I’m a National Park junkie. I love taking my family to National Parks. Living on the Colorado Plateau, we have our choice of 22 parks just in Colorado and Utah, and we’ve tried to cover them all, as well as any other parks we come across in our travels. In addition to the obvious reasons for going to a National Park — you know natural beauty, nice campgrounds, good hiking, history, unique landscapes — we discovered another big draw with our boys: The incredible NPS Junior Ranger program.
What’s A Junior Ranger?
The National Park Service Junior Ranger program is designed for kids ages 4 or 5 up to age 12. Each NPS site has different criteria, so the ages can vary, but generally if you’ve got a preschool age child on up to 5th grade, he or she can become a Junior Ranger. The process is easy. When you get to the park, go to the Visitor’s Center and ask for a Junior Ranger booklet. These booklets contain games, activities and information about the park you’re visiting.
The booklets also have a list of criteria that you need to complete to earn a Junior Ranger badge or patch. Usually, the requirements vary by age, with the most challenging list reserved for pre-teens. Some parks require you to watch a movie at the Visitor’s Center or to attend an interpretive session with a ranger.
Some parks require you to do some community service. I will never forget picking up trash with my boys at Arches National Park. We filled our bags in record time with auto parts. Believe it or not, someone had dumped (okay, maybe spilled) a pile of parts right near the entrance. The real Rangers were thrilled that we’d hauled them to the trash and my boys felt a tremendous amount of pride in helping to clean up the Park.
Another great Junior Ranger memory came when we took our boys backpacking at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. When we checked into the backcountry office, they received their books and pencils and tucked them into their packs. After we’d hiked in and set up camp, there was no question of boredom, they were so excited to complete their books that they worked on them all afternoon.
See More, Learn More, Have More Fun
I can honestly say that the NPS Junior Ranger program enriched my boys’ young lives. It introduced them to geology, biology and botany. It taught them revolutionary history on travels up and down the East Coast. They learned about conservation and the importance of stewardship and the value of our Park system to future generations. But most of all, the Junior Ranger program provided a gentle bit of structure and motivation for making the most out of any visit to a National Park. We saw more, learned more, discovered more and enjoyed our visits to each park more, because of this program.
If you’re headed to a National Park site this summer (and this includes Monuments and Historic Sites run by the NPS), ask for the Junior Ranger booklet. It’s free. It’s fun. And the payoff is so much more than a badge or patch.
When You Go…
For more information on the amazing, outstanding and very cool NPS Junior Ranger program, and for a listing, with links, of the parks with Junior Ranger activities, please visit this National Park Service website. You can also visit the website for each park to find out more about specific programs. The program has become so popular, that some parks even have programs for Moms and Dads.
If you can’t get away to a National Park this summer, your kids don’t have to be left out. Visit the NPS WebRangers site and sign up to play 50 games and learn about the National Parks. Over 200,000 kids are registered on the WebRanger site and over 9,800 have earned their badges!
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