My first memory with the Junior Ranger program was when I was about 7 or 8 years old and my family spent some time in the Great Smokey Mountains. After getting settled, I remember my dad handing me the booklet and then taking me on a ranger led walk. I know I wanted to complete the book, but I’m not sure if I ever did. There were several events from that trip that I remember vividly and fondly. Since we didn’t hike or camp much growing up, I forgot about the Junior Ranger program until I was much older and we considered starting our family. We were at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNA) when I saw the booklets. I grabbed them, even though I knew that we still had a ways to go before we were ready to complete them. I put them up and waited until my boys were ready. Now, we love the program at my house! As a mom, I especially love it because in many ways, it makes life a little easier in the outdoors.
I’m the type that loves to plan all the details of our trips. After spending all that time planning the details and worrying about all the things moms have to worry about, I usually find myself struggling to come up with ways to keep my kids engaged on hikes. This is where the Junior Ranger program comes in handy. When your kids are anticipating their ranger badge at the end, it’s enough to keep them engaged and motivated. (You still have to bring the snacks though.) When you make your plans to visit a National Park, there is a section for “kids and youth” under their “Learn About the Park” Section. This is a good way to determine if you can get the books ahead of time or not. Most Junior Ranger books are free – just stop by the park office and grab one. There are a few, such as the Great Smokey Mountains one, that have a nominal fee, but I think it’s worth it. Some parks even give you the opportunity to download the booklets from home! We like to do that and complete them before our trip. This gets everyone excited and they have an understanding of what we are about to see and do. On the trail, my boys are engaged and they can read the signs to find out whatever it is that we are supposed to do. Once we have completed the book, we go to the ranger station and speak with a Ranger. The boys get a patch or a pin or both – depending what each park offers – and they have their swearing in ceremony. The boys just love it. We have quite a collection of pins and badges now.
Most of the Junior Ranger programs are geared for elementary age children – roughly 6-12 years old. If you children are between 4-6 years old though, some parks have the Wee Ranger program. The material is geared towards younger children. Once they complete it, they earn a badge too. Oh, and if you have a fourth grader, NPS has an Every Kid Outdoor program where every 4th grade student receives a free one year America the Beautiful Pass. This is a great way for families to explore our national parks.
During the lockdown, the parks were closed, but parents still needed to find a way to engage their children and help them develop a love for the outdoors. Luckily, the National Parks responded and there are now many ways to earn a ranger badge at home. If you go to the NPS Junior Ranger page, you’ll find 6 programs where you can print and complete the books and mail them in. They’ll receive their ranger badge in the mail! For example, there is Junior Cave Scientist program that my boys have been working on. We won’t mail it in because we are planning to take a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park, so we’ll turn the book in there. We’ll also do the official Mammoth Cave Junior Ranger book so they will earn 2 badges – one for each program.
There are also Facebook groups dedicated to Junior Ranger programs. They’re a great way to find out about different programs as they become available. They even had a special inauguration booklet available back in January.
A tip to help your kids do the programs is to have a “kit” to take with you. I have a plastic box that contains clipboards, markers, colored pencils, pens, regular pencils, and sharpies. Whenever we know we are going to visit a park, I just grab my box, knowing that I have everything we need.
For me personally, I love the program. It’s not just something to keep my boys busy, it’s a way for me to learn about the parks as well. Some of the parks even have a Senior Ranger program for adults. It’s just fascinating to learn about the area you are visiting. Plus, it makes the views that much more pleasurable when you know the history of these places and how they were formed.
So, gather your Wee Rangers, Your Junior Rangers, an even your Senior Rangers and get out there and enjoy our National Parks!