Out of the Classroom, Into the Park
Although New York’s state parks experienced a record-breaking 72 million visits in 2020. many New Yorkers, especially children, never step foot into a park.
The Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain -- one of the more than 70 non-profit organizations that partner with State Parks to provide programming and improve parks and historic sites -- is looking to change that and draw students out of the classroom and into parks.
“Learning in the Park,” developed by the Friends group, aims to preserve, promote, and steward the natural resources and living history of Rockland Lake, Hook Mountain, Nyack Beach, and Haverstraw Beach State Parks, all located in Rockland County just north of New York City. The program kicked off in 2018 as a pilot, but it turned out to be so popular and well-received by the local school district that the decision was made to expand the program. and apply for a Park and Trail Partnership Program grant in 2019.
"The 'Learning in the Park' program, which brings students from public schools to the parks to bring science and social studies alive for them and spark interest in the outdoors is just the kind of program we love to support," said PTNY Grants Coordinator Jonathan Duda. "The program brings hundreds of students from local elementary schools to the parks for hands-on science and history educational experiences."
The grant funding allows the Friends to expand the program to an additional school district near Hook Mountain and lay the groundwork to expand to yet another district in the 2021-2022 school year.
During the four-hour field trips, students (an estimated 80% of whom have never stepped foot in parks that are just a few miles from their homes) engage in experiential learning opportunities focused on the natural world and living history of the parks, creating a direct connection between students and the land. As students learn about local geology and ecology, they develop a sense of ownership for the parks and for the environment in general.
According to David Neil, Board Chair of the Friends of Rockland Lake and Hook Mountain, one of the primary goals of "Learning in the Park" is to inspire the next generation of park stewards. Promoting the parks is another important goal.
"Our hope is that students go home, share the experiences they had and, in turn, encourage their family and friends to visit the parks," says David.
The lessons don't end when students return to the classroom, either. The material taught during field trips is woven into the regular curriculum.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic posed quite a challenge for the program. Securing commitments from schools was difficult but as 2021 rolled around, the coordinators were pleasantly surprised by the positive response from local schools. For instance, the South Orangetown school district committed to a potentially scaled down version of the program in the fall of 2021. The program has also received a renewed commitment from the Nyack school district. The downtime during COVID, however, was not put to waste. The Friends used the pause to recruit additional instructors and scientists for the program.
After speaking with David, it is evident that there is nothing but growth on the horizon for Learning in the Park in the upcoming years. In addition to the grant funding, the Friends is reaching out to educators, scientists, and is in preliminary conversations with the Palisades Park Conservancy the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. One of the biggest challenges is encouraging teachers to buy into the program, many of whom find it difficult to find the time in their schedules for field trips. However, according to David, “Once teachers and school districts see the effects on students, they realize the benefits of the program and the impact "Learning in the Park" has on students in the long term."