Advancing equity in the outdoors, starting with students, through a system-wide model of change by building access to natural learning spaces in the backyards of schools and empowering teachers and students to use those spaces.
Trails K12 is an ambitious initiative to offer creative, innovative, and effective outdoor learning spaces to every public school in Rockingham County by the end of 2024.
Traditionally outdoor classrooms are designed to be stationary places. Trails K12 is all about movement through linear classrooms along thoughtfully designed trails on school campuses.
UNCG Moss Street Partnership School led the way with the trail opening on May 28, 2021 on their campus. Within 2 weeks of opening, every student attending classes had visited the trail at least once.
Designing trails for school campuses take experience and special reflection. Gateways, signage, trail tread and width are just a few of the components to carefully consider when designing for schools.
School trails designed with intention and the involvement of educators serve as a structural framework for inspiration and possibilities to enhance the trail for students.
Trails K12 was conceived through a collaboration between RCEF and RoundRock Design. Project partners on various school campuses include PTOs, Rockingham County Schools, City of Reidsville, Dan River Basin Association, and Good Stewards of Rockingham.
If you would like to learn more about Trails K12 or have a discussion for how to bring the initiative to your school - even if you are outside of Rockingham County, NC - please reach out to us. We are very excited about this initiative and would be delighted to share what we've learned and to explore how we may be able to assist in a similar project for your school.
Want to volunteer?
We're building trails and other outdoor learning spaces at local schools. It is fun and energizing to build something great. No special knowledge needed, and we have volunteer opportunities for all ages. Email Jenny at firstname.lastname@example.org, and she'll find a fit for you, your business, your church, or your youth group.
Fifteen years ago, Richard Louv legitimized what many parents, educators, and social workers felt intuitively: connection to the natural world is vital to healthy childhood development. In his landmark book, Louv traced links between what he termed “nature deficient disorder” to the devastating and rising childhood trends of obesity, ADHD, and depression. He launched an international movement to study, document, and inspire the re-wilding of children. Since then, hundreds of studies involving children and nature have been undertaken.
Mounting evidence shows that green education and nature-based learning environments increase levels of friendship bonding, improve academic performance, and enhance a sense of physical and mental well-being. One study found “a significant, positive relationship between tree cover and reading performance, signifying that initiatives aimed at increasing tree canopy in student environments could support academic success.” While playgrounds and trees in mowed green spaces around schools are valuable, they are not enough to universally improve test scores. To make wider gains, research suggests that interactions with the natural world “need to be integrated at multiple scales, from landscaping around homes, schools, and childcare centers, to linked systems of urban trails, greenways, parks, and ‘rough ground’ for children’s creative play.”
Trails K12 is also an equity in outdoor spaces opportunity. The Trust for Public Land assessed availability of parks within a 10-minute walk in almost every American city. Reidsville (at 37%) ranks significantly below the national average (at 55%) of residents within a 10-minute walk of a park, and this cuts across lines of racial identity and income. If only access was the sole answer. The assessment does not reflect the racial identity of park visitors nor the cultural and socio-economic constraints on outdoor engagement arising from a multi-faceted impairment of “early formative experiences that carry over into adulthood” and provide “skills, knowledge, and appreciation of the great outdoors…”. By engaging school children on safe, managed trails and green education, Trails K12 will help provide outdoor experiences that otherwise may not be available to them.
 “The Benefits of Children's Engagement with Nature: A Systematic Literature Review,” Gill, Tim, Greening Early Childhood Education, University of Cincinnati, 2014
 “Impact of outdoor nature-related activities on gut microbiota, fecal serotonin, and perceived stress in preschool children: The Play & Grow randomized controlled trial,” Sobko, Tanja, Liang, Suisha, Cheng, H.G., Tun, Heim M. Sobko, Suisha Liang, Will H. G. Cheng & Hein M. Tun, PubMed, National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2020.
Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations, Kahn, Jr., Peter H., Kellert, Stephen K., The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2002. “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress among Rural Children,” Wells, Nancy M., Evans, Gary W., Journal of Environment and Behavior, May 2003.
“Psychological benefits of a biodiversity-focused outdoor learning program for primary school children,” Harvey, Deborah J., Montgomery, Louise N., Harvey, Hannah, Hall, Felix, Gange, Alan C.,Watlinga, Dawn, “Journal of Environmental Psychology,” February 2020.
 “Green urban landscapes and school-level academic performance,” Hodson, Cody B., Sander, Heather A. “Landscape and Urban Planning, April 2017.
 “School Green Space and Its Impact on Academic Performance: A Systematic Literature Review,” Browning, Matthew, Rigolon, Alessandro, Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, 2019.
 “Benefits of Nature Contact for Children,” Chawla, Louise, Journal of Landscape Planning, July 2015.
 “People of Color and Their Constraints to National Parks Visitation,” Scott, David, Jerry Lee, Kang Fae, The George Wright Forum, vol. 35, 2018.
Sustainable trail design
Trail conservation offers meaningful occasions for connecting communities to schools, reducing any burden on school maintenance staff. There is an important ingredient to that secret sauce: constructing resilient trails.
Have a look at what that means in practice.
The trail at Western Rockingham Middle School was constructed in 2016 by RoundRock Design and the current RCEF staff and had not been used since spring of 2020 at the time remote learning went into effect due to COVID-19. Trail use is the most important factor in keeping a trail corridor open. To compound matters, WRMS trail was hit by significant rain events in May 2020 and November 2020 that brought the adjacent Big Beaver Island Creek to moderate flood stage. The creek is a significant tributary to the Dan River just below Lindsey Bridge. On both occasions, the Dan was within feet of washing over the bridge. In December 2020, a high wind weather event added additional debris to the trail.
The “before & after” photos below show the Western Rockingham Middle School prior to volunteers and after 11 adult and teen volunteers spent just an a hour and half on the trail - and this was after more than a year of non-use of the trail.
At it's core ...
Trails K12 is a movement to get kids outside, in the backyards of their schools, in their natural spaces, for structured and unstructured time. Both are vital to nurturing creative thinking and developing the whole child.
Our priority is academic achievement followed closely by improved childhood health, but the initiative is also a strategy for equitably opening the joys and benefits of the natural world for the next generation. We owe them our best efforts to situate their childhoods and education in the great outdoors. Trails K12 pays dividends now in improved academics, and later in life, as they mature into adults with an appreciation for the great outdoors.
Trails K12 Partners & Supporters
Booker T Washington Learning Center
Dalton L. McMichael