“Hmmmmm, I could smell the pine needles.” “Why don’t the low branches have needles on them?” “We saw two baby deer! They were so cute.”
The words tumbled out, faster and faster, as two young park visitors described their walk. For them, the woods had become more than merely earthy aromas and birdsong. They were full of adventure and things to explore. Yes, the kids were on a quest to find a little box hidden somewhere in the park. But that quest became secondary to the discoveries they were making along the way.
The Maynards, 13-year-old Hannah and 9-year-old Noah, were among the more than 700 young people who took part in the Summer Letterbox Adventure--a project of Ohio’s Preservation Parks of Delaware County. The children had just completed their walk at Hogback Ridge Preserve, along a trail which took them through a planted pine forest and along a ravine lined with cherry and hickory trees.
After they found the hidden box, the children and their mom went off to explore the rest of the park--looking for more adventures.
During the Summer Letterbox Adventure, which lasted nine weeks, children and families used booklets to follow nature clues along the trails in seven park district preserves, ultimately finding small, camouflaged boxes hidden behind posts, within foliage and under fallen logs.
When participants found a box, they removed a stamp to mark their booklets, completed an activity, and wrote in the nature journal enclosed in the box. In one park, for example, the activity called for children to listen carefully to bird songs and write some lyrics to go along with the melodies.
Participants who found all seven boxes received certificates, and their names were entered in a drawing for prizes.
The project’s structure was simple, but families could expand on their quest as much as they wished. The project booklets contained extra information about the wildlife, plants, landforms and other natural features to be seen in each park--creating opportunities for children to do research and make their own nature observations as they sought the boxes.
Along each trail, the kids learned, for example, how to tell the difference between red and white oak trees, how glaciers deposited large boulders (erratics) throughout central Ohio, that root beer originally was made from sassafras root, and dozens of other nature facts.
“Before we came out, we listened to bird songs online,” says Karen Bodker, whose three children found all seven letter boxes over the space of a few weeks early in the summer. Even after finding the boxes, the family continued exploring other sections of each park, marveling at the cacophony from birds and chattering squirrels, and crossing a bridge that brought them close to the ravine floor.
“That’s exactly what we wanted the program to do,” says Rita A. Au, executive director of Preservation Parks. “We work very hard at providing programs that will whet people’s curiosity and make them want to discover more about nature--and our park system.”
The ”Why” Behind The Letterboxes
The Summer Letterbox Adventure was conceived by staff members in 2008 as a way to introduce more families to the park district. Preservation Parks is a relatively young metro park district, having opened its first park in 2001. Many Delaware County residents live in the southern third of the county--tending to affiliate themselves with the city of Columbus (just a few miles to the south) and with the neighboring Franklin County MetroParks, a larger park district that has been around for more than 60 years.
As Preservation Parks was preparing to ask county residents for continued funding via a tax levy on the November 2008 ballot, staff members knew that lack of name recognition did not bode well.
“We wanted a project that would require families to come into the parks--not just attend programs that we were holding elsewhere,” says Au. “We also wanted the children to learn something about nature.”
Getting Families To The Parks
The first challenge was to get families to enroll.
“Our naturalists had already been providing free nature programs at the county libraries,” says Au. “So we wondered: Would the libraries allow us to use their summer reading program kickoffs to also enroll children in the Summer Letterbox Adventure?”
The libraries agreed to the idea, and just like that, Preservation Parks had a ready audience of families happy to discover a fun, inexpensive and educational summer activity for their children.
The libraries worked closely with the parks on registration-day logistics, and library staff continued to register families throughout the summer--keeping Letterbox Adventure materials at the children’s department desk or at the front checkout counters.
“Registration at the libraries was important for working families,” says Au, “because although the parks themselves are open in the evenings and on weekends, park offices are closed.”
Connie Pottle, head of youth services for Delaware County District Libraries, says that having library staff help with registration made the ongoing parks/library partnership even stronger and more equitable.
“Preservation Parks has been doing nature programs for us for awhile,” she says. “We’re happy to have the experienced naturalists from the park, to do the kinds of programs that we can’t. For very little work on our part, we benefit from these great programs."
Overcoming The ”We Have No Budget For This” Hurdle
Like most park districts, Preservation Parks tries to minimize its programming costs. The district dove into the letterbox project with no funding, so all materials were produced fully in-house in 2008, the project’s first year. The booklets were designed using publishing software, and pages for about 200 of them were printed on a copier and trimmed, collated, and stapled by hand.
Other costs incurred were for flyers, posters and some inexpensive incentives (insect finger puppets) for the participants.
For the second year of the project, Preservation Parks set a small budget. Staff members again designed the booklets in-house, but the printing was done by a quick-copy service. The outlay of only a few hundred dollars resulted in 750 booklets, which, while still printed only in black and white, had glossy covers and were cleanly cut, collated, and stapled--a professional-looking product for little money.
In 2009, the park district also found a few sponsors who underwrote the cost of some prizes for the participants.
Most of the cost was in the form of staff time. Apart from the marketing and design work, naturalist Kim Banks decided on the hiding places for the letterboxes, and formulated clues while choosing which natural features to emphasize in each park. Park managers familiarized themselves with the letterbox locations, so they could assist visitors, and all staff members helped maintain the project throughout the summer.
A Growing Program
About 220 children signed up the first year, and 30 or so found all the hidden boxes. In 2009, the number of participants jumped to more than 700, with about 75 children completing the project.
Banks, who helped design the Letterbox Adventure, believes the program grew because of its inherent appeal. “Participants like the exercise, learning something new about nature, and spending quality time with their families,” she says.
Pottle says word of mouth helped the program grow as well.
“We would overhear parents say to their friends, ‘We had a great time last summer doing the letterboxes,’” she says, adding that library staff members helped push the project.
“It was an opportunity for us to tell families about other resources available to them in the county,” she says.
Many families say they will participate year after year.
“This was a great summer project; we’ll do it again,” says Bodker, pointing out that her children learned about nature, had fun outdoors, and discovered new places to explore. “ … And before this,” she says, “we didn’t even know half of these parks existed.”
Sue Hagan is the Marketing & Communications Manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County, Ohio. A lifelong resident of the Midwest, she grew up spending parts of each summer in the northern Wisconsin pine forests, and can close her eyes and remember that wonderful aroma. After working as a journalist for many years, she decided to combine two loves--writing and the outdoors--into a new career. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.