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Beyond the Classroom

Turning Students into Explorers for Free!

From Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to Tales of a Fourth Grade Ranger, visiting national parks should be a milestone for every child.

From September 1st to August 31st each year, fourth grade students and their families are given a free pass for visiting any and all federal lands and waters that are open to the public. Yep, a freebie from the government is available to every child for 365 days. By obtaining an Every Kid in a Park pass, exploring engaging sites near and far becomes a little bit easier.

Teachers are able to get the ball rolling for students by printing out passes for their classes. Each student receives a paper with a unique code that grants them access to a host of locations across the nation. During their fourth grade year, these students are able to bring any siblings under 16 and up to three adults with them to tour the available locations. Of course, this isn’t an all-access pass for every paid attraction, meal, lodging, etc., but it does get fourth graders and their families into the parks.

Depending on location and financial means, this could offer a lot of possibilities for some. Families can explore lakes, wildlife refuges, parks, and more. It’s always important to do a little research before heading out to ensure that passes are honored at a chosen locale and exactly what is accessible and free with the pass. Select locations will trade the paper passes in for a waterproof, plastic pass that makes for a memorable keepsake.

As with any trip, the planning process is a learning experience in and of itself. Planning together is a great opportunity for students to take on some responsibility and see what goes into making a day, weekend, or weeklong trip possible. Students in the fourth grade were chosen for this journey because the creators of the program felt that this was the year where kids are starting to connect more with the world around them. A class (if proximity allows) or family trip is a perfect time to start building a love of nature and history via national park settings.

Travel-Free Options

For those that realize traveling outside of the city limits isn’t a likely option, it doesn’t mean that closing the door on parks and experiencing nature should occur. There are many options for helping students build a love of learning and exploring through the National Park System and/or additional nature resources. It can simply be a matter of finding the right tools to bring the outdoors into the classroom.

Junior Rangers– The Junior Ranger program from the National Park Service offers a wide variety of online activities for kids. Students can earn badges based on particular interests or complete all activities to become a certified Junior Ranger. These programs are open to any age group, so the interest can span outside of those in grade four. The bottom of the main page offers a list of park-specific activities and badges. Students can earn badges for learning about the Charles Young Buffalo Soldier Monument in Chillicothe, Ohio or the Badlands in South Dakota. There are numerous engaging programs that fall under the Junior Ranger umbrella.

WebRangers– The name says it all on this one; no travel is necessary to dive into Junior Ranger activities through the WebRangers program. The National Park Service has a variety of activities for students to explore pertaining to wildlife, plants, and parks. All of these are online opportunities that allow students to navigate the Junior Ranger program from any location.

Junior Ranger Let’s Go Fishing!– The National Park Service coupled with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow kids to explore fishing the waters by completing a downloadable workbook. By emailing a photo of a completed page or mailing the completed book, kids can earn an angler badge.

National Wildlife Federation– There are a variety of resources shared by the Federation to get kids learning about and exploring the outdoors. The main goal is to increase student interest in the outdoors and promote the Green Hour Program which encourages at least one hour of outdoor play and interaction with nature through a variety of activities. Students can also explore online information through issues of Ranger Rick magazine/website. With a host of additional tools for educators, there is much that can be explored with students.

While fourth grade has been deemed the magical year for exploring parks within the National Park System, it’s not the only age that can benefit from nature study. There are a bevy of activities and opportunities that can be explored before, during, and after that fourth grade year. Gathering the tools and resources to do so is the key to turning students into lifelong explorers, and this variety of programs and links offer a perfect starting point.