Discovering National Parks

Create a campaign and learn about environmental activism and the National Parks


Key Staff

Classroom teacher

Key Skills

Making Art:
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


Students will learn about the history of America's national parks, and learn about the role that artists played in their creation and maintenance. In a larger sense, students will explore the connection between the arts and environmental/political activism. As a culminating activity, students will create an ad campaign designed to promote America's national parks.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Learn about the creation of the U.S. National Park Service
  • Understand the role that artists played in the decision to preserve the nation's natural areas
  • Discuss some of the conflicting arguments for and against preserving and protecting natural resources
  • Develop an ad campaign to convince U.S. Congress and the public to preserve the national parks

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Visual Instruction
  • Discussion

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Internet Access
  • Projector
  • Speakers
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

By examining the important role that artists and writers played in the development of Americans’ desire to preserve their nation’s natural beauty, students will learn about the history of the National Park Service and those involved in this movement.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Familiarity with National Parks
  • Familiarity with media campaigns
  • Familiarity with environmental protectionism

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab
  • Media Center or Library


  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


  • Test internet connection
  • Set up LCD projector if available

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Post the lyrics of 'America the Beautiful' at the front of the room, along with several images or posters of areas located in national parks.

2. Lead a discussion in which the following questions are posed:

  • Ask students to imagine what their community looked like before people developed it. What would it look like if there were no buildings, streets, cars, billboards, etc? Would it look like a forest? A desert? A swamp?
  • Ask students to think about why people decided to build a community in the area. (Is it near water? Is it an outgrowth of a large urban area?)
  • Ask students if there are any areas in their community that are still undeveloped, such as a forest, a park, etc. Ask them to consider what they would do with this undeveloped area if it belonged to them. Would they build housing or businesses? Would they try to attract tourists to visit the area? Would they simply leave it alone? Have students explain their reasons.

Build Knowledge

1. Tell students that they already have ownership over some of the most beautiful land in the United States. Explain that the national parks are owned by the American people and were established to ensure that we could enjoy the country's breathtaking natural areas. Introduce students to the U.S. National Park Service.

2. Show students the clip from the Ken Burns PBS documentary, The National Parks: American’s Best Idea.

3. Have students read George Catlin and the Dream of the National Parks handout located within the Resource Carousel. Give them several minutes to read the text and explore the images. Allow students to briefly share their thoughts and opinions about George Catlin's work.

(Note: If a computer lab is not available, you may wish to display the interactive worksheet via an LCD projector or print out the sheet and distribute copies to students. Be sure to have printouts of both the worksheet and images available for students.)

4. Ask students to recall (and, if possible, add to) the reasons that people were not initially responsive to the idea of national parks. (Initially, people wanted to move to the West and take advantage of natural resources available there; they felt the responsibility to "tame" the wilderness, etc.)

(Note: If the students' community is undergoing rapid development, you may wish to draw parallels to local debates regarding highway construction, the building of new housing, encroachment on local forests, etc.)

5. Explain that other artists and writers, in addition to George Catlin, had a role in changing this mindset. Writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Henry David Thoreau celebrated nature in literature, and painters such as Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and Frederick Edwin Church (1826–1900) produced beautiful images of American scenery.

Moreover, explorers and scientists like Clarence Dutton (1841–1912), Ferdinand V. Hayden (1829–1886), Clarence King (1842–1901), John Muir, and John Wesley Powell, wrote exciting and descriptive accounts of the scenic western United States.

6. Explain that the work of these writers and artists spurred the public's imagination about the West, and they helped influence Congress, in 1864, to set aside the land in Yosemite Valley as a state park " . . . for public use, resort, and recreation . . . inalienable for all time." (Eventually, California returned Yosemite to the federal government and it became a national park). In 1872, the Yellowstone area in Wyoming and Montana was declared the first national park. Nearly two million acres were preserved from settlement or development. (Note that not everyone in Congress supported the action; during the debate to pass the legislation, Sen. Cornelius Cole of California said, "The geysers will remain, no matter where the ownership of the land may be, and I do not know why settlers should be excluded from a tract of land forty miles square . . . in the Rocky mountains or any other place.") Throughout the next decade, many other spectacular areas were declared national parks, including, including Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, and Glacier Park.

7. Explain that the goal in establishing national parks was not just to preserve and protect the environment; it was also to promote tourism. Ask students why the government would want to do this. (The government wanted to help the economy of the surrounding areas.) Other people wanted to use the natural resources on a limited basis; for example, some groups argued that the government should allow them to dam rivers in order to produce power and enable irrigation. This philosophy was called "utilitarian conservationism." The debate on how to use the land in the national parks continued even after the land was set aside.



1. Divide the class into thirds. Each third of the class must research one of the following concepts, and share the pros and cons of each position.

  • Absolute protection of the environment
  • Using natural areas for tourism and recreation
  • Utilitarian conservation

Depending on the size of the class, students may work in groups or individually. After students have conducted research (either in class, in the computer lab, or at home), have them share their findings. Keep a running list of the pros and cons of each position on the board.

