Gaines is director of the South Carolina State Park Service, responsible for 47 state parks full of mountain forests, ocean beaches, lakeside campgrounds, hiking trails, natural and cultural history, picnic tables and playgrounds, and programs aimed at encouraging kids young and old to “come out and play.”
In fact, “Come Out and Play” was the theme of the State Park Service’s 75th anniversary celebration this year, and it’s a clarion call to the generation coming up that will soon be responsible for keeping this venerable slice of American life alive, protected and appreciated in the years ahead.
“It is critical that this generation of youngsters understands and values parks and the outdoors and the special places that define our state, and that’s true for every other state, too,” said Gaines. “We’re all facing that same challenge. How do we make the outdoors in general and the state parks environment in particular as fun and attractive as Game Boys and Xboxes and all the good stuff?”
Education, of course, is one way. South Carolina’s state parks offer year-round programming focusing on the individual park’s particular resource. For instance, there are sea turtle programs at Edisto Beach State Park in the Lowcountry and flora and fauna identification hikes at Paris Mountain State Park near Greenville.
Then there are living history programs focusing on Revolutionary War life at Musgrove Mill State Historic Site near Clinton and interpretive sessions that examine slavery and post-slavery at Redcliffe Plantation near Aiken and life on a rice plantation at Hampton Plantation State Historic Site in the Santee Delta near McClellanville.
These and many other parks offer such regularly scheduled programming for visitors. There’s also the Junior Ranger program at many of the parks, which involves young visitors in hands-on exploration of the park and interaction with the rangers. More information is at www.SouthCarolinaParks.com
Then there’s the outreach to that most important of partners – teachers. That’s where Discover Carolina (www.DiscoverCarolina.com) comes in. It’s the Park Service’s state curriculum-based program that brings third- and eighth-grade students and their teachers to the park for a day of fun and learning.
“The National Association of State Parks Directors and the National Park Service have signed joint agreements to provide these kinds of opportunities everywhere we can,” Gaines said. “We think they’re that important. Educators are among our most crucial partners in re-introducing America’s young people to the natural world around them.”
The veteran park ranger and manager said he knows the effort will take years, just as the problem of natural disconnect did not take place overnight.
“The children we’re working with now are children of Generation X, who themselves often grew up in a very organized play structure with very organized outdoor activities,” Gaines said. “And now we’re to the point where for many children, their lives have become so structured and scheduled that they don’t often have the opportunity to be creative and imaginative when they interact with nature, not even in their own backyard.”
Experiential learning can take place inside and outside the classroom and in formal and unstructured settings, Gaines said, as long as the connection is being made, in this case with the environment in the safe, comfortable setting of a state park. That’s why Gaines urges families to “come out and play” on their own, too.
“We’re not just about organized programs,” Gaines said. “We’re going to do a lot of that, of course, but at the root of it all, your state park is a place for families to come out and have a picnic and take a hike and climb on a big rock and reconnect with each other and with the wonderful natural world around you.”
Besides unfamiliarity, Gaines said, the other obstacle is technology and all the video games that present immediate gratification to the senses, compared with the subtle, often unfamiliar, sounds and rhythms of the natural world around us.
“But give it a try, get out there and see what it’s like. Slow down for a moment and take it all in,” Gaines said. “There’s so much going on around you out in nature that once you let all your senses take it in, it’s an amazing sense of discovery, even right in your own backyard.
“And that’s great even for kids with attention deficit disorder who get bored really easy.”
The state parks director concluded: “I know it might sound self-serving, but I really think it’s critical that this new generation of kids understand and value their parks and the outdoors and the special places that define our state.
“You have to experience it to connect with it and connect with it before you understand it, but once they do, they will then be able to take on the role that our grandparents filled when 75 years ago, they first started the state park movement across this nation.”