When I was researching my book Mountain Chef I met a remarkable and charismatic outdoorsman, Jack Shu. Jack is the founder of the annual Sing Peak Pilgrimage. I’ve loved talking to him about public parks and kids and am thrilled to share his thoughts here.
You worked for years in California state parks. What insights did that give you into what the outdoors means to children? What challenges do you see in getting kids outside?
I worked 29 years for State Parks, mostly as a Park Superintendent and over have of that time was in our Office of Community Involvement or a special section we had developed 38 years ago called Urban Services. These assignments gave me insight into the value of outdoor recreation and education.
Recreation in its many forms helps children grow physically, socially and mentally. From team sports to solo walks in the wilderness, it is vital to their development. There are many studies that provide the data and science behind these findings. No wonder private, well-funded schools make sure that the most city-bound child still gets to spend some time in nature!
State and National Parks along with many other public agencies such as the Forest Service have their mission to provide recreation and education (called interpretation by some). By the way, I do not like drawing lines between which level of government should provide what kind of recreation, I’m interested in providing what people need. None of these agencies were charged to provide their services mainly to the rich, to a specific gender group, to an age class, to people who live nearby, etc.
Engraved over one of the gates to Yellowstone National Park are the words “For All to Enjoy.” We know that people of color and lower economic classes are under-represented in many of our National Parks. Why? There are structural issues within these large institutions, barriers in American culture, geographic impediments, economic limits, and simply ignorance. The term “institutional racism” comes to mind: individuals within the organization can be real heroes in the fight against racism yet still be a part of the system that causes it.
Too often, the approach is to blame the people that do not come to the parks by stating things like: “They need to be exposed or taught about parks,” or “we need to train them to become better stewards,” or “it is not their culture,” or “they are just not interested.” There may be some instances where these statements are justified. However voting results from communities of color and cultural history show otherwise. Surveys in the past indicated that fear was the greatest barrier: fear of lion, tigers and bears; fear of law enforcement; fear of the “White culture” in the parks.
Statistically, children of color under-use the national parks. What are good ways to make sure that all kids, of every color and from every socioeconomic strata, use the parks?
Perhaps more attention should be given to how the parks need to change. How can park programs be more relevant? Can they be more “community centric” rather than “park or resource centric?” Can the measure of success be measured at the visitor’s home community rather than at the campsite or trail? For example, a Boys and Girls Club outing to a park is evaluated by what it does for its participants more than by how clean the campsite they used was left.
Many years ago California had an organization called the Recreation Round Table. They came up with an outdoor recreation “Bill of Rights” for youth. It was a list of over a dozen things that youth should experience before they become young adults. The list includes fishing; swimming; hiking; camping (as in sleeping under stars). The idea was that with such a list we can seek equity and seek policies and programs to reach all children, especially those who are in need of help accessing the resources to participate. It serves as a check list that can be used by recreation planners and funders. State and National Parks would then be given the task to make sure every child in a region or State gets a camping experience before they aged out. Thus, priority is given to the first-timer, not those who know the system well enough to use the reservation system.
What are the most effective things you’ve seen teachers and parents do to help kids love nature?
I don’t think we need to worry about kids loving nature. They do already! Nature is so lovable it will do its own magic. It’s more important that kids understand nature and see a little of what is going on. Another way to say this is; I think it is more important for someone to learn how five species interact than it is to identify and name 25 species.
The other point I’d make is, don’t scare kids or parents. Yes, we want them to be safe, but don’t dwell on all the things that can harm them in the woods. Driving to the park is the most dangerous thing they will do on the outing. If they just do some basic things they will be safer in the wilderness than in a shopping mall.
And finally, be a good example Don’t be the leader who forgets to take enough water or ignores the “Stay on Trail” sign.
Tell me about the Sing Peak Pilgrimage. How did it start? Is it appropriate for kids?
When I came across a video about the Chinese in Yosemite I was shocked. I’d gone to the park many times and never heard about the contributions Chinese have made to the area. Then I learned more about Tie Sing and the peak named after him. What an incredible part of our diverse history that can help us all grow to understand one another! I knew change does not come easily in the National Park Service, so I set out to develop an annual pilgrimage. I contacted some friends and people I know and it got started. I knew it needed to happen at least five times for it to take, but my mother taught me that one needed to do something ten times before you got good at it. So, I’m challenging myself to go up Sing Peak five more times!
The Pilgrimage does not have a children’s nor a young adult component yet. The hike up to Sing Peak is typically a three-day, two-night backpacking trip which includes a day off trail cross country hiking with some rock scrambling. The rock scrambling part could be difficult for any child under 10 or 12.
Anything else you want to add?
One of the loftier goals of the National Park Service is to preserve and interpret our nation’s history, our legacy. In doing so we hope that we can improve our county; to help people understand and have a greater appreciation for one another; that we learn to govern better. The Pilgrimage I hope, will help the NPS take a step on this journey.