This story appeared in The Bay Journal News Service www.bayjournalnewservice.com
Five years ago, Pocomoke State Park manager Gary Adelhardt, learned about “nature deficit disorder,” as described in Richard Luve’s ground-breaking book, “Last Child in the Woods.”Despite little to no money in the park budget, he knew he had to do something to connect children to the natural world. He came up with Park Quest, now a very popular challenge to explore Maryland state parks. It’s the kind of program states throughout the region could copy.
After registering online, participating families receive a Park Quest Passport that provides free access to Park Quest sites and activities. After downloading activities, families use the supplied clues, letter boxes, maps and games to guide themselves through the woodlands, waterways and public lands at their own pace. The only requirement is that each team includes at least one member younger than 16 and one adult. Activities are geared to four- to 16-year-olds. Two dozen parks located throughout the state are participating this year.
Each quest takes about two hours and explores unique aspects of the park. Families are exposed to area history and the natural environment. Outdoor activities like cycling on a rail trail or canoeing through a swamp may be introduced.
Passports are stamped upon the completion of each Quest, and families must complete 10 of the 23 quests between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Adelhardt wanted to incorporate underused parks and do nearly everything internally. He approached the superintendents to come on board, and as a result, park service staff created all of the programs.
“Many of Maryland’s kids have never been to the state parks and like many kids and adults, they have a problem detaching from screens and technology,” Adelhardt said.
Adelhardt understands that to get children outdoors, parents need to be alongside them because youths cannot physically get to a state park on their own. Parents are engaged and even grandparents join the team. Ten members are allowed on each team, and two families often combine forces.
“The first year, 30 teams were involved,” Adelhardt said. “This year, 1,000 teams maxed out registration within 90 minutes. It exploded.”
“The hallmark of our successful program is having a goal or target,” he explained. “It’s an incentive to complete the quests.”
The summer’s end rendezvous includes games and challenges at stations that combine physical and memory-oriented competitions. There are give-aways and prizes, which include camping gear, fishing poles and outdoor gear.
Because there is such a rich history in Maryland, park rangers portray historic characters like Capt. John Smith at the festival. Some challenges engage the children in conversation that help the youngsters become comfortable around the rangers. Parents end up learning, too. Last year, 1,000 questers attended the rendezvous.
Business community partners and private agencies donate prizes, which adds to the program’s success. The Friends of the Maryland Parks, an advocacy group that has the ear of the legislature, also helps with the program.
Maryland’s tourism department did an impact study that found that state parks are underused.
“There is no value in a closed park,” Adelhardt said. “It costs more to mothball buildings and deal with vandalism. You’re going to end up reopening it someday. One of our parks is taking 20 years to bring it back.”
With the depressed economy, many families cannot afford expensive vacations, and they aren’t necessary to make great family memories.
Park Quest has its own Facebook page where families communicate with one another.
“There’s a whole community occurring out there,” Adelhardt said. “They care about their parks. They advocate the outdoors. They meet on their own. Some families created their own newsletters and blogs and talk about what a great way it is to spend the summer. Park Quest has become a very important in their lives.”
One family in particular won a big camping prize after the husband lost his job. It was one of the highlights of their summer.
It’s not too late to be involved. Families who did not register can still download all of the activities and enjoy the quests throughout the summer, They will need to pay the day use entrance fee at parks and are not eligible to participate in the Park Quest Rendezvous or receive prizes or T-shirts.
The rest of the Bay area states do not have such statewide programs, although individual parks do present family-in-the-outdoors activities. Friends of State Parks should be encouraged to develop their own Park Quest, and legislators should hear how beneficial nature programs like these are.