During the 5 years that we have been on the road, one of the activities that we have consistently tried to do is to visit our country’s National Parks no matter where we are at. We want to introduce our children to the wonders of God’s creation, and we love that National Parks make that so easy! So far, we have spent time in over 90 locations in the National Park system. Each is so unique, and has it’s own special attributes; things that we would like to share with our children.
NPS’s Jr. Ranger program is a great resource for getting the most out of your national park visit! Jr. Rangers complete a booklet or worksheets at the park you are visiting, and they earn a plastic badge, and sometimes an embroidered patch. The program is typically geared for students ages 5 to 13, but anyone, of any age, can participate! When we were at the Grand Canyon, doing one of our first JR booklets, a group of retired ladies traveling together saw the kids working, and asked the ranger if they could do it too! We also have kids older than 13 that consistently do the program.
So, since the Jr. Ranger program is so near and dear to us, we thought we’d do our best to introduce other families to it also! Here is the low-down…
Most National Park System locations offer the Jr. Ranger program (these are national parks, national historic sites, national recreation areas, national battlefields…). If you are planning on visiting a national park, and would like to find out if they have a JR program, you can visit nps.gov – find the park, and on the lefthand side of the park’s page, if there is a ‘for kids’ button, click there (if there isn’t, call the park and ask – we have found some where the website isn’t up to date). Depending on the park page, that link may lead you to a page that tells about their JR program, or there may be another link within that page. For some parks, it will explain what their program is like, and for other parks, you have the option to download the booklet and print it off at home. We usually wait and get our booklets at the national park (they are nicer than home printed ones, and I don’t have to buy ink as often), but there are a few times we have printed off the booklets in our RV. Usually only if we know we will be very pressed for time at the park, or if it is a park that we know will be intriguing and we will want to spend as much of our time sightseeing as possible, then we will get a head start on the activities by printing off the books and letting the kids start them at home or on the drive to the park.
*Because we are JR groupies we keep a few things in our van just for doing the program, namely sharp pencils, colored pencils (don’t melt in the car like crayons), and clipboards…
*we keep a few items in the van just for Jr. Ranger days – sharpened pencils, colored pencils (don’t melt like crayons do), and clipboards!
Booklets vary greatly from park to park. We have experienced everything from a single easy worksheet, to others that have pushed 20 pages and been very intensive. A few parks offer multiple programs, for example, Harper’s Ferry offers 3 different levels of programs – Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master; because we only had one day to visit this park, our oldest boys spent the entire day immersed in the work of earning all 3. They did it, but I wouldn’t recommend it! lol. We just visited the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, and found when we got there that they offered 3 different programs: their own Chickasaw NRA booklet, a wildfire fighter worksheet, and a new Oklahoma National Parks booklet that covered the 3 parks in OK. There are others that offer multiple booklets, but most do not specify on their webpage.
*walking in to Old Bent’s Fort in Colorado to do their JR program
When we get to a national park, the first thing we do is make a bee-line to the visitor’s center. Here we find a ranger and ask if we can do the Jr. Ranger program. The booklets are free at the majority of parks, but there are a few high use parks like Zion and Jamestown that charge a nominal fee for each booklet (usually $1, but we’ve seen up to $2.50).
When you get your booklet, the ranger will usually go over what you need to do to qualify for the badge. If they don’t, look inside the cover for instructions. Sometimes there are separate books for different ages, sometimes it’s the same book but each age group has different pages they need to do. If it is the same book, usually each age group is signified by a different picture – if the picture for that child’s age bracket is printed in the corner of the page, then they need to do that page (or a certain number of those pages).
(I have found that the rangers aren’t exacting on age range – I want my child to be challenged, but I don’t want to be there all day or have them reduced to tears. I have one that I consistently bump up, and another that sometimes gets held back depending on the level of writing work. I look through the booklet(s) first and determine who gets which work.)
*checking out the touch table at Big Hole Memorial in MT
We immediately walk the littles through their books so we both have an idea of what they need to do – it can be frustrating to find out that you missed doing something at the museum/visitor’s center after you have already left to go tour the park, or realize that you didn’t get a specific piece of information off a plaque you already drove by…
After we have paged through the booklet, then it’s time to get busy. Usually, we do the museum part of the booklet first. If the v.c. isn’t busy, the kids make themselves at home, spread out, and get to work…
*getting to work at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in OK
Usually the booklets are pretty interactive. The kids will have some activities that they can do anywhere, like word finds, mazes, or matching activities. There will be other activities tho that they have to dig to find the answers for; fill in the blanks, questions about what you would have done, and lots of ‘observe nature’ writing. Sometimes it means watching a film, reading displays, or searching for a certain exhibit. Activities are usually educational, and are park specific, meaning that they will be learning about the particular person, place, or historical event that the park is about.
