America's most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offers terrific learning opportunities in many subject areas: history, social studies, music, biology, geology, anthropology, art…. Well, you get the idea. The park is like an 800+-square mile outdoor classroom with many learning opportunities including ranger-led programs designed especially for kids.
Here are five suggestions to help you get started on a lesson plan.
- Smoky Mountain Arts & Crafts Community: Learn how to do that. More than 120 studios, galleries and shops make up the community of artisans, along an 8-mile circuit now designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail. You'll feel that you've stepped back in time as you watch blacksmiths, potters, silversmiths, wood carvers, basket weavers, and others create beautiful works of art and handmade utilitarian objects.
The artists and crafts people always have time to talk with visitors and are delighted share their skills. Who knows? A member of your family may inspired to join the next generation of crafts people who keep these traditions alive.
- Biodiversity Studies: Discover who and what lives in the park. At the grand old age of approximately 200 million years, the Smokies are some of the world's oldest mountains. According to the National Park Service: "over 17,000 species have been documented in the park." Scientists believe that tens of thousands of other species live there as well. The opportunities to study native plants, animals, and geologic features are almost endless.
Get your budding young scientists involved in environmental study with materials developed by the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) special project. Learn about – and see first hand – the damage caused by invasive species. Enjoy foliage at the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. It offers a variety of nature walks, seminars, and other activities that offer hand-on learning about the plants of the Smoky Mountains.
- Bluegrass Festivals: Hear & play that mountain music. Bluegrass was born in the hills, and the Smoky Mountains ring with traditional tunes year round. Some gatherings, like the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival combine music and folk dancing, while others are strictly music. Festivals and conventions range from small street fairs to large gatherings of several thousand participants. Here's a partial list of bluegrass and traditional music events.
Almost every festival offers opportunities for musicians at all skill levels to jam with others. If your family is at all musical, these gatherings are great ways to hone existing skills, learn more about the area, and meet people with similar interests.
- Cades Cove & Mountain Farm Museum: See how the pioneers lived: Cade's Cove, a small pioneer community complete with cabins, churches, and businesses, is one of the park's most popular attractions. Although it's now easily accessible by road, the community was once so isolated that a trip to town was a three-day affair. A tour of the area shows how even remote communities managed to meet the everyday needs of members. The cove is also offers a useful Civics lesson: the residents resisted being incorporated into the new national park and finally had their property taken via eminent domain.
At the Mountain Farm Museum, visit a collection of farm buildings that were moved from other locations within the park during the 1950's. Learn about life in the Smoky Mountains 100 years ago – including agriculture, livestock, and gardening practices.
- Cherokee, NC: Learn the story of a Native American tribe. Appalachian cultural history didn't start with the Scottish and Irish settlers who traveled South from the more populated East Coast. Learn about the previous settlers – the Cherokee Nation – on the reservation located near Cherokee, NC.
The Oconaluftee Indian Village is a chance to step back in time and see how people lived before the first European settlers arrived. The chance to see native crafts people at work is the perfect complement to a visit to the Smoky Mountain Arts & Crafts community, and there are crafts classes specially-designed for kids.
The live drama Unto These Hills tells the story of the Cherokee nation, from the creation of the world to the Trail of Tears to present time.
An added benefit is that many of these study opportunities are easy to reach by car and most are located just a few miles from the town of Gatlinburg, TN. It's a popular tourist destination that offers many family entertainment, shopping, and dining options. Lodging choices include: camping, Smoky Mountain cabin rentals, hotels, and B&Bs. Most have long-term stay & rental options, offer splendid mountain views, and are conveniently located near the park.
The Smokies have a lot to offer; plan to stay a while and learn while you enjoy this breathtaking natural setting.