The National Park Service introduces kids and their families to the Mississippi River

While Minneapolis may have a park running through the core of the city, it has varying degrees of use by area residents. MRP took a few minutes with Dave Wiggins, Supervisory Park Ranger at the National Park Service to learn more about programs that engage youth and their families in Minneapolis’s national treasure.

MRP: Tell us about Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures (UWCA). How did it get started?

DW: UWCA in partnership with Wilderness Inquiry is one of the biggest programs that the Minneapolis branch of the National Parks Service (NPS) facilitates.  The program was discussed in the mid-90’s but really got rolling five years ago to address the growing concern that kids were disconnected to nature.

At the time, the staff and board wanted this program to have a BIG impact, which meant reaching out to more than just 200 people. The ultimate goal of the program was to reach about 10,000 kids. At the time, this number raised a few eyebrows – how could we possibly reach that many kids? It was completely unprecedented. There were so many challenges to serving such a high number of people – including organizational logistics, managing expenses, and keeping people safe. These days, we are serving up to 15,000 kids and families, surpassing our original goal by 5,000 people. We are still growing.

MRP: What were some of the strategies that helped you build the program to this capacity?

DW: Instead of taking a classroom by classroom approach, it was decided that engaging kids on a district-wide level would be most effective. This helps us integrate Mississippi River issues into the school curriculum.  We first focused on working with 5th through 8th graders and expanded to high school students in both the Minneapolis and St Paul Public School Systems.  We’ve recently broadened our programming to reach college students.  We are now working with Northland College to offer full four-year scholarships to students that are pursuing degrees related to the outdoor industry.

MRP: Tell us about what a student might experience as part of the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure program.

DW: Our program has many parts, including focusing on educational curriculum, creating recreational experiences through camping and field trips, and providing opportunities for employment through our many partners, such as the Tree Trust, the Green Team, Wilderness Inquiry, Nature Corps, and others.  It all falls under the large UWCA umbrella, but it really is a coordinated set of related programs that build from an initial engagement by thousands to full careers for a few.

Our programs are very memorable for our students and usually, but not always, involve some canoeing. We load nine kids into a single canoe – up to 24 canoes total with an experienced stern paddler who acts as a guide. We make stops for land-based activities along the way. Our stops can include taking time to test water, playing a fur trade or team building game, or hiking to see historic resources like Fort Snelling. Many of the kids have never been to a park, much less attempted to navigate in a canoe!  It’s hard for many people to believe, but over 80% of our kids have never visited a National Park. For many of them, the perception of woods and green spaces involve danger. So, getting into a canoe on the Mississippi and having a great experience can be a major accomplishment for them.  We sometimes say we are seeking to provide our youth with “transformative experiences.”  The programs underscore the idea that the National Park is their park – the Mississippi River corridor is a national, shared, resource that can be used by everyone – even them. That can be a powerful concept for kids that don’t have a lot of resources at home.

Engaging kids in the programs has real impacts on social and emotional performance at school. A lot of the research out there shows that this type of experiential learning is also tied to overall academic performance.  We are working to apply for a National Science Foundation research grant with the University of Minnesota to better understand how this experiential learning supports student performance at school.

MRP: It sounds like the programs have a strong impact

DW: Yes, and we can prove it through a formal evaluation partnership with University of Minnesota.  Our local success has inspired Wilderness Inquiry to set up a touring version called the “Canoemobile”  to reach residents nation-wide. In the last couple of years, they’ve started taking the canoes on the road to Bemidji, Brainerd, Washington DC, New York, St. Louis and other cities.   They can get up to 500-600 people in each town they visit. This program helps reveal and interpret the national treasures we have – and it sometimes takes someone from out of town to show a community how close to home these treasures are, and that it is possible to pull together the local partnerships needed to set up a program like the UWCA in their own community.

MRP: Why do you think these programs are so important?

DW: The creation of the park system in Minneapolis was founded with the intent to serve the social good. While there were other reasons for building the parks, one of the primary driving forces was a belief that parks could make a community cohesive. Parks have always been a way to increase access to the outdoors and to develop a relationship to nature and their place that is heartfelt, respectful, and healthy. We are continuing our national park legacy of helping people understand and appreciate our nationally important resources. Our programs help people see themselves as stewards of our natural resources – not only enjoying them – but protecting them for future generations. We are lucky enough to have a nationally important river in the heart of our community, and to have a community with the values to support programs like the UWCA.

Additional Resources

Pyramid of engagement

The National Parks Services and Wilderness Inquiry uses a pyramid to describe their process of engaging students in the parks. Learn about their model here.

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