*Listening to a exhibit to learn the info she needs to complete her booklet at the Big Hole National Memorial in Montana
It almost always means exploring the outdoors side of the park. Sometimes there will be the requirement to visit a certain part of the park like a spring or a historic place and to find information displayed there.
*Reading about Providence Spring at the Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia
Lots of times there is the requirement to pick up a few pieces of trash (which, believe it or not, can actually be difficult in some of the higher use parks!), sometimes you have to attend a ranger-led program, occasionally you have to watch the park film (nearly all parks have one or more), and some parks have trails you need to explore.
*walking a trail at De Soto National Memorial in Florida
While it sounds like a lot of work, there is usually a list of these activities to choose from, and you only need to complete a certain amount of them; you can choose which activities best suit your interests and time constraints. We have found that the Junior Ranger program, on average, takes about 2 hours to complete (of course this varies by park, and by child!)
*Waiting on Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Once your child has completed their work (I personally require that my children do as much as they can, not just meet the minimums), then it’s time to find a ranger again! The ranger will look through the child’s work individually, often asking them questions about what they observed and learned in their visit to the national park.
*Getting their Jr. Ranger booklets checked by the rangers at the Oklahoma City National Memorial in Oklahoma.
After checking that the child has completed what they needed to do, the ranger will fill out and sign a certificate stating that your child is a Jr. Ranger for that park (often these are printed on the last page of the JR booklet)…
*The rangers fill out a certificate for the kids once they’ve completed their JR work
Then the last order of business is the Jr. Ranger pledge. It often varies slightly from park to park, but is basically a pledge to keep the parks clean, learn more about them and share that knowledge with friends, and to take care of the wildlife (or some version of that). My favorite is when the ranger also makes the kids promise to keep their rooms clean for the following 36 hours ;)
*Getting sworn in at the Arkansas Post National Memorial (AR)
The ranger then hands out the plastic badges the kids have earned, and on occasion the park has embroidered ones also (sometimes they get both, sometimes they have to chose between the two).*In the Amistad National Recreation Area (TX), the kids earned both badges and patches!
The ranger usually shakes their hand or congratulates them, and off we go! Another badge/park down. only about 300 more to go! lol.
*Ranger handing out their badges at Biscayne National Park in Florida
There have been a few times that we have just not been able to complete the program while we were physically at the park. In those few instances, we have been able to mail the booklets back to the parks, and they have mailed the kids their badges. Not ideal, but it works in a bind.
The national park system currently has just over 400 sites, and most of them have Jr. Ranger programs! That’s a lot of badges! We have only been to just over 90 parks, but the kids have earned over 100 badges or patches. When we initially began our journey, we purchased special JR vests. I don’t regret that decision, but if you are also planning on purchasing JR vests, I do have a few suggestions. If you buy a vest, buy the plain ones, not the ones with all the pockets; the pockets take up a lot of room, and quickly fill up. Also, buy the vests too big; if you will be collecting over time, and especially if you are going to sew on patches, buy a couple of years ahead – ripping off patches and having to resew on a bigger vest is no fun. Trust me. *yep, had to rip these off and resew onto a bigger vest :/
The Jr Ranger program is really incredible! We (mom and dad too) have learned so much more at the parks that we would have by just visiting! The program gets the kids involved and interested in learning about the site/history, and they are more vested in the visit. We count it as part of our roadschooling! ;)
Not everyone has the ability/opportunity to travel to the extent that we do. But in addition to visiting the national parks near your home, there are even more Jr. Ranger programs that you can access from the comfort of your couch!
Web Rangers is a special online extension of the program. Kids of all ages can create an account and do tons of varied online activities, they earn online badges, and after they earn a certain number of badges, they can earn a real, exclusive-to-the-program patch which is mailed to them (mine have theirs sewn on their vests). My kids LOVED this program (and ask to do it again) – the kids learn about wildlife, history, and nature through enjoyable yet educational and engaging games and activities. You can find the intro to the program at WebRangers – the NPS’s online Jr Ranger program. The program is easy to log into and navigate, and it’s a lot of fun!
The National Park Service also has a few Jr. Ranger programs that you can print off at home, complete, and mail in for your badge (they will mail it back to you at no cost). You can find a Lewis & Clark set of worksheets here (click on the underlined Jr. Ranger activities on that page), and there are a few more on this page at nps.gov (this page also has a little intro to the JR program). Be sure to look through the downloads before you print them off – I couldn’t find an address to mail the cool ‘exploring wilderness’ one off to (so won’t be printing that one off). On this page is also a link to most park Jr. Ranger pages so you can learn a little more about each park’s program.
*The Tribe before earning their badges at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in OK
The National Park Service’s Jr. Range program can be an incredible educational tool, especially if you are able to visit any of our country’s national parks! Check it out and see if it is a good fit for your family!