“Parks to People” Brings the Natural World to Online Audiences


The Park District’s interpretive and recreation programs and activities have traditionally been taught live at our visitor centers or out in the parks. The Shelter-in-Place order changed everything for Park District staff, with the sudden closure of all visitor centers and being restricted to working from home. Fortunately, there were projects in the works that would enable them to bring their live classes and activities to a larger audience through a digital platform.

Naturalists and outdoor recreation staff were already developing content for short educational videos to cover some of their interpretive topics. A collection of new videos called Creature Features, published daily on Facebook since the end of March, spotlights natural wonders found throughout the parks and was shot entirely by Park District staff working from home to replace their regular live programs. A new Park District web page, Parks to People, was launched soon thereafter and is now home to the Digital Learning program, offering virtual reality park tours, nature and field study videos and downloadable activities and games.

“The digital offerings at the Park District expanded greatly during the crisis,” said Anne Kassebaum, Chief of Interpretive and Recreation Services. “The stay-at-home order elevated the importance of virtual learning and our naturalists and outdoor recreation staff have risen to the challenge.

“The Park District’s online interface may be some youths’ first introduction to nature, but we really hope these initial online experiences encourage people to go out and experience nature in person,” she added.

In addition to the Creature Features videos on Facebook, the Park District’s YouTube channel now hosts the recently-produced Digital Learning videos. The Park District’s first-ever YouTube Premiere event takes place Saturday, May 23 at 7:00 pm, Virtual Campfire Program: Nature Detectives – The Search for Animal Signs. This “live” campfire activity will feature Naturalist Morgan Guenther, already known for her Sunday morning Songs and Stories Facebook videos, singing songs and showing viewers how to search for animal signs while they “camp” at home. Viewers will be able to chat live with Guenther while the video plays and it remains online afterward to replay.

The Park District is also delving into new, cutting-edge technology. One exciting example is its collaboration with TimeLooper, a company that combines virtual reality with interpretation for an immersive educational experience, to create Virtual and Augmented Reality Park Experiences. By downloading the TimeLooper app to a smart phone or tablet, people can now explore Regional Parks through virtual reality. In addition, the Park District and Timelooper have launched a new East Bay Parks: Virtual Tour app, which allows people to interact with an augmented reality version of the East Bay.

“People can hop across a 3-D map appearing right in front of them to virtually visit some of the Regional Parks,” commented Supervising Naturalist Kevin Damstra, who worked closely on the project. “It’s one more way the Park District has used digital media to introduce nature and educate the community during the stay-at-home orders.”

To further expand its educational programs throughout COVID-19, the Park District has worked to provide digital interpretive media for schools and families and is now part of a partnership with Alameda County to develop some curriculum-based digital content.

Digital learning and virtual reality technology have brought a new level of interpretive education to visitors on home computers or in classrooms. When the stay-at-home orders are lifted and programs begin again in the parks, the Digital Learning program will continue on as a major component of the Park District’s interpretation and recreation services.

Jennifer Vanya, Public Information Specialist