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Increasing Access to Yosemite National Park’s Junior Ranger Program

Yosemite Conservancy announces a new set of free adapted activities that can be used by children between the ages of 4-12 to become a Junior Ranger.

BY Penelope Hatch, PhD, CCC-SLP and Nancy Quick, PhD, CCC-SLP | July 2022 | Category: Travel

Increasing Access to Yosemite National Park’s Junior Ranger Program

Recently, Yosemite Conservancy worked with two speech-language pathologists to make the activities accessible for all children including those with complex learning, communication, motor and/or sensory challenges. Now, with family or caregivers as partners, children between the ages of 4 and 12 can complete their choice of five or more adapted activities to earn a Junior Ranger badge. Children do not need to speak, hold a pencil to write or draw, or use hearing or sight to complete the adapted activities.

Yosemite is the nation’s third oldest national park. It has a multitude of natural and cultural features, meriting its designation as one of 24 World Heritage Sites in the US. Yosemite is truly a national treasure filled with majestic scenery, a variety of wildlife, unique geologic formations, giant sequoia trees, and a history of Native people who have lived there for thousands of years. As a national park, it is meant to be available for access to the public without restrictions based on income, class or ability.

The Junior Ranger Program, one of the most beloved traditions of the National Park Service, was created to help children discover and learn about the environment they are visiting. It exists in most national parks and supports children in experiencing the well-documented benefits of spending time outdoors by participating in fun and educational experiences related to the parks.

In 2020, Yosemite Conservancy decided to revise their Junior Ranger Handbook with a goal of providing more inclusive representation and expanding access to the park’s youngest visitors. They wanted to make sure that children with a range of communication abilities could complete the activities to earn a Junior Ranger badge. The Conservancy contacted Penelope Hatch and Nancy Quick, two speech-language pathologists at the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to review and evaluate the accessibility of the activities.

The review revealed several barriers. First, many activities relied on vision and hearing without the option of using other senses to capture experiences and impressions of the park. Second, children were required to communicate about these experiences through speech, signs, symbols or writing with vocabulary or ideas that may not yet be familiar to them. This unintentionally excluded children who are beginning communicators and still learning to use language. It also created a barrier for children who have difficulty holding and controlling a pencil for writing and drawing. According to Yosemite Conservancy’s Chief of Yosemite Operations, Adonia Ripple, “The level of adaptation needed was enlightening.”

In response, the Conservancy asked Hatch and Quick to create additional activities that would give all Junior Ranger candidates the same or similar experiences while removing access barriers. The result is a collection of free adapted activities that can be downloaded from the internet. The adapted activities were purposely created with minimal illustrations to reduce the amount of ink and paper required for printing. They are meant to be used in conjunction with the Junior Ranger Handbook. Anyone who is interested can visit the National Park Service’s Accessibility web page for Yosemite to download the adapted activities and link to the Junior Ranger Handbook: www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/accessibility.htm. As of April 2022, the Junior Ranger Handbook has been free to all children who want to participate when they visit the park.

Some of the Junior Ranger adaptations addressed sensory barriers. A child now has the option to use senses such as touch and smell to complete activities that formerly required vision or hearing. One example is the activity titled “Discover Yosemite,” where the child can choose from a list of things they smell (e.g., smoke, wood, pine trees) in place of or in addition to things that they see and hear. In another activity focused on the geological formations in the park, the child can choose descriptions of how different rocks and sand feel rather than how they look. Now, all children can participate in the Junior Ranger activities by experiencing Yosemite using the senses that provide the most information for them.

Other adaptations support parents and caregivers in acting as communication partners using strategies they may already be using at home. For example, rather than having the child come up with a response on their own, each adapted activity has a list of choices to offer so that vocabulary is less of a barrier. “Something else” is always one of those options in case the child wants to express something other than what the communication partner offered. Any behavioral response from the child, whether it is a facial expression, gesture, vocalization, or body movement, is honored as indicating a choice. The communication partner writes the child’s responses in the Junior Ranger Handbook which is turned in to a Park Ranger when all activities are completed.

Finally, the writing requirement has been replaced by strategies like moving arms to “air draw” and using eye gaze to show the communication partner where to draw or write on the page. The child now can direct these activities without having to hold and control a pencil, pen or marker to complete them.

The adapted activities have been available since the summer of 2021. They provide a chance for intergenerational learning and exploration with older siblings, parents, grandparents and other family members. Approximately 5% of people who have visited the Junior Ranger web page have downloaded them. This demonstrates a greater interest than anticipated as well as a wonderful opportunity to increase the accessibility of Yosemite to all children and their families.

Plans for the future include preparing guidelines for the National Park Service that other parks could use to adapt their Junior Ranger activities. Yosemite Conservancy Board member, Jan Avent commented that the adapted activities create, “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.”

ABOUT YOSEMITE CONSERVANCY

Yosemite Conservancy is the only nonprofit dedicated to supporting Yosemite National Park. As Yosemite’s official philanthropic partner and cooperating association, the Conservancy works closely with the park to fund high-priority projects and provide enriching educational programs. In the 1920s, the Yosemite Museum Association formed to help build a museum in Yosemite National Park. Today, Yosemite Conservancy helps people connect with the park, including through adventures, art, theater, and books, and funds restoration, research, wildlife management, visitor education, and more, ensuring Yosemite’s grandeur through the ages. Learn more at www.yosemite.org

References 

Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, Department of Allied Health Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yosemite National Park Junior Ranger Handbook: Adapted Activities. United States: Yosemite Conservancy, 2021.

National Park Service in Yosemite. Yosemite National Park Junior Ranger Handbook. United States: Yosemite Conservancy, 2020.

Individuals Quoted in the Article: Jan Avent, Yosemite Conservancy Board Member; Adonia Ripple, Chief of Yosemite Operations, Yosemite Conservancy.

About the Authors:

Penelope Hatch, PhD, CCC-SLP is an assistant professor at the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies, Department of Allied Health Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a former school-based speech-language pathologist who provided augmentative and alternative communication and assistive technology services to students with complex learning and communication needs. Penelope’s current research focuses on developing communication, language, and literacy resources for students with complex learning and communication needs, their teachers and their families. Contact her by email at phatch@med.unc.edu

Nancy Quick, PhD, CCC-SLP is an assistant professor at the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a former center-based and school-based SLP, she served individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, along with their families. Nancy’s research interests focus on addressing hearing loss among children with significant support needs, as well the communication, language, and literacy needs of children with hearing loss and other disabilities. Contact her by email at Nancy_quick@med.unc.edu

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