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Go Ask Mom

Celebrating, connecting: This dad builds experiences for visitors at state parks

Posted May 29

Editor's Note: We feature local moms on Go Ask Mom every Monday, except in June when we feature dads in honor of Father's Day. And we're starting a little early this year! Meet Sean Higgins.

On the books, Sean Higgins has a job. The official title is interpretation and education manager for the North Carolina State Parks system. In reality, that job is really more of a lifestyle.

On vacation, he takes note of a trail surface, for instance, or pulls ideas for the next park program for kids. And, he spends countless hours in the state's 41 parks, including with his wife and their kids - a six-year-old and 18-month-old twins.

"I love it," said Higgins."It's a matter of not having enough hours to do everything I want. It's really not a job."

Higgins helps develop programs and experiences for visitors at state parks across North Carolina. Those include everything from visitor center exhibits to guided hikes, field trips and the junior ranger program. His goal is to help them celebrate and connect with the different locations, so they can appreciate the natural beauty of the site, along with the history of the place.

He wants visitors to come with a picnic, but leave with knowledge and respect for the land. (Fun fact, for instance, a century ago, Umstead State Park, where I met up with Higgins last week, was farm land and had almost no trees. It's also considered the 30th largest urban park in the world).

He designs programs for all ages, but he enjoys seeing kids exploring trails or picking up crayfish for the very first time. He said it's a park ranger's job to act as a "nature coach," smoothing the way for visitors to build their own experiences in the woods or along the river.

"It opens their eyes and gets them to just discover," he said. "And I see things differently when I get kids out."

He's also using lessons learned as a dad, himself, as he plans programs. He'll never forget the day when his oldest child was about four. Higgins and his wife were planning an excursion to Umstead, but his son spoke up.

"He said, 'No, not Umstead. That's just hiking. I want to play,'" Higgins remembers.

That simple interaction forced Higgins to take a different look at how kids experience a place like Umstead. For them, just a walk through the woods might be as appealing as an afternoon shopping for antiques. Since then, Higgins has upped his game, coming up with activities, songs and destinations that get all of his kids excited about exploring parks.

"Let them be in front and follow them," he said.

The state park system also is working on ways to encourage kids to interact and appreciate nature more, Higgins tells me. It opened a nature playground at Lake James State Park in western North Carolina a couple of years ago. There are plans for more, thanks to the NC Connect Bond Package, including one at Eno River State Park in Durham.

Higgins is particularly excited about the upcoming Triangle Volksmarch, the second year for the event which showcases four outdoor destinations - the Museum Park at the N.C. Museum of Art, Prairie Ridge Ecostation, Schenck Forest and Umstead State Park. The event, which is June 4, marks National Trails Day.

At each of the locations, you'll find activities for kids and adults - walking stick decorating at the art museum, citizen science at Prairie Ridge, games and Smokey Bear at Schenck Forest and box turtle survival skills at Umstead.

From there, visitors can go on quick hikes at each spot. If you do all four, you'll walk about 5.5 miles. You can drop in at any time, do one or more hikes and then, if you want, meet up for an after party at Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Cameron Village. Be sure to pick up a passport and get it stamped at each location to earn a Triangle Volksmarch patch.  The Triangle Volksmarch website has much more information.

The event is styled after similar ones in Europe.

"There are a lot of great competitive 5Ks, Ironmans and triathlons," Higgins said. "There aren't very many non-competitive, self-paced walking challenges."

I'll have much more from Higgins over the next few weeks as he shares tips for getting kids to embrace hikes (including some of his favorite games) and some of his best-loved family-friendly hikes within an hour of the Triangle. Watch the video to learn more about Triangle Volksmarch.

Go Ask Mom features moms every Monday. In June, we feature dads. Happy Father's Day!

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