America's Best Idea

Explore the grandeur of U.S. National Parks in Ken Burns' new PBS series

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

America’s best idea was to preserve its natural beauty through the National Park system. Ken Burns’ best idea may have been to make a documentary for PBS on those parks.

The series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, begins airing on September 27 on Public Broadcasting Service channels. Known for his award winning documentaries on jazz and the Civil War, Burns said this project goes beyond documenting history.

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“The National Parks are where we go to re-remember why we’re Americans,” Burns told Scholastic Kids Press Corps. “It’s where we get to see a glimpse of what things used to be, not 150 years ago when the land was set aside by the government, but 15,000 years ago.”

Burns worked for six years on the project.  The film traces the birth of the national park idea in the mid-1800s to today. It tells the stories of the people who help create and save the 58 national parks and 333 national monuments and historic sites in the park system.

“Each individual park had someone who fell in love with it, and often worked there for their whole lives to save the park,” he said. “ These people aren’t just white. They’re black and brown and red and white and yellow. It’s a very nationally diverse story.”

Telling such stories through documentary filmmaking is something Burns says happened by accident.

“I really wanted to be a feature filmmaker,” he said. His teachers, however, had a different idea. “They reminded me that there’s much more drama in what is, and what was (history), than in anything out of the human imagination.”

That led to a life of telling the stories of human history. “I think I have the best job in the country,” he said.

At the age of five, Burns went camping for the first time. His father, who, he said, usually did not spend much time with him, took him to the National Park in Shenandoah, Virginia. “We camped out, and he took me to this cabin,” he said. “We took hikes. I particularly remember his grip when holding my hand.”

It’s that kind of memorable experience he hopes his documentary will open up to the kids of America.

“I hope that kids will begin to bug their parents to take them to national parks,” he said. “Kids today spend so much time with their video games, and TV, and online, that they think that a virtual existence is an existence. But it’s not. Kids don’t get out as much. So I want people to say, ‘that’s a cool place, I’d like to visit there for real.’”

For more information on the latest Burns documentary, spend just a little more time on the Internet checking out the PBS site. Then starting planning your trip to a National Park!

  • Subjects:
    American History, Outdoor Activities and Recreation, Social Perspectives on Science
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Scholastic Kids Press Corps

The Scholastic Kids Press Corps was a team of about 50 Kid Reporters around the nation that brought news to life with reporting for kids, by kids.