A program that’s been getting Western North Carolina kids outside since 2016 is now a statewide offering, with a whirlwind tour of 10 North Carolina state parks over the next couple weeks celebrating ecoEXPLORE’s arrival at all 41 park units.

“There’s a lot of benefits to being outdoors,” said Jonathan Marchal, youth education manager at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville. “A lot of times it’s almost like a competition — you can go outside and be screen-free, or you can go indoors and be completely immersed in a screen. I think one approach that is helpful is utilizing those items like smartphones as tools to explore the environment, and not just as tools to explore the environment but to engage kids in doing conservation work.”

That’s just what ecoEXPLORE, a program the arboretum developed, aims to do.

Originally launched through a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, ecoEXPLORE encourages kids to go outside, make observations about nature, and record those observations with a smartphone camera. Participants earn points for each observation, and the points can then be cashed in for prizes like binoculars, butterfly nets and flower presses. They can earn badges, too. Each change in season brings with it a change in the badge that could potentially be claimed. Right now it’s herpetology season — participants who complete the herpetology challenge, which includes making six observations of reptiles or amphibians and attending an upcoming event at the arboretum, will get the Herpetology Field Badge.

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