One of our family’s goals during our full-time RV adventure is to visit as many National Parks as we can! National parks offer a lot of learning opportunities for kids by just exploring the park alone, but did you know that almost every National Park Service (NPS) location has a program designed especially for children and teens! It’s called the Junior Ranger Program and it’s a great way to help your kids develop a deeper appreciation for the natural world. It’s a fun-filled journey you don’t want your children to miss out on, especially if you plan on hitting multiple national parks like us!
What is the Junior Ranger Program?
The Junior Ranger Program is an educational activity-based program offered at almost all US National Park Service (NPS) sites. This program helps keep kids occupied and engaged throughout your visit and helps them better understand the history, wildlife, and geology that is unique to the park you and your family are visiting. This program encourages your children to explore, learn about, and protect nature not just at the park, but all around them in their everyday lives. It’s an awesome opportunity that gets kids thinking about how to protect and preserve natural places, share their knowledge with others, and make changes at home to help the environment and the world we live in.
The Activity Booklets
Each NPS location offers unique activity workbooks filled with information about the area and why it is being protected. Inside you will find a mix of fun yet educational tasks for your kiddos to complete while exploring the park. These activities include coloring pages, Park Ranger interviews, scavenger hunts, word searches, puzzles, coloring pages, and various information about the park. The number of activities needed to be completed to earn a badge, will usually depend on your child’s age. From our experience, our 6-year-old usually only needs to complete 3-6 pages inside the activity booklet, while our 9-year-old must complete 6-9 pages to earn their certificate and badge. Most of the activities inside the booklet are meant to be completed during your visit and while you are out exploring the park. Depending on your child’s abilities this could take anywhere from an hour to a few days. Since our children are not yet independent readers, we find it best to always allow for at least two days at the park so that our children don’t feel rushed completing the assigned pages and we have plenty of time for discussions.
We usually pick up the booklets as soon as we arrive at the park, flipping through, and checking out all the fun-filled activities inside. Although the boys choose which activities to complete, we still make sure to review each activity in the booklet, learning as much as we can about where we are! Once the required number of pages is complete, your child can bring their booklet back to the Visitor Center. A Park Ranger will check their work and answer any questions your child may have about their experience. Then they are ready to get their certificates signed and swear in as an official Junior Ranger!
Taking Your Oath and Earning Your Badge!
Junior Rangers will be asked to repeat a unique oath, vowing to protect and preserve natural places, wildlife, and to share their knowledge with others. We’ve noticed at each location that the Rangers tend to add in something unique to their oath. Sometimes it is about being kind to others or about exploration, and other times it’s something silly that makes the kids giggle. Once the oath is taken, the Junior Ranger is awarded their badge! What’s really cool about the badges, is that they are all different! They are shaped like a shield, usually made of either plastic or wood, and feature a design unique to that NPS location! Some locations also offer colorful patches in lieu of a badge.
These badges are truly the ultimate memento for visiting a park and our boys love to show them off! Some parks that have neighboring NPS locations even work together and offer multiple badges or patches! For example, our boys earned a badge from each of the three National Parks and National Preserve in South Florida using the same booklet. Once they got all three badges, they received a special patch in addition to add to their collection!
One of the best things about this program is it is almost entirely FREE. Aside from any park entry fee and a few high-volume National parks such as Yellowstone or Great Smokey Mountains, almost all the NPS locations offer this program free of charge. The few high-volume ones like just mentioned, ask for a small fee between $1 – $3. This is a nominal fee considering all the great memories, knowledge, and fun your kids can gain from participating in this program. The money also goes right back into supporting the Junior Ranger Program at that park.
There are hundreds of participating NPS locations throughout the United States, including Parks, Seashores, Battlefields, Historic Sites, Lakeshores, Monuments, and more! Each location offers a unique experience, including their own distinct visitor centers, tours, movies, booklets, oath, and badges! Click here to see all the locations on the NPS website.
For the families that are not able to travel as frequently, this program is also offered online! You can have your child learn all about different parks from the comfort of your home. Just click on any of the parks listed on the NPS website to see if they offer downloadable activity booklets as well as other interactive and printable activities. Each online program offers a printable certificate, badge, digital high five, or a physical patch or badge upon completion. For a physical patch or badge you will need to mail in your completed booklet for review. This is also beneficial to families who don’t have a lot of time to explore the park and for kids who need a little extra time completing the activity booklets.
Why We Love It!
There are so many reasons why we love the Junior Ranger Program. Obviously, the badges are wicked cool and a great memento from visiting the National Park. We even got our boys Ezra and Emmett some cool sashes to pin all their badges on and show off all the Parks they’ve been to. The real treasure though is the experience and knowledge shared, exploring the park and completing the activities. Our boys’ education is very much influenced by what we learn from our travels, including what we learn in National Parks. We have all learned so much about different plants and animals, coral reefs, erosion and rock formations, the Ice Age, the Civil War and Slavery, Native American and U.S. History, and so much more!
We have been to 9 NPS locations, including 6 Parks, 1 Preserve, 1 Seashore, and 1 Military Park, and we look forward to many more. If you are planning on visiting a National Park Service location during your travels with kiddos, we highly recommend the Junior Ranger Program and wish you Happy Trails!
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