One of the coolest and maybe least known activities at many national and state parks is the Junior Ranger Program. I don’t know why the National Park Service doesn’t market this more, because it is an amazing program for children and families. It is a perfect way to get your kids interested in the world around them and to complete some fun activities while also learning about the parks that you visit. It makes exploring the parks much more engaging for kids and adults both.
The latest (and longest) obsession for our 4 year old son has been pretending to be a park ranger. Thinking back, his obsession started soon after we encountered a bear on a local hike in LA. He was so enthralled and mesmerized by what he never knew lurked in the forests of our local hikes. Then at a “touch a truck” event where most kids are climbing over one another for a chance on the digger, my son was most interested in sitting in the Park Ranger’s pickup truck, sharing animal sighting stories with the ranger.
His modest interest and delight with all things nature was even more solidified after a visit to Yosemite National Park where he received his first Junior Ranger badge. Seeing other kids with badges and patches covering their junior ranger vests made his eyes light up. It was then that the badge obsession firmly took root.
Months later, he even had a park ranger themed birthday party and of course he dressed up as an adorable Park Ranger for Halloween. He regularly picks up liter on the streets, scolds people for feeding wild animals and loves to learn about the world around him. Much of this is due to what he has learned in the Junior Ranger programs.
This past summer we visited 3 national parks and one state park. It was during my research for our trip to Yosemite where I first learned about this program. It sounded like something great to do as a family and what better way to get an awesome (and free!) travel souvenir. We have now been to 5 National Park’s and several state parks in search of the golden badges.
To get started on your Junior Ranger badge, stop in at the visitor center and ask for a Junior Ranger Activity book. The booklets are free, but some parks have additional books that cost a nominal fee. For example, in Yosemite, there is a free program in the Yosemite paper as well as a booklet you can purchase, which has many more activities and gives you a button/patch in addition to the regular badge. For many parks you can also download the book from the park’s website in advance. Check out the National Park Service’s website listing all of the programs that are online.
The activity books separate activities by broad age ranges, some starting as young as age 3, but most beginning at age 4. Don’t get discouraged if your child is younger than the advertised age, the park rangers will still allow them to complete the book with your help.
Expecting our son to be mildly amused, but quickly bored by the activities in the books, we have actually found that he becomes super focused and excited about everything there is to see and do in the park once he receives his Junior Ranger Activity book. He walks quietly (which is a major feat for him!) on the trails listening to the noises, waiting for an animal to appear so he can cross it off his scavenger hunt bingo page. He investigates bobcat scat (poo), quickly announcing what the bobcat’s major source of food is (rabbit if you wondered) and then compares it to other scat he finds and writes his observations in his booklet (or we do actually!). He draws pictures of what he sees, completes matching games putting trash into the correct can or showing what foods are appropriate for a bear, and of course as a good junior ranger, always picking up any liter he sees along the way. He takes his job of completing his booklet very seriously.
There are also more demanding sections for the older children (and adults) such as Q&A’s on details about the park, it’s ecosystems, rock formations and it’s history, crossword puzzles and park ranger interviews. Some Junior Ranger programs also require that you participate in a ranger led activity, so plan to spend at least a few hours at the park to allow your child time to finish.
Once your child completes all of the activities for their age group, you can then return the completed booklet to the ranger station (or visitor station, nature center, etc) to be checked and signed off by a park ranger. The park rangers will usually ask the kids a few questions about what they learned or what their favorite activity was at the park. And then with great pomp and ceremony, the ranger will have your child raise their right hand and repeat the park ranger pledge to protect the park and all of it’s animals. The certificate will be signed and stamped and your child (or yourself!) will be presented with the super cool NPS badge specific to that location. You are now officially a Junior Park Ranger!
Even if you can’t get to all of the nation’s national parks, many of the Junior Ranger programs allow you to learn from afar to become a web ranger. Some parks will even send you your badge through the mail even if you haven’t been able to visit the park in person.
The most unique badge we have seen so far is the Muir Woods badge which is made out of redwood trees. A few other national parks in California are also experimenting with wooden badges which are pretty nice. However, the 4 year old in our house still thinks the ‘golden’ plastic badges are the best.
What’s so amazing about this program is that getting your child to hike several miles might not have been possible before, but now that they have activities to do, and tasks to cross off their list, they are no longer concerned with how far they are going or how tired their legs are. They are excited to see what is around the corner. The Junior Ranger program has been great for us as a family as well because we have explored places we never knew existed like the Chickasaw National Park in Oklahoma near where my mother lives and even places in our own backyard like the Santa Monica Mountains.
Oh, and another cool thing about the Junior Ranger Program is that anyone can do it, so feel free to join along with your child and earn your own badge! Have fun collecting as many as you can! Five down and 300+ to go for us.
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