Several people have written op-ed pieces on the upcoming Amendment 2, which will allow state parks to keep the money they generate. I want to emphasize the state parks as a great big outdoor classroom, teaching all subjects and providing a great time in the process. I spent almost 20 years as the naturalist at Lake Guntersville State Park and I visited schools in 10 counties. Also, those schoolchildren came to the park on field trips. I had pre-school, elementary, junior high, high school, and university students. Then there were the professors who were studying something unique like bats, salamanders, fish, etc. One professor even came from the University of Northern Ontario to study our various crabapple trees.
Almost every time I went to a school, shortly after, a child would come to my park office and announce that they were camping (for the first time). Then they would say, “You came to my school”.
Lake Guntersville State Park is lucky to have old homesites clustered around a number of springs. It also has an old cemetery, so not only did we study the plants and animals, we studied history. We studied English language from the poetry on the tombstones and art history from the symbols on those grave markers. The numerous baby graves led to discussions about how important it is to be vaccinated. We used the golf course sometimes at night when planetarium personnel would do astronomy events. We went on night hikes to listen to owls and see glowworms.
One time, I had just read that city children sometimes have trouble walking in the woods. A few weeks later, I had an inner-city Girl Scout troop for a hike. A few yards down the trail, they began to fall down. Then I told them what I had read and we all got the giggles. After a few mishaps, all was fine and we had a great time.
I am a firm believer in exposing children to the natural world and there is no better way than taking them to a state park. At Lake Guntersville State Park, I gave kids opportunities to help our program. We did not do the Junior Ranger thing. We had Associate Naturalists. They donated exhibits to the Nature Center display, they helped care for the orphaned animals that I always seemed to acquire — especially the opossums. They helped clean the aquarium, bathed the Box turtles and chauffeured me in the golf cart when I needed to monitor the bluebird boxes. They helped with the trail work and learned something in the process. We had college students from all over the U.S. who served as interns. Now they are teachers, National Park workers, or serve in some other outdoor professions. I never tired of seeing the expression on a child’s face: a 4-year-old with a butterfly, or a child of any age when they saw their first bald eagle.
Several parks have naturalists on duty, and if they don’t, they can probably round up a volunteer to guide a class of children. And, parents, hiking with your children is a fun and exciting thing to do. And it’s CHEAP! Today’s children are tomorrow’s park users and we all need to nurture their interest in what is outside. Every state park has something unique: waterfalls, CCC structures, caves, lakes, beaches — something wondrous. So come on folks, mark that ballot for Amendment 2.
Linda B. Reynolds, is a retired park naturalist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.