2. Tell students to imagine that they were members of Congress in the early 1800s. Tell them that they are going to decide how to use the areas now considered national parks. Take a vote on the various approaches. Now show the students some images of the areas that are protected as national parks:

Ask them if seeing these images would have influenced their vote. Has anyone changed their mind about how they would use the national parks?

3. Tell students that at the turn of the century, a businessman from Chicago named Stephen T. Mather was concerned that the national parks were being mismanaged. He wanted Congress to establish a governmental department to oversee the national parks. Together with his assistant, Horace M. Albright, Mather launched a public relations campaign to garner public support for the creation of a National Parks Bureau.

Supportive articles were published in popular magazines like National Geographic and The Saturday Evening Post. Additionally, Mather raised funds to publish the National Parks Portfolio, which contained beautiful illustrations and photographs of the national parks. This publication was distributed to every member of Congress. Ultimately, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service. Today, national parks exist in twenty-five states as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands. Students should view one of the articles.

4. Show students the following two clips about Stephen Mather from the Ken Burns documentary.

5. Ask students if they think the images from the national parks had any influence on Congress. Ask them if their opinion has ever been influenced by an image, a piece of music, a poem, or a slogan. Have them brainstorm a list of such items. (Students will likely suggest examples from pop culture or advertising, but try to focus on non-commercial examples.)

6. Ask students why their opinion was influenced. Did the item stir their emotions? Clarify a problem? Make them see another side of an issue?

7. Ask students why they think art has the power to influence people. Does this make an artist powerful?

8. Have students read the biography of Ansel Adams on the Sierra Club Web site. They should also view the images in the photo gallery.

9. Distribute the Writing Prompt located within the Resource Carousel and ask students to write a response to the prompt: Why was Ansel Adams such an effective advocate for the national parks? How did his photography help his conservation efforts


1. Distribute the National Parks Portfolio Assignment handout located within the Resource Carousel to students. Introduce the independent activity with this scenario:

The future of the national parks is in jeopardy. Certain factions of Congress have begun to question the value of setting aside so much land and so many natural resources. They feel that the nation's economy would be helped if the parks were opened up for development.

Explain to students that they are a group of nationally renowned artists who have been called together by an organization that wants to protect the parks. Their job is to produce a modern-day version of the National Parks Portfolio. Each page will contain an image (illustration, photograph, or collage) and a short phrase or slogan that shows the beauty and value of the national parks. Each page of the portfolio will be reproduced as a poster, which will be distributed across the country.

Students must produce a poster/page for the portfolio that will convince the public and Congress that the national parks should be preserved. Each poster should focus on one specific national park. (You may let students choose a park, or they may assign a different park to each student, to ensure that a variety is covered.) The students may choose to draw, paint, or illustrate the image on the poster, or they may create a collage of photographic images.

2. Tell students to research a specific national park on the National Park Service web site. They may also find valuable information on the Web site for Americans for National Parks, a coalition of organizations that are lobbying Congress to address the needs of the National Park Service.


Use the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel to assess the student's poster based on the following criteria as specified in the rubric:

  • Completeness of the project
  • Effectiveness of the verbal message on the poster
  • Aesthetic composition of the visual image
  • Originality in incorporating and expressing his/her message
Extending the Learning

The artist George Catlin was not only concerned with preserving wildlife and wilderness, but also with protecting the Native Americans who lived in the west. Have students research the ways that the government did or did not protect the way of life of the Native Americans. Have them specifically research Catlin's efforts to draw attention to the Native Americans and their ways.

Have students research a local debate over land usage. (The debate may encompass the development of natural areas, zoning laws, environmental issues, etc.) Through research, students should develop a position on the debate. Have them produce a piece of art to represent their position. It may or may not take the same form as the poster outlined in the main lesson's Independent Activity section. If possible, have the students present their pieces to a local government official and "lobby" for their position.

Arrange a field trip to a national park and have students produce a piece of art reflecting their impressions of the experience.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

Eileen Ewald
Original Writer

Maryann Fox
Original Writer


  • Adams, Ansel. Our National Parks. Edited by Andrea G. Stillman and William A. Turnage. New York: Little Brown & Co., 1992.
  • O'Brien, Bob R. Our National Parks and the Search for Sustainability. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1999.
  • Stegner, Wallace. "The Best Idea We Ever Had." Marking the Sparrow's Fall: The Making of the American West. Edited by Page Stegner. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998, p. 137.
  • Sax, Joseph L. "America's National Parks: Their Principles, Purposes, and Prospects." In Natural History, October 1976, pp. 59-87.
  • Pitcaithley, Dwight T. "A Dignified Exploitation: The Growth of Tourism in the National Parks." Seeing and Being Seen: Tourism in the American West. Edited by David M. Wrobel and Patrick T. Long. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

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