A new and national solution to help counter the declining connection between kids and the outdoors was announced at last week’s America’s Summit on National Parks in Washington DC.
Carolyn Ward, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, broke the news that a recent $701,000 grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation (BCBSNC Foundation) would fund nationwide expansion of the Parkway Foundation’s TRACK Trail program.
Jason Urroz, Parkway Foundation project director for the Kids in Parks program, calls the paths ”interpretive trails for kids and families that are easily adaptable to various locations and settings across the country.”
The program got its start along the Parkway in 2008 with an initial investment of $204,000 from the BCBSNC Foundation. The effort caught fire with local communities and, to date, nine of the enticing trails have been installed in three states boasting more than 39 partner organizations and ten funding sources.
Thirteen percent of TRACK Trail hikers have so far visited more than one TRACK Trail and more than 13,000 miles have been hiked. The mission was “to increase physical activity of children and their families, to improve nutritional choices, and to get kids outdoors and along the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
But the ease of duplicating the concept in many settings is quickly spreading excitement for the idea. Part of the beauty of the TRACK Trail concept is that it can be “overlaid” onto many nature type trails in city, county, state, or national parks.
The first TRACK Trail project on a unit of the National Park Service is adjacent to the Parkway's headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina. The second TRACK Trail on Park Service property is currently under way in Cherokee, North Carolina, along the wonderful Oconaluftee River Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Organizers hope the excitement will create many TRACK Trails so the paths become an easily accessible way for families to get outside frequently for nature education and exercise. Self-guiding brochures at the trailheads lead kids along the trails and into diverse encounters with the natural environment. A cartoon character dog named TRACK and a dragon fly named KIP lead the way.
“Within the pages of each brochure a different story unfolds,” says the group’s web site. “From ‘Nature's Relationships’ to ‘Fern Identification,’ each adventure will help you connect with your natural world.” Among the other brochures are titles such as “Animal Athletes” (with an “imitate-an-animal” exercise routine) and “Nature’s Hide & Seek.”
Best of all, the brochures are also downloadable as PDFs on the Kids in Parks web site (that also locates the trails and engages young hikers with Trail TRACKer Gear). Though at least one brochure per park is designed to be used in conjunction with a specific park trail, many are sufficiently broad that they could be downloaded and used by parents on easy paths in their respective regions.
Mr. Urroz says, “We’ve created about 15 different brochures that are widely applicable to various ecosystems,” but “we don’t want to send out trailhead signs and brochures to sites all across the country. As we roll out the program nationally, we want to be sure we do so in a quality manner.”
Ms. Ward expects to create 75 TRACK Trails in North Carolina by 2014. The program has two types of trails, the “standard” hiking TRACK Trails and Nature Trail Disc Golf Course TRACK Trails.
Besides new funding, the Kids in Parks program recently received an endorsement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. In September 2011, the Parkway Foundation earned the group’s support based on the Kids in Parks program’s ability to link diverse public lands in a network of opportunities for kids and families to embrace a healthier lifestyle and greater connection to nature.
Kathy Higgins, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, said, “We believe this investment will further our mission of improving the health and well-being of North Carolinians. It is important that we continue to support innovative and effective programs and services that help individuals and communities across the state.”
“Thanks to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation,” said Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis, “this grant will allow us to connect to a new generation of stewards, while at the same time improving the overall health and wellness of those who participate.”
Back at the Parkway Foundation, Ms. Ward said, “the Track Trails program started as a concept that could change the world one child and one adult at a time. Soon it’ll be one state at a time and one country at a time.”
International outreach is already under way. Speakers at America’s Summit on National Parks returned time and again to the problem chronicled in the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander got a solid round of applause in a final session on that topic when he said, “The problem is kids aren’t getting out in the parks. My focus would be on outdoor experience.”
The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation’s TRACK Trail program is designed to do just that. The organization wants the program “to become a national model for ‘no child left inside.’”
Traveler footnote: The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is a primary fundraiser and steward of the Blue Ridge Parkway under a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior. The group supports projects that enhance and protect the natural, cultural, historic, and recreational qualities that make the Blue Ridge Parkway “America’s Favorite Journey®.”