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What Teachers Should Know About Trails

With over 236,000 miles of them running through US parks, monuments, and forests, the popularity of trails for recreation is well established. Less well known are the power of utilizing trails as tools of learning, and seldom if ever are they a tool that a classroom teacher would think to use. However, there are many opportunities for learning that can come from adapting and adopting the methodology used in their design. Here are some idea on how trails can be used to enhance the classroom experience.  

  1. Movement and Learning - Mobile Education

People who love trails love getting outside and getting moving, and it turns out that following suit and getting your learners moving provides you the most the most bang for your buck when it comes to planning trail-based activities. Research shows a clear connection between movement and deeper learning; 

One of the simplest ways that you can leverage the power of trails is to intermix learning and movement by taking short walks or "green breaks" during a longer instructional sequences. This has been shown to have benefits both in the realm of retention and social-emotional health.

2. Learning Trails 

Interpretive trails are very common method of mobile education in parks that combine movement and content. As people walk along the trail, interpretive panels or audio elements give them the context for what they are looking at or additional knowledge regarding a topic. By the time they finish their journey, they have developed newfound understanding of whatever the focus of the trail might be; a historical event, the key features and processes within a natural ecosystem, or some other topic. This example from Saint Croix Island International Historic Site provides a visual example - 

Teachers can create similar opportunities for learning by using mobile technology to recreate the experience. Teachers create a route and send students out at intervals to walk along the pathway. At specific points, a QR code or printed poster provides students either content or direction on learning activities they should undertake in small groups to build knowledge.

Since assessment isn’t a core component of interpretive trails, adding some check for understanding at the end is a good idea. One popular interpretive method is to “circle up” and have learners share what resonated with them, the connections they made, or have them respond to an open-ended question focused on the learning goal. 

At Pipe Springs National Monument, a small unit that sits between Zion National Park and the north rim of the Grand Canyon, speaker boxes are put in strategic locations. Visitors can explore freely and when they come to one of these, they can activate it to learn more about the area they are in. This format that can be adopted to create audio tours or companions for field trips.

3. Student Produced Tours

At many parks, especially those that preserve and interpret important battles that take place over areas too big to hike in a single day, auto tours are popular methods of learning. This tradition of learning about military history through “ride alongs” harkens back to a popular military tradition call staff rides, something still done as evidence by the guides on this page

Stops usually denote areas of pivotal action or deeds by noteworthy historic figures, which are then arranged sequentially to help learners understand the course of the conflict and or the event serving as the focus. Sometimes a companion app is available which can even augment the experience with dramatic narration or sound effects. A basic example available for preview is the one built for Yorktown Battlefield in Colonial National Historic Park. 

Auto tour routes like the ones described above provide another opportunity for teachers to develop learning opportunities for the building of skills like research, informational writing, or complex communication. Learners can create their own tour over an area of any size and record "stops" that demonstrate their understanding.

4. Pseudo AR Films

Some parks have been quick to adopt the possibilities AR or Augmented Reality. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Nat'l Historic Park for example has used recorded actors to recreate moments from Harriet's life, like her first episode of defiance at a small country store. You can do the same with your students by having them research a pivotal moment from the history of their community, record their recreation of it, then allow them to link those recordings to QR codes.

You can also use this concept with any story, narrative, or historic event by simply breaking the video into several pieces and then creating a trail that leads the learner through the individual episodes.


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