Formerly IGSW News | VOLUME 24 | FALL 2017

Issues and Views

Outside, in a National Park

Kids and Retired Volunteers Are Beneficiaries and Stewards

By Mary Johnson

The New York Times once listed Edgar Rivas as one of the six most powerful aging-policy lobbyists in Washington. As part of a long career, he served on the staff of the U.S. House Select Committee on Aging and also held positions at state and area offices on aging and several national aging organizations, including AARP. But these days he often can be found in the woods outside of D.C.

Rivas is a member of the Canal Classroom Corps of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The Canal Classroom program relies on volunteer teachers—most, like Rivas, are retired—to work side-by-side with park rangers, providing natural history and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) lessons to local students, from pre-kindergarten through high school. The students' classroom teachers work with the program to ensure that activities are linked to school curriculum.

"This work harkens back to my early years as a special-education teacher using the outdoors as a classroom for kids with cognitive disabilities," Rivas says. "And it combines with my personal love of being outdoors and sharing what I know with young people. It reinforces all those skills."

Class visits to the park usually last about half a day, with activities based on age and attention span. History lessons come from a barge ride on the iconic 200-year-old C&O Canal, and hikes reveal geological formations, animal tracks, and the grandeur of the Great Falls of the Potomac.

"On nature walks, fourth-graders, who receive free park passes to share with their families, learn how to count rings to determine the age of a tree," Rivas says. "They learn what poison ivy looks like and, in September, they learn about the paw paw, the northern-most tropical fruit, which grows wild here. In spring it's wild flowers, great blue herons, white tail deer, and common snapping turtles. There are always a couple of kids who really get the idea of being quiet—really listening and really looking. Now they're ready to soak in everything the woods and the river have to offer.

"Many of the kids in the program would not otherwise have the opportunity for these experiences, either because where they live is not accessible to open spaces or is too dangerous, or sometimes because they have disabilities," he says. "I take great joy in sharing the natural world with them."

In fact, for young people and for older adults, programs like the Canal Classroom Corps are part of a growing awareness that nature can mean good education—and good health. Based on studies of physical and mental health and well-being, an increasing number of educational and health programs are focused simply on getting people outside.

Rivas says that he endorses that goal. And, still the lobbyist, he adds, "We plant the seed and encourage the kids to come back with their families. Little by little, we are educating the future stewards of our national parks."

Photo of Edgar Rivas leading hikers from the Latin American Youth Center and YMCA, both of Montgomery County, Md., courtesy C&O Canal Trust

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Copyright © 2017 Trustees of Boston University. All rights reserved. This article may not be duplicated or distributed in any form without written permission from the publisher: Center for Aging & Disability Education & Research, Boston University School of Social Work, 264 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, U.S.A.; e-mail: