Kids in Parks Program Encourages Nature Explorations and Play
A group examines the rings of a tree during a TRACK Trail adventure near Hendersonville.
Photo courtesy of Kids in Parks
Sadie Koppelberger, a Durham mother of three, describes a surprise that she and her son once encountered while hiking at Eno River State Park in Durham: “I took Sam and a friend on this hike, and it was a beautiful spring day. We were hiking on the Eno. Off in the distance, there was all of this yellow. We went to see what it was — and it was this old mill house and this huge field of daffodils … I have a vivid memory of the boys and our dog in this beautiful field of daffodils.”
The family was using a TRACK Trail — an outdoor Kids in Parks adventure. And the hike that Koppelberger describes is exactly the kind of experience this network of trails was designed to promote. The Kids in Parks program began in North Carolina and has expanded into 10 states across the nation and Washington, D.C. Its purpose is to bring families out into nature, thereby improving kids’ health and teaching them to love the natural world.
How It Works
Kids in Parks is run by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and funded in North Carolina by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. The program partners with state and local parks to identify kid-friendly trails underutilized by the local community and transforms them into TRACK Trails. These trails offer posted signs that tell families what to expect on the trail and provide brochures that guide children on adventures designed to excite and educate them about local wildlife.
Each child selects an adventure to pursue when their family sets out on a TRACK Trail. Participants who want to explore the Eno River State Park TRACK Trail, for example, may choose to do the Need for Trees adventure, in which they learn about trees in the local ecosystem. Or they might choose Birds of the Piedmont, through which they learn to identify common birds in the park. Kids in Parks works with each park to assign adventures to trails. The program also offers other kinds of adventure trails besides hiking, including biking, disc golf and even paddling trails.
Upon completing each TRACK Trail adventure, families sign into the Kids in Parks website to record that they have completed the hike and to answer questions about their adventure. Kids in Parks then sends each child a reward in the mail for having completed the adventure. The prizes can help motivate children who might otherwise prefer to stay indoors.
“When I suggest to my children that there will be a hike, sometimes they think that’s a great idea and sometimes they need a little more incentive,” says Koppelberger. “So when I can say to them that there’s a Kids in Parks hike, they are always enthusiastic … Having the prizes is a great incentive when they’re wondering whether they’d rather watch a movie.”
Prizes include trail stickers, nature journals, patches, TRACK sacks, bandanas, magnifying glasses and walking stick medallions.
Why Get Kids on the Trails?
Kids in Parks’ goal is to get families moving in nature. Jason Urroz, director of Kids in Parks, cites a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study that demonstrated that children and adolescents ages 8-18 spend an average of 7.65 hours per day engaged with electronic entertainment media, and notes that the amount of time children spend in unstructured outdoor play is shrinking. According to a 2011 Nature Conservancy survey, only about 10 percent of children say they play outdoors every day. These statistics are problematic, not just because children aren’t exercising enough, but also because an overwhelming body of research has shown that spending time in nature is good for children. Spending time in nature can help combat these trends.
“We try to create gateway experiences [on trails] and use them to move people through the spectrum of outdoor wilderness experiences,” Urroz says. “The idea is to create a network of trails connected through one common mission: to get kids and families outdoors.”
By all measures, Kids in Parks has been successful in getting families outside. Approximately 11 percent of kids who register their adventures are first-time hikers. That means Kids in Parks motivated those families to try hiking for the first time. About 55 percent of the kids who hiked Kids in Parks trails visited hosting parks because the TRACK Trails were there, and 51 percent percent had never visited those parks before. The TRACK Trails are encouraging kids to explore — and the kids aren’t hiking alone. The average group size is three to four people, which means the adults who accompany the kids are also getting in on the fun. More than 900,000 people have gone hiking on TRACK Trails since the program started.
The health care community is enthusiastic about the program. The American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed it. “Doctors are writing prescriptions for kids to go hiking on TRACK Trails,” Urroz says.
Park systems in nine other states have begun using the program because it is both successful and easy to replicate. The signs and adventure brochures are based on templates that staff can revise for any natural area depending on what wildlife is present. The program’s current goal is to create at least one TRACK Trail in every county in North Carolina. With TRACK Trails in 81 locations, extending from the mountains to the coast (as of this spring), and 10 more set to open this summer, the program is well on its way to achieving its goal.
Learn more about where to find a Kids in Parks program near you at kidsinparks.com.
Elizabeth Brignac is a freelance writer and mother of two adventurous boys. She lives in Cary.
TRACK Trails in the Triangle
Eno River State Park (Durham): .5-mile loop trail along the Eno River Trace Trail. Access near the Fews Ford picnic area off the Cole Mill Road entrance to the park. Bonus feature: clean water for wading.
Town of Carrboro (Carrboro): 1.3-mile loop trail. Access from the Bolin Creek Greenway near the Wilson Park entrance.
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area (Apex/Chatham County): 1.4-mile loop trail along the Seaforth Pond Trail at the Seaforth Access Point. The trail begins at the beach parking lot (the section of the parking lot that is furthest from the road) and ends behind picnic area 9.
Lake Benson Park (Garner): 1-mile trail follows the Lake Benson Woodland Trail marked with orange blazes. Access near picnic shelter 3.
Prairie Ridge Ecostation (Raleigh): .5-mile trail that takes participants through a variety of natural habitats. Follow the signs to the Forrest Trail. Bonus features: The trail starts near a natural play space and, in the summer, kids can pick blackberries along the trail.
William B. Umstead State Park (Raleigh): 0.6-mile loop trail through the woods along the Oak Rock Trail. Enter the park at the Crabtree Creek entrance off U.S. Route 70/Glenwood Avenue and look for the trail near the Crabtree Creek picnic area. Bonus feature: an oak tree growing out of a rock outcropping.
Rolling View Recreation Area – Falls Lake (Wake Forest): .75-mile loop trail along the Neuse Bend Trail in the Rolling View section of Falls Lake State Recreation Area. Access from the large parking lot closest to shelter 12.
Beaverdam Recreation Area – Falls Lake (Wake Forest): .6-mile one-way (1.2 miles round-trip) hike along Duck Cove Trail overlooking Beaverdam Lake. Access from the small, round westernmost parking lot.
E. Carroll Joyner Park: Use the adventures for this park on any trail in the park. The paved trails are perfect for bicycling.