Outdoor classrooms flourish in the Blue Ridge

“I never really wanted to recycle until I went hiking and understood what I was saving,” said the wide-eyed 4th grader.

“Yeah,” interjected her friend. “I didn’t even think I liked hiking, but now I want to do it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.”

These may sound like lines spoon-fed to child actors on a national parks infomercial, but they are the genuine remarks of two students from Hot Springs Elementary School.

Fifty students in the 4th and 5th grades at Hot Springs Elementary started the day with an overview of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Then they removed invasive plants from the path and participated in a 1.5-mile hike on the A.T. When they returned to the classroom that afternoon, they discussed landforms along the trail, completed trail-related math problems, learned how to use a topographic map, and practiced writing their very own trail journal.

No Child Left Inside: The National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy connect trails to classrooms.

Both the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s A Trail to Every Classroom program and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation’s Kids in Parks aim to get kids outdoors and bringing new curriculum into the classroom.

The Kids in Parks initiative, in partnership with the Blue Ridge Parkway, creates trails along the parkway that are designed specifically for youth. The trails, known as TRACK Trails, greet young hikers with a colorful information kiosk at the trailhead. There, children can pick up age-appropriate brochures that help them identify plants and animals along the path. When the children return home, they can access the Kids in Parks website to upload information from their hike and play educational games that focus on fitness, nutrition and the environment.

“Through the TRACK Trail program we are helping children connect with nature in a fun, easy and meaningful way,” says Carolyn Ward, president of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

There are four TRACK (Trails Ridges and Active Caring Kids) Trails in North Carolina, located in Asheville, Pisgah Forest, Chimney Rock, and Mount Airy. There is also a TRACK Trail in Wytheville, Va., and plans to build more paths are already in progress. The trails are free and open to everyone, including families, youth organizations, and school groups. And as an additional incentive, by hiking the TRACK Trails and participating in the online activities, children are then mailed free rewards that include a bandana, nature journal and discovery kit.

Similarly, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has teamed up with the National Park Service to create A Trail to Every Classroom, which offers workshops for teachers and encourages conservation and recreation through place-based service-learning activities.

Currently the program is focused on the 165 school districts along the trail from Georgia to Maine. Over 80 percent of students in these districts are on free and reduced lunch plans.

“There is an assumption that kids who may have access to green spaces actually use that connection, but they don’t,” says Rita Hennessy, assistant park manager of the A.T. “There are so many kids who are growing up next to the trail, or a state or federal forest or park that have never stepped foot in those places.”