Over the past few decades, kids have become increasingly disengaged with nature, spending less time in our parks and outdoor places, while spending more time plugged-in to electronic media. As a result, childhood obesity, early onset diabetes, ADD/ADHD, depression, and a myriad of other ailments effecting our children (and adults) are on the rise.
To reverse these trends, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation partnered with the National Park Service and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation to create the Kids in Parks program: a self-guided network of trails designed to get kids and families reconnected to nature for their health and the health of our parks and public lands.
The program’s original goal was to get kids and families to use the hiking trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway as resources for their health. However, the program’s staff realized that kids and families who are unexperienced in outdoor recreation may not choose a national park as their first step into nature because, after all, “that’s where the bears are at!”
As a result, the program created “gateway trails” in local parks, state parks and other public land locations that are closer to home. To rapidly expand the network, Kids in Parks partnered with the North Carolina Recreation and Park Association to provide grants to install TRACK Trails in local parks throughout North Carolina.
These partnerships provided kids and families with the opportunity to visit their neighborhood park and have fun interacting with nature through the program’s self-guided materials. As their comfort levels grow, the hope is they’ll branch out and visit TRACK Trails in state parks, forest service sites, and national parks.
So, how’s it going? Have the TRACK Trails in local parks been successful? The data suggests they have! Through data collected via the program’s online registration process (kids can register their hikes and earn prizes), the program has seen the following outcomes:
- 18% were first-time hikers
- 48% were first-time visitors to the registered park
- 76% intentionally visited the park to hike the TRACK Trail
- 87% said they would return for a second adventure
Additionally, through extrapolations based upon on-site observational studies conducted by three North Carolina universities, the program estimates that:
- 30,000 adventures have been completed
- 27,000 miles have been hiked
- 4 million calories have been burned
- 14,000 hours have been spent outdoors
Furthermore, with an average group size of 2.97 people, those numbers can be multiplied to obtain the total health-based outcomes associated with the local park TRACK Trails in North Carolina: 90,000 adventures; 81,000 miles; 12 million calories; and 42,000 hours.
Over the past seven years, the Kids in Parks program has grown from an idea grounded in theory into a national network of trails that cross agency boundaries in an effort to get our kids and families unplugged, outdoors, and connected to nature. In addition to the program’s hiking TRACK Trails, we have developed other trail types to attract wider audiences, including: disc golf, paddling, geocaching, biking, and citizen science. Kids in Parks currently has more than 140 TRACK Trail locations in eight states and Washington, D.C. Thirty seven of the 80 trails in North Carolina are at local park sites.