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North Hills Monthly

Parks to Schools/Schools to Parks Program Brings the Outside In

Dec 31, 2018 07:15PM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Working in an outdoor classroom, photo courtesy of Allegheny County Parks

It isn’t always easy or even possible to take children out of the classroom for field trips, but that doesn’t mean children can’t experience unique, hands-on learning experiences. Allegheny County Parks' rangers visit classrooms throughout the county, bringing the outdoors inside through their Parks to Schools program.

The Parks to Schools/Schools to Parks program enables schools in Allegheny County to have free programming brought right into classrooms—or students can visit one of the county parks. But it isn’t limited to just schools in the county; those outside of Allegheny County are welcome to come to the parks for programming as well.

Even better? The programming isn’t just for schools. 

“We run programs for all age groups anywhere from preschool students to adults. We adapt our programs based on the age groups participating. We not only run programs for schools, but also for libraries, Scout groups and other organizations,” explained Education & Outreach Coordinator Elise Cupps. 

The programs geared for schools are classroom-based, and the rangers work with teachers to find programming that works with the classroom curriculum. The schools can choose from one of about 20 programs offered, and the rangers work with teachers to customize the programming.

One of the most popular is the Skins & Skulls program. “We teach about native animals, and participants are able to touch native animal pelts and skulls,” Cupps said.

Parks to Schools is ideal for schools with limited budgets.

“Most of our programs are free. We only charge a fee if we incur additional costs because of consumable supplies. For example, we can run an Owl Prowl program for free or we can add an owl pellet dissection to the program for a small fee ($5 per person),” Cupps said.

For those able to travel to one of the Allegheny County Parks, the guided natural hikes are very popular. Schools can also partner in-school programming with a field trip to a park.

“Throughout our hikes, we have several stops where we discuss different aspects of the natural world. We also run programs like stream studies where we look for macro-invertebrates in streams as well as owl prowls where we discuss owls and then hike through the woods and call for them to see if we can get any to call back,” Cupps said. Allegheny County Parks also runs programs for larger groups of up to 150 people where groups rotate through various stations.

Amy Baer’s students from Gateway Middle School have been participating in the programming offered by Allegheny County Parks for a few years. 

“As field trips and trip transportation are getting more and more expensive, it has been an asset to have an affordable but extremely high-quality series of programming available for our students,” she said.

Thanks to the nearby location of Boyce Park, Baer’s students have been able to visit the parks for just the cost of transportation. Students have participated in guided nature hikes, tree planting, and round-robin learning station experiences. 

Baer feels that the programming is perfect for her seventh- and eighth-grade students.

“It raises awareness of environmental problems and how they can be a part of the solution. For the students, at 12 to 13 years old, to realize that there are people in our own city that value protecting the environment and making the world a better place is crucial,” she said.

Baer adds that she wants her students to get more than just a visit or two out of the park experience.

“Our school is very close to Boyce Park, and some of the kids have never been to the park even though it is so close,” she said. “I want them to feel comfortable going to the park and to think of it as a cool place to go. I want them to tell their friends and family members about the park. I want them to think about it when they are bored and looking for something to do.”

Recently, through the Easter Seals Society, 20 adults with intellectual and development disabilities got to enjoy the Skins & Skulls program when rangers came for a visit.

“They loved it, and not only did they have fun, but it helped with their sensory skills, overall knowledge and interaction with other people,” said Melissa Wine, activities coordinator of the Adult Day Services.

The group was able to learn about various animals and touch skins and skulls, an activity not often available for the public. “They loved guessing what the skins were, and they don’t usually get to do things like this, so it really helped them work on their sensory skills,” said Wine. “Our clients really got so much out of it. We will definitely be doing it again.”

Those interested in setting up a visit or field trip can contact Cupps at 412-389-1533 or email Elise.Cupps@AlleghenyCounty.us, or complete the form on the Allegheny County Park Ranger webpage in the Parks to School/Schools to Parks section.