Outdoor Challenge


Gov. McAuliffe at Mason Neck State Park 2014

Gov. McAuliffe at Mason Neck State Park 2014

In 2013, Coca-Cola Company provided a $50,000 grant to Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, Virginia, as a result of the “America is your Park” campaign, to support the design and development of an “Outdoor Challenge” exhibit that promotes a variety of healthy outdoor activities at the park through a simple point-based “challenge.”  The Outdoor Challenge exhibit was completed in spring 2014 and Governor Terry McAuliffe and First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe visited Mason Neck State Park for the “ribbon cutting” ceremony for this major exhibit.

The Outdoor Challenge concept is being expanded significantly into a statewide website-based initiative that will eventually be offered in every state park in Virginia.  The exhibit at Mason Neck State Park will serve as the prototype for Outdoor Challenge exhibits that will be developed in all 36 state park visitor centers in Virginia, supported by the robust Outdoor Challenge website.  The goal is to engage the 9 million annual state park visitors of all ages in diverse outdoor activities in Virginia’s state park system.


The statistics are alarming. American kids are leading more sedentary lifestyles than any previous generation. Figures show that the average child spends many hours a day focused on some type of electronic device, time that is NOT spent outdoors or engaged in physical activity. Our culture suffers from increasing childhood obesity and depression, attention deficit disorder and a new national malady, “Nature Deficit Disorder” – a growing demographic of Americans that has little to no contact with nature.

The solution to these problems has become clear: engage our kids (and all ages) in regular physical activity and exercise, and get kids into the outdoors. The Outdoor Challenge is being designed to achieve these goals by encouraging people of all ages to engage in a diversity of recreational activities in Virginia’s state parks. State parks are scattered throughout Virginia and are close to virtually every community. The state park system offers a wide variety of outdoor activity opportunities. The Outdoor Challenge accomplishes these objectives:

  • Get kids in contact with nature in a close-to-home and safe environment (state parks). Immersion in nature has been shown to have a calming effect on kids while engaging and stimulating their senses and stirring their curiosity about the natural world.
  • Get kids active while having fun doing so. Kids may be more inclined to play and recreate longer in a natural outdoor setting than in a controlled indoor setting.
  • Engage the whole family by providing a suite of outdoor activities that all can participate in. Parents will spend more time directly involved with their children, exploring and learning while simultaneously getting healthy outdoor exercise.

The Outdoor Challenge

What started as a single exhibit for one state park has turned into a statewide health initiative that will eventually impact millions of citizens. The combination of healthy and diverse activities in state parks offers a unique holistic approach to improving the health and well-being of our society.

The Outdoor Challenge concept has adopted the “keep it simple” approach: develop a suite of well-defined destination-based outdoor activities (challenges) in every state park in Virginia. Challenges will be diverse and will include walking/hiking, biking and canoeing/kayaking designated trails and routes, as well as other appropriate outdoor activities.   A minimum of 12 and perhaps as many as 30 challenges will be identified for each state park. Challenges will be park-specific.

An Outdoor Challenge website will be developed that provides instruction, lists all of the challenges by park, and allows challenge participants to create a personal log-in site and record their challenges as they are completed. Each state park will eventually receive a park-specific Outdoor Challenge exhibit that invites visitors to “become part of the challenge.”

Challenges will be accessible both from the Outdoor Challenge exhibits in each state park visitor center as well as on an accompanying statewide Outdoor Challenge mobile optimized website.

How It Works

Challenge participants will sign up by creating a user account and password on the Outdoor Challenge website (either in the park, on a mobile device or at home). In the parks, challenge participants will be directed (using the website, a downloadable app, or the park exhibit) to specific predefined locations within each park, for example, the end of a one-way land or water trail.

A “point of recording” will be established for each challenge. At each location, challenge participants will find a 5”x5” marker with the iconic Outdoor Challenge logo and the specific challenge name inscribed on it. The markers will likely be mounted on posts at conspicuous locations that signify the end of each challenge.

Once the marker has been located by the challenge participants, they are required to take a “selfie photo” of themselves and the marker sign, using a smart phone or camera. The images are then to be uploaded to their personal sites via the Outdoor Challenge website as proof of completion of the particular challenge. The placement of these photo opportunities will often be very photogenic locations within the parks.

