Play in a National Park
Play in a National Park
Get ideas for engaging activities to do with kids when visiting a national park or other green space.
K, 1 - 8
Biology, English Language Arts, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History
Photograph by Chaos / Getty Images
Encourage a lifelong love of our national parks by making visits hands-on and fun for your students. Foster exploration and discovery with these ideas.
National Parks can provide an excellent space for exercises such as yoga, stretching, or even dancing. Select poses inspired by the natural world around you, such as the tree pose or the butterfly pose. Bring mats or blankets if you plan to do poses that involve sitting or lying down. You can also use yoga as a warm-up and focusing activity before a hike.
—inspired by Jennifer Puig, Florida
Letterboxing participants use clues posted online to find hidden boxes containing a rubber stamp and a log book. When kids find letterboxes, they stamp the logbooks with their own unique stamp and collect stamps from the letterboxes in their own notebook. Kids can also hide letterboxes and create their own clue. Just remember to get permission before hiding a letterbox, especially on national park land. To get started, go here and search for the national park you plan to visit.
—inspired by Candace Upson McLane, Utah
Explore Before You Go
Enrich any visit to a national park by beginning your exploration before you get there. Read books or visit the website of the national park you plan to visit; many will have information or activities to print. Have kids make a list of the plants, animals, and other interesting things they hope to see. You can also have kids practice their decision-making skills by prioritizing where in the park they want to go first and planning what they should bring.
Leaf and Bark Rubbings
Have kids “collect” the trees they see in a national park or other outdoor setting by taking bark rubbings. Take a bark rubbing by laying a sheet of paper against the bark of a tree and gently rubbing it with the side of a crayon to capture the bark’s texture. They can also take a leaf rubbing using the same technique. Place the leaf on a hard, flat surface before doing the rubbing.
—inspired by Amy Blonn, Texas
Swim, Camp, Hike, Climb, Row
Many national parks offer recreational opportunities for kids. Go for a hike or a swim. Try rowing a boat or climbing a rock face. If possible, camp overnight to give kids a chance to experience nature at night and in the early morning.
—inspired by Safa Gujjar, Pakistan
Be An Artist
Add to your backpack some portable media for kids to draw or paint in the park. Art is a great reflection tool, and watercolors, charcoal, pencils/colored pencils, and paper are easy to carry. Let kids choose something they find beautiful and memorable, and have them record it.
—inspired by Amy Lorenz, Massachusetts, and Al Bartel, Texas
Wildlife is one of the main attractions for kids in many national parks. Before visiting a park, obtain an identification guide for plants and animals in the area. Many parks have specific guides available to print from their website or in the ranger station. Some guides are available here. As you explore the park, use the guides to identify the plants and animals you see.
—inspired by Jordan Schaffel, Texas
Selfie Scavenger Hunt
This modern take on the scavenger hunt engages tech-savvy kids and removes the need to disturb plants and wildlife in the park. Create a scavenger hunt list for the specific park you plan to visit. As kids find each item on your list, they should take a selfie with it instead of collecting it. Offer a prize or bragging rights to the group that finds the most items.
Bring along a camera so kids can take photos of things that interest them as they explore a national park or other outdoor space. Issue photo challenges to focus attention. For example, have kids create a photo story of a hike, or challenge them to photograph something close up and far away.
—inspired by Cameron Ferguson, U.S.A.
As you hike or explore a national park, have kids point out things they see that start with each letter of the alphabet. Once an “A” item is found, move on to B, and continue in alphabetical order. If you have a large group of kids, divide them into teams and have each team play the game.
—inspired by Amy Blonn, Texas
Many national parks offer a Junior Ranger program that encourages kids to “Explore Learn, and Protect” their national park. Kids complete a series of activities during their park visit and earn patches and certificates. Most Junior Ranger programs are best suited for kids ages 5-13. Find out more about Junior Rangers.
—inspired by Tami Flaum, North Carolina
Before going to a national park or other outdoor space, create an “explorer’s pack” to encourage kids to interact with the things they see in nature. An explorer’s pack could include a magnifying glass, compass, journal, pencil, binoculars, maps of the park, field guides, thermometers, and measuring tape. Keep the pack light enough for kids to carry it. The ways kids could use the tools in an explorer’s pack are endless, but some ideas include measure the girth of a tree, using a magnifying glass to examine insects or plants, using the map and compass to navigate in the park, using the thermometer to record the temperature, and using the journal to sketch plants or animals.
Geocaching is a treasure-hunting activity in which enthusiasts use GPS technology to both hide small “treasures” for others and find treasures others have hidden. Many national parks support this recreational activity, and anyone with a GPS unit can participate. Some parks also have EarthCaches; no physical treasure is hidden, but participants use GPS coordinates to find a unique geographical feature. To get started, create a free account. Then search for the national park you plan to visit to find the clues for the geocaches that are hidden there.
BioBlitzing offers a way for kids to participate in real science by helping to record as many different species as possible in a particular place during a 24-hour period. Often students and other volunteers do this by taking photographs and sharing them online. You can find more information about BioBlitzes here, and you can find additional projects here.
—inspired by Damon Tighe, California
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November 10, 2022
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