programs just for teens. Hold school-wide assemblies outlining the opportunities parks have to offer teens in general. After surveying students at my school and at Cathedral City High I discovered we all want the same thing – classes catering to high school students. Everyone forgets about us. There are junior ranger programs for kids and adult programs for adults. No wonder we aren’t interested. There is nothing for us. And while we are at it, please don’t combine us with middle school or elementary school kids. This would undermine the whole point of programs for teens. We are a unique age, as any parent of a teen will agree.

We are interested in a multitude of topics. Hold classes in photography, drawing, nature writing, tracking, and climbing. Almost all the students surveyed want to learn to camp and backpack. Teach them. Hold a four week series: wilderness first aid, camping basics, orienteering, survival. Then take them on an overnight camping trip. If students continue to show interest in camping, then take them backpacking. Take them deeper into the wilderness. Encourage their independence and self reliance. Imagine all the ways these skills will transfer to everyday life. Hold another series on search and rescue: tracking, rescue techniques, first aid. Then set up a mock rescue where the kids have to actually apply their knowledge. How about a naturalist program? Hold classes on mammals, birds, reptiles, plants, geology. Then have them take responsibility to teach their knowledge to a group of younger kids visiting the park. The little kids will think the teens are heroes, and the teens will feel knowledgeable and confident.

Develop a certificate program. Any student who finishes a series of courses and successfully completes the final outing earns a certificate they can list on their college or job application. This shows initiative and follow through – both important skills for college and the job market.

Offer volunteer opportunities for teens. Teach them how to restore habitat. Volunteer work is critical for college application. Provide a supervised experience where teens can visibly see the results of their labor. Depending on the work, they may be able to return to the park years later to see the positive results of their effort.

Increase the number of student jobs or formal internships. Many students look for opportunities to work, paid or unpaid, to increase personal knowledge and skills. More and more colleges look for student involvement in these types of activities to determine college acceptance. Many rural communities don’t have enough of these activities for teens.

Use these opportunities to remove two of the significant barriers teens face to visiting state and national parks: fees and transportation. Students who volunteer a minimum number of hours or complete a certificate program can get a free yearly national or state park pass. Maybe they can even get a pass for two years or five years. What about free entrance to a park if a student lives in the area or has a school ID? Hold some of the certificate or personal interest courses on weekends at the high school or local community center kids can get too. Provide a bus or van from a central location to the park for those classes or events that have to occur in the parks. 

Communicate with us. Make websites teen friendly. National and state park websites have “kids” pages and adult pages, but nothing for us. Don’t make us stoop below our age level or force us to rise above it. Make a page showing what parks have to offer us. 

As heads of state, you can help ensure student involvement in parks and the outdoors in general by providing the necessary funding for these programs. With your connections, you can also facilitate partnerships between parks and private companies to cover transportation, equipment, and personnel costs. Governors can also provide incentives to schools by offering matching grants for program visits to natural places.

Students will thank you. Parents will thank you. Even the natural world, in its own way, will thank you. We will have more confident, responsible, and engaged teens. This is a win-win situation for everyone.

Thank you. 

*Not for distribution to newspapers or other media.