Fostering Stewardship, Accessibility

  • June 1, 2021

Explore. Learn. Protect.

The National Park’s Service Junior Ranger program is completed by thousands of children across dozens of parks throughout the U.S. every year. In visitor centers ranging from Denali National Park in Alaska to Everglades in Florida, Junior Rangers complete a series of conservation-related activities and, in the end, dutifully raise their right hands and promise to serve as park advocates and share their “ranger” stories with friends and family.

In California, of the 4.5 million visitors to Yosemite National Park each year, upwards of 20,000 participate in the program.

Now, thanks to a new partnership between Yosemite National Park, the Yosemite Conservancy, and Cal State East Bay alumna Penny Hatch and Professor Emerita Jan Avent, that program is more accessible than ever for children of all abilities.

“The Junior Ranger program helps children learn about the park, what makes it unique and what plants and animals live here,” said Adonia Ripple, chief of Yosemite operations for the Yosemite Conservancy. “It’s to foster a sense of stewardship and learning about things like the Leave No Trace principles, staying on trails, and leaving what you find.”

But according to Avent, who taught at Cal State East Bay for 19 years and now serves on the Yosemite Conservancy board of trustees, some of the activities are inaccessible to children with differing needs.

“I tell you what; I had tears in my eyes thinking of children who come to the park that have been sidelined because they could not follow the guide as it is,” she said.

Wanting to find a way to support all children, Avent and her husband seed-funded the project, and she reached out to her former student and mentee Penny Hatch, now a professor at the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Together the pair has created an adaptive supplemental book to accompany the guide for families and children who may need to modify some of the activities required of the program.

“Many of the activities rely heavily on vision, and there are many students I work with that are either deaf-blind, blind or have significant visual constraints,” Hatch said. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we make sure that the observations can be done through a sense other than vision.’”

For example, one activity in the existing Junior Ranger Handbook is called “Geology Rocks.” Children are asked to look at the various rocks found throughout Yosemite and draw what they see. In the adapted version, children - through a communication partner, if needed - are able to describe instead how the rocks feel. In another activity, children would explore a model of the roundhouse which is a building used for ceremonies by the native tribes of Yosemite. In the Junior Ranger Guide, children draw a picture of the roundhouse, but in the adapted activity, children make the connection to the purpose of the roundhouse by communicating about ceremonies they have participated in such as birthdays, weddings, graduations and family reunions.  

“Many children don’t have the motor skills to control a pencil, but if the goal of the activity is to demonstrate their observations, how can we change that? The onus is on us,” Hatch said. “The way one child communicates could look very different from another. Their response could be a smile, a vocalization, a point, the important thing is to be tuning in and watching.” 

“I speak for our whole publishing team when I say that you can’t read it without feeling moved.”

The adaptive guide will be available to Yosemite visitors this summer, and the team is hopeful they’ll receive feedback from families that can then be incorporated into making the park even more accessible.

“I speak for our whole publishing team when I say that you can’t read it without feeling moved,” Ripple said. “The level of adaptation needed was enlightening. Now we know this handbook can be accessed by all children. 

As for Hatch and Avent, they have their sights set on the remaining 62 national parks.

“I’m hoping we can get some sort of feedback if this works for families and incorporate any tweaks or suggestions they have, and then I would love to write some guidelines for the entire National Parks Service that they can use, ” Hatch said.

And in the meantime, Avent said she’s proud to know the project means the “People’s Park” is now more accessible for everyone.

“This was one of those heartwarming experiences in life that just puts a lump in your throat,” she said. “This creates a wide-open door, a wide-open path for all children. No more looking at what everybody else does and not being able to participate. That’s what accessibility is. It’s not making it easier; it’s letting people be who they are and do the same thing that everybody else is doing.”