Introduce Parks Through Programming

“Hmmmmm, I could smell the pine needles.” “Why don’t the low branches have needles on them?” “We saw two baby deer! They were so cute.”

The words tumbled out, faster and faster, as two young park visitors described their walk. For them, the woods had become more than merely earthy aromas and birdsong. They were full of adventure and things to explore. Yes, the kids were on a quest to find a little box hidden somewhere in the park. But that quest became secondary to the discoveries they were making along the way.

The Maynards, 13-year-old Hannah and 9-year-old Noah, were among the more than 700 young people who took part in the Summer Letterbox Adventure–a project of Ohio’s Preservation Parks of Delaware County. The children had just completed their walk at Hogback Ridge Preserve, along a trail which took them through a planted pine forest and along a ravine lined with cherry and hickory trees.

After they found the hidden box, the children and their mom went off to explore the rest of the park–looking for more adventures.

During the Summer Letterbox Adventure, which lasted nine weeks, children and families used booklets to follow nature clues along the trails in seven park district preserves, ultimately finding small, camouflaged boxes hidden behind posts, within foliage and under fallen logs.

When participants found a box, they removed a stamp to mark their booklets, completed an activity, and wrote in the nature journal enclosed in the box. In one park, for example, the activity called for children to listen carefully to bird songs and write some lyrics to go along with the melodies.

Participants who found all seven boxes received certificates, and their names were entered in a drawing for prizes.

Going Further

The project’s structure was simple, but families could expand on their quest as much as they wished. The project booklets contained extra information about the wildlife, plants, landforms and other natural features to be seen in each park–creating opportunities for children to do research and make their own nature observations as they sought the boxes.

Along each trail, the kids learned, for example, how to tell the difference between red and white oak trees, how glaciers deposited large boulders (erratics) throughout central Ohio, that root beer originally was made from sassafras root, and dozens of other nature facts.

“Before we came out, we listened to bird songs online,” says Karen Bodker, whose three children found all seven letter boxes over the space of a few weeks early in the summer. Even after finding the boxes, the family continued exploring other sections of each park, marveling at the cacophony from birds and chattering squirrels, and crossing a bridge that brought them close to the ravine floor.

“That’s exactly what we wanted the program to do,” says Rita A. Au, executive director of Preservation Parks. “We work very hard at providing programs that will whet people’s curiosity and make them want to discover more about nature–and our park system.”

The ”Why” Behind The Letterboxes

The Summer Letterbox Adventure was conceived by staff members in 2008 as a way to introduce more families to the park district. Preservation Parks is a relatively young metro park district, having opened its first park in 2001. Many Delaware County residents live in the southern third of the county–tending to affiliate themselves with the city of Columbus (just a few miles to the south) and with the neighboring Franklin County MetroParks, a larger park district that has been around for more than 60 years.

As Preservation Parks was preparing to ask county residents for continued funding via a tax levy on the November 2008 ballot, staff members knew that lack of name recognition did not bode well.

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