by Hilary Clark
“Being outside allows children to be imaginative, spontaneous, and carefree, and allows them to gather their thoughts. It’s also a lot of fun!” Those are the enthusiastic words of Jennifer Smith, a National Park Service educator at the Tonto National Monument in Roosevelt. ‘Ranger Jen’ as she is affectionately known helps kids of all ages explore the Tonto National Monument and learn about the outdoors and prehistoric culture.
Through the Every Kid in a Park program, fourth-graders and their families get a free pass valid for more than 400 national parks across the country. A National Park Foundation grant helps with transportation—paying for buses to get more than 200 elementary-school students from Payson, Globe, Miami, Pine and Tonto Basin to the monument. In all, Smith’s programs have reached more than a thousand young people this year, from pre-K to 12th grade
As Smith leads students on hikes up to the Lower Cliff Dwelling she teaches them about desert plants and animals and the Salado people who built the dwellings. Although the hike is only a one mile round trip, it ascends more than 300 feet in elevation, giving everyone a good workout.
Once at the dwelling, students have the unique opportunity to enter some of the rooms and imagine what it was like to live there. At many archaeological sites across the Southwest, the ancient rooms are off limits.
“I enjoy watching their eyes light up with excitement when they see something that fascinates them,” says Smith.
In addition to the Every Kid in a Park program, Smith has also taught high-school students by giving class presentations and field trips to the monument. Partnering with the National Forest, she worked with students from the Payson Center for Success on a special, semester-long project that included a park archeologist demonstrating prehistoric technology.
“I see myself as an enabler and facilitator” for the students, Smith says, adding,” I take care of the logistics, planning and safety concerns, allowing them to concentrate on things that matter—learning and observing the world around them.”
Ranger Jen says she wants children of all ages to leave Tonto with a positive experience that will inspire them to become future stewards of the outdoors.
“I hope their visit to Tonto will spark their interest to learn about, explore and want to protect other cultural and natural sites,” she says, “not only in Arizona, but across the country and around the world.”