Arches National Park - Ranger Heidi Wainer - Parks as Classrooms

The National Parks are often acclaimed as America’s Greatest Idea. But did you know, our National Parks are also America’s Largest Classroom? At Arches National Park, we talk with Ranger Heidi Wainer about the Canyon Country Outdoor Education program that brings first through sixth graders into the National Parks to learn about science.

On this episode of Podcasts with Park Rangers, we’ll talk about Junior Rangers, Parks as Classrooms and how outdoor education programs help kids solidify the science they learn in school.

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Topics Covered

About Ranger Heidi Wainer

Ranger Heidi is the Education Specialist for Arches and Canyonlands National Park. She was a volunteer for the parks in 1994 and has run the Canyon Country Outdoor Education program since 2003.

She loves the Moab area and connecting kids with the outdoors. The red rocks, the juniper trees, and helping kids make a with the outdoors.

About Arches National Park

This park holds the largest collection of natural arches in the world, at over 2000. The arches range in size from the biggest in the world to some of the smallest. Many are featured on the park map, but it can be an adventure to find hundreds not featured.

The Canyon Country Outdoor Education Program

Ranger Heidi and her team take local school kids out to the parks for hands-on science activities to supplement the core science curriculum. They help kids connect with their local landscapes at Arches National Park and other public and private lands in the southeast Utah area.

Field trips focus on science education, but they try to integrate other subjects into the discussions as well. Topics might include social studies, reading and math.

Recent Topics: Simple Machines

An example of a recent science topic with a focus on ancient cultures and the use of simple machines in their lives. They show how simple machines make primitive life easier:

  • An atlatl, or spear thrower, demonstrates a lever used to throw a spear with force and hunt.
  • A fire bow is a wheel and axle used to create a fire.
  • Digging sticks to help farm are a lever to help plant food.

Kids throw atlatl at a picture of a bighorn sheep and pretend to hunt for their food, and watch demonstrations of the fire bow while on the field trip.

Other Educational Activities

They read stories about how ancient folks made fire and difference between a legend and a non-fiction book.
Discuss animal adaptations and integrate math to determine how many calories geese need to migrate and compare it to how much a 4th grader would need to eat.

Age Groups

Kindergarteners talk to park rangers in the classroom to find out who they are and what they do in preparation for the field trips over the next few years. First through sixth graders go on several field trips in the National Parks and on other lands.

Before each trip, Rangers go into the classroom to talk about what they’ll learn and assess what the skill level of the class. Sometimes teachers use the field trip as the introduction to new subject matter, or as the final activity. Rangers are prepared for both!

After the field trip, they do another 30-45 minute post-trip summary session to cement what the kids learned.

With two large schools and 14 different field trip units from when school starts, rangers are either in the classroom or in the field every day.

About the Kids

Many of these kids haven’t been to these national parks before. Ranger Heidi sees a couple reasons for this:

  1. A high poverty rate in the community where people work 2-3 jobs. Days off are probably consumed with laundry, their kid’s baseball game, and the grocery store rather than a hike in the parks.
  2. The southeast Utah community also recreates a bit different than the typical visitors: hunting, jeeping, or trips down to the river. Not necessarily to a place like Arches National Park, where some of those activities are restricted.

The field trips leave the kids with fond memories. Ranger Heidi sees kids in their 20s whom she took on field trips, and they’ll approach her to talk about the experiences they loved. Sometimes kids try to explore these places again as teenagers they experienced as a kid in the program.

Through these experiences, the kids form a connection with the parks!

The Kids’ Reactions To These Experiences

Ranger Heidi views success when the kids say, “This was the best field trip ever!”. Or, they talk to her again later in life and reminisce about these experiences.

The community has expressed their love for what they teach the kids. Some of the people have spent several generations in Moab, and it’s apparent they support the local community in a way they want to be supported.

Junior Ranger Program

The Junior Ranger program allows kids can connect with the parks in an age-appropriate way. Kids are given a workbook with activities to do in the park, an activity to do with a ranger, and then they are sworn in as a junior ranger after completion of the booklet.

Ranger Heidi her own kids like to do the Junior Ranger program because it allows them to explore the park in an age-appropriate way. The workbook helps focus kids on a goal because unlike adults kids have a difficult time learning for learning’s sake!

Learning In Age-Appropriate Ways

Goals allow kids to have something to build towards and learn in a way that suits them.

In third grade, kids get excited about the Fiery Furnace trip in Arches National Park. Composed of a maze of sandstone fins, the hike itself requires a lot of scrambling. For third graders, it’s a huge physical challenge! They are encouraged to help each other, so it becomes a huge collaborative activity.

Sixth graders go up Courthouse Wash and conduct science experiments with heat, light, and sound. They use a temperature gun to determine which materials hold the most heat, do comparisons and predict the features of other materials in the area.

First graders go to Moonflower Canyon to learn how plants, insects, and animals change in a lifecycle. They read the Very Hungry Caterpillar book, and relate it to metamorphosis while they view butterflies in the canyon! Kids also get unstructured outdoor playtime to dig in the sand in a safe environment not as delicate as other parts of the desert.

Cryptobiotic Soil

The kids also learn about cryptobiotic soil crust made up of microorganisms, cyanobacteria, mosses, and lichen. The fragile soil takes a long time to grow back if stepped on.

Kids might be grandparents once the soil flourishes again, and serves as the basis of the ecosystem in Arches National Park.

Experiential Learning

Field trips give kids a different way to learn which helps topics click in ways they didn’t get at first. Kids nowadays do a lot of experiential learning in the classroom, and Parks as Classrooms supplements that.

Ranger Heidi loves to see the kids’ eyes light up when they get a new subject, and enjoys helping kids understand the concepts.

Ranger Heidi’s Favorite Activities With the Kids

In third grade, the kids learn about predator-prey relationships. They have a puppet, read a story, and play tag with the puppet to demonstrate a balanced ecosystem of lots of prey and few predators. The game drives home the concept for the kids.

Ranger Heidi also enjoys archaeology. The kids look at pot shards to learn about ancient people in the area and make pottery like the ancient people did.

Every day feels different even though they have the same lessons each year, and it’s almost like a brand new job every 2 weeks! She also gets to watch the kids grow up, see them around town in high school, and enjoys watching them go off and do amazing things!

The Importance of Being Involved in Children’s Education?

Kids are our future, and Ranger Heidi wants to set the kids up for success in as many ways as possible. She wants to be able to give back to the kids, and help them grow into beautiful, wonderful people.

Why Work in Canyon Country?

Ranger Heidi grew up in Salt Lake City and traveled to the Canyon Country Parks all the time as a kid. The landscape touches her, and she loves the red rocks. In college, she went to California for her Master’s Degree and missed southern Utah. After graduation, she immediately moved back.

What Sticks With The Kids?

The kids don’t remember everything they learned or where they went. But, they remember the field trip in the National Parks positively. They have positive memories of park rangers, and they care about the community.

Heidi now has parents who have been on the field trips with her, and they talk about how much they enjoyed the trips as kids and are excited for their kids to do the same.

Why Preserve the National Parks?

The National Parks allow us to preserve landscapes and create places for people to connect with nature.

Heidi’s older son went to college, came home to visit and went backpacking with her. The Parks allow people to decompress and connect with something deep inside they might not normally connect with. To continue to set aside these places allows us to have a place to go, turn off our phones, and sit and listen to quiet for a little while.

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