Explore, Learn, and Protect: The Shining Jewel of the National Park Service Is the Junior Ranger Program

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Hi, my name is Jamie, and I’m addicted to the National Park Service. And even though it’s not hereditary, I’ve passed on my addiction to my kids. I’m not sorry.

When it comes to the National Park Service, my family and I are pretty much fanatical groupies. Please, no sympathy. We own it and aren’t ashamed. In fact, we wear our NPS nerdiness with pride. Quite literally, in my kids’ case.

We make it a point to include NPS sites in our travels as much as possible. One of the first things I do when thinking about a new vacation or long weekend is search NPS sites to see if any are nearby. We’ve been known to drive a few hours out of the way just to hit a National Historic Site or National Memorial. I could talk for hours about the beauty and importance of the National Park Service. I could talk for days about the many wonderful locations (some well-known, some you’ve never heard of) dotted across the country. But those are subjects for another post.

I’m also not ashamed to admit my complete and total addiction to the Passport stamp program. I’m currently working on my second book. And my kids have both recently begun their first, just as addicted as I am. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Oh boy, you’re missing out. But that’s the subject of another post.

In case you haven’t heard, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. And they’re celebrating in style. We’ve had our party hats on since January and don’t plan to take them off until they turn out the lights and tell us to go home.

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“Explore, Learn, and Protect!”

I want to talk to you today about the Junior Ranger program. If you have kids, the Junior Ranger program is without question one of the best things you can do in any NPS location. In a nutshell, kids (generally ages 5-13) are given a booklet with activities specific to the site they’re visiting. The activities are designed to immerse kids in the history, culture, environment, and natural resources of the location.

If it’s a national park, the activities will likely focus on the plants, wildlife, and geography of the park. If it’s a national battlefield, the activities will likely focus on the relevant people and events that made the place historic. I think you get the picture. Almost all of them encourage kids to get out and about the park to answer the questions, and many involve some sort of “scavenger hunt” that requires kids to interact with the park (and park rangers) and be active visitors exploring the place in a way that’s much more exciting and educational than a passive (and potentially boring) walk-through.

In short, they become engaged with the park. It becomes an active, vibrant place that’s very much alive, and their experience with it is infinitely more memorable.

Each park has a different program that reflects the specifics of that place, but the basic idea is generally the same: complete the assigned task, get “sworn in” by a park ranger, and be awarded a Junior Ranger badge for that park. The badges are the real reward. If your kids are anything like mine, they’re little packrats….erm, I mean “collectors.” In much the same way as the passport stamps are an incentive to visit new sites, the Junior Ranger badges are an incredible incentive to both visit new sites AND learn something. Win-win, amirite?

At 4 and 7, my kids are relative newcomers to the Junior Ranger program, but if their haul from the past month is any indication, they’re in it to win it.

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We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how diverse the programs are at each park. We’ve seen everything from a simple one-page list of questions to a full-blown role-playing experience. That one – at Fort Frederica National Monument in Georgia – managed to turn what could’ve been a dull walk around a grassy field (there’s not much left of the fort and surrounding town) into my daughter’s favorite Junior Ranger experience so far. They handed her a 12-page booklet (with pop-ups and removable maps and letters) and a shoulder bag stocked with a compass, spyglass, candle, protractor, and lots more. You had my daughter at hello.

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Role-playing at Fort Frederica

There are, currently, 411 National Park Service locations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Not every site has a Junior Ranger program, so it’s a good idea to do a little homework before heading out to a site. Visit nps.gov, find the site you’re interested in, and then navigate to “Kids & Youth” (nestled in the “Learn About the Park” pull-down menu). If the park has a Junior Ranger program, the information will be there.

Alternatively, visit this site for a master list of all NPS sites with Junior Ranger programs. We’re using it as a checklist.

Depending on your kid, your mileage may vary with some of the programs, but my kids are obsessed. Depending on their age, it’s also expected that you’ll be involved in the process to some extent. We’ve found that the programs can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, so make sure you dedicate some time to the activities. Enjoy the process, and don’t rush it.

Who knows, you may even learn something and want to start collecting Junior Ranger badges yourself!

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