In this park ranger interview series, I’m speaking with park rangers across the United States about their job and how to encourage kids to love the outdoors. Today’s post features Laura Dvorák, U.S. National Park Ranger at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Eruption/Protection Division.
Is this the first National Park you’ve worked at?
This is the first park I have worked at. I have previously worked in a horticultural therapy setting, and in the fields of outdoor/sustainability/permaculture education.
Where did you grow up? In the country, a city, or a suburb?
The suburbs of northeastern New Jersey.
What did you love about the outdoors as a child?
I loved fresh air. I loved the spontaneity as well as the stability of animals and plants and natural elements. We didn’t camp often but when we did, I remember the excitement and curiosity at observing newts and geese and raccoons. We spent countless days on the beach in Wildwood, NJ. I appreciate the lack of agenda in the outdoors and the opportunity to just be present with the senses (including the sense of wonder).
When did you know you wanted to work in outdoor education?
My first outdoors job was in the summer of 2000 (at the age of 19) at the Princeton Blairstown Center in northwestern New Jersey. We offered immersive leadership experiences for coming-of-age youth from disadvantaged urban communities. The woods and rivers were like a crucible in which to allow other distractions to fall away.
I remember being assigned to blaze a perimeter trail around the 300+ acre property, and discovering carriage wheels, stone walls, and house foundations from the colonial era. It gave me an appreciation for the recent history of the region, a place where time seemed to stand still. I obtained my Master’s Degree in Geography and Leadership for Sustainability Education and while it has not always been the most straightforward or lucrative career path, it has been replete with fresh air, (mis)adventure, and experiences that have built character as well as a deepened desire to know the natural world.
Who encouraged you to pursue a career in outdoor education?
Many mentors over the years – human and non-human alike. Mostly I saw a need for it. I have worked in classrooms as well as in the outdoors. Experiential and discovery learning had a lasting impact. More than books, more than tests.
What is the most common question you get from park visitors?
They all want to know how they can get the closest possible to the lava. It is awe-inspiring and at once evokes a sense of danger and reverence. They are astonished that we, too, operate at the mercy of the volcano’s unpredictable actions. One day the ocean entry may be there. The next day it is not. One day the cliffside may fall into the sea. One day the surface lava may flow in crimson rivers, the next day it is a shriveled gray mass resembling elephant skin. We cannot control it, but we can maintain a sense of wonder while keeping visitors safe and natural resources from being disrespected or exploited.
How can parents raise kids to love the outdoors?
Lead by example. If a lot of your energy and attention goes into your phone and computer and TV, how can you expect your children to act any differently? Establish formative memories together in the outdoors. Offer opportunities for predominantly positive experiences. If a child is bitten by mosquitoes or sunburned, or anxious about spiders or big waves in the ocean, don’t let it deter them from finding something they DO love outdoors; even if it is reading a book. I loved reading as a child and would bring a stack of books to a fort or under a tree and just lose myself in other worlds, in my inner world. I suffered infections from spider and mosquito bites, as well as poison ivy and sunburn, but in the end I did not internalize the idea that I was supposed to be afraid of the outdoors.
If you live in a city, get out into your parks. Open the windows. Plant seeds. Visit local resident birds and wildlife, and get to know them. Engage with the outdoors as though you were not a stranger to it, and your child will feel as though he/she belongs somewhere on this precious planet, a powerful investment in future stewards of the environment. Give them space to respect nature while giving them skills of self-sufficiency and protecting the environment.
Solo time in the outdoors is very, very healing and powerful for personal development. Even just a few minutes per week or per day can have lasting effects benefiting both mental and physical health. Children these days are not exactly encouraged to spend solo time outdoors, with justifiable fears like getting lost or being abducted, and paramount distractions like video games (and homework). But even just choosing a little nook in the backyard, or a tree stump off a familiar hiking trail, could mean the difference between developing into a person who knows their place on the Earth and one who feels estranged (and therefore more likely to make decisions that are destructive of self and of the environment).
A child can learn just as much about mathematics and science, as well as alliterations and metaphors from a forest as they can from a textbook. Learning does not have to stop at the threshold of a classroom or desk. And some of the most important learning that takes place is non-verbal in nature. It cannot be rationalized or quantified.
Many thanks to Laura for giving us her perspective on raising a generation to love the outdoors! Follow along with our monthly conservationist series here on the Hike it Baby blog!