Each challenge will be premeasured in terms of activity level and compared to various fitness tracking models including steps, total minutes, calories burned, etc. Additionally the challenges will be promoted as part of a healthy well balanced lifestyle, including educational messages about proper hydration and nutrition.

The challenges will take participants to some really great places and will include some of the parks’ most iconic locations, including historic and natural areas, overlooks, geologic formations, wildlife viewing areas etc. The challenges will include interpretive information for each of the destinations along the way.

The challenge can be personalized or shared with others using social media. Participants can challenge their friends to a congenial competition, thereby engaging more people in this fun and healthy program. For example, participants can challenge family, friends and colleagues to accept their challenge and join in. Participants can also choose to be part of statewide challenge competitions that will be set up that require them to travel to other parts of the state to complete in a defined time period.

As participants achieve certain predetermined goals, online rewards will be displayed. Leaderboards will help participants track their progress against other challengers.

What is Needed

In order for the Outdoor Challenge to become a statewide initiative, two distinct components of the program need to be developed. These include developing a statewide Outdoor Challenge website and designing and installing Outdoor Challenge exhibits in every Virginia state park visitor center. A system of rewards (points, certificates or badges, products and/or equipment) would provide greater incentives for more people to engage in the program.

Outdoor Challenge Website

A robust interactive website needs to be developed that accomplishes the following:

  • Lists and describes all of the diverse challenges in every state park, easily found on a park by park search;
  • Allows a person to log in at any time and from any place (including in the state park visitor centers), and to record and monitor his or her personal outdoor challenge accomplishments;
  • Allows a person to earn on-line badges and other incentive rewards;
  • Leaderboards and rankings will offer friendly competitive opportunities;
  • A participant’s personal challenge profiles can be shared with friends and relatives using social media networks.

The website software “WordPress” is an ideal Content Management System (CMS) for this proposed website. There is an “Achievement” plug-in to this software that allows for individualization of the site by any number of participants and that has a mechanism for challenge accomplishments to be accumulated and reward levels established.

 Outdoor Challenge Exhibits

The Outdoor Challenge exhibit at Mason Neck State Park will serve as the prototype for similar exhibits that will be developed in all 36 state park visitor centers throughout Virginia. Whereas the exhibit at Mason Neck is quite extensive, housing 8 synchronized video screens and two touch-screen interactive computer monitors, as well as a variety of large graphics in a 20-foot wall-to-wall arcade-style case, new park exhibits can be appropriately scaled and modified to accommodate the space and specific exhibit and challenge opportunities available in each of the remaining state park visitor centers.

Below is the proposed design for the majority of Outdoor Challenge exhibits in the various state parks. This version of the exhibit contains a back-lit “Outdoor Challenge” panel, a large flat-screen monitor and a touch-screen interactive computer, accompanied by large-sized graphics all embedded in an arcade-style exhibit frame.

Outdoor Challenge - generic concept

A dozen or more distinct challenges will be identified and designed, together with park staff , for each park. The challenges will range in difficulty level from easy to hard, and the time/distance will vary. The challenges will be described in each park’s Outdoor Challenge exhibit and on the website.

During this “Phase 2” of the Outdoor Challenge initiative, 12 additional state park visitor centers will receive Outdoor Challenge exhibits. Eventually, all state parks will have their own exhibits, designed specifically to the needs of each park.


  1. Outdoor Challenge Website
    1. Design, development of WordPress website
    2. Create template for listing & describing challenges
    3. Develop method for creating a personalized profile/log-in and recording each challenge
    4. Create system for recording cumulative points, identifying rewards
    5. Design Outdoor Challenge logo
  2. Outdoor Challenge Exhibits
    1. design & install exhibit housings
    2. identify and mark minimum of 12 challenges in each state park
    3. video-record virtual tours of each challenge
    4. develop video and graphics for each exhibit
    5. interactive hardware and flat-screen monitor for each exhibit
    6. internet connection for each exhibit, where possible
    7. marker posts with Outdoor Challenge signs – construct & install