The Junior Ranger Program – Creating an Engaging and Fun Experience for Children Visiting the U.S. National Parks

When I was a kid my parents took me on a road trip every summer.  Our destinations included national parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Glacier National Park, etc.  As a child I’d say our visits to these parks were geared more toward adults.  When I grew up and started a family of my own I carried on the tradition of visiting our national parks with my kids.  But my children’s experiences visiting the parks were much different than my own and that is because of one big difference; the Junior Ranger Program.

The Junior Ranger Program is a super fun and engaging program that actually gets kids excited about discovering, exploring and learning about the national parks.  I’d have to say too, that it makes visiting the parks a lot more fun for their parents as well.  In fact, the Junior Ranger Programs are so interesting and fun to do that I’ve heard of many adults that participate in them as well.  There are over 400 units of the National Park Service across the 50 states and US Territories.  Almost every one of these parks has at least one of their own unique Junior Ranger Programs specific for their park.  To find out about the Junior Ranger Program at a specific park you can either go to the parks website or ask about it while visiting the park at any ranger station or visitor center.

While each park has their own unique Junior Ranger Program they all pretty much follow a similar format.  The first thing you need to do is get your hands on the park’s Junior Ranger Workbook.  These can be obtained in a couple of different ways.  While visiting a park you can usually pick up a Junior Ranger Workbook at any ranger station or visitor center.  Parks typically don’t have the workbooks out on a counter or in displays so you have to ask a ranger or someone at an information desk for one.  Additionally, some parks have their Junior Ranger workbooks on their webpage so that you can print them at home ahead of time and take them with you.  I like to do the latter because my kids can look them over while we’re driving and it helps them get familiar with the park we are going to and what they will be learning about ahead of time.

The ranger who gives you the workbook can explain the requirements to complete their park’s Junior Ranger Program.  You can also look in the front of the workbook, typically on the first page, and read about the requirements.  Here are the three most common ways the programs are set up for children of different ages.

  • Some parks have different workbooks for children in different age groups.
  • Other parks have one workbook for all children but the number of activities that the child has to complete depends on the age of the child.
  • Still other parks will have one workbook for all children but the activities in the book are marked with symbols showing the difficulty level of the activities so younger children only have to complete the easier (age appropriate) activities and older children have to complete the more challenging activities.

Once your kids have their Junior Ranger workbooks that’s when the fun begins. The workbooks are full of all kinds of activities for the kids to do. The activities vary from park to park but here’s a list of the types of activities you might see:

  • Attend a ranger led program, talk, walk or tour.  Afterwards, have the ranger sign off in your book that you attended.  Sometimes your child will have to write down a couple things they learned or they might have to ask the ranger a question and write down the ranger’s answer.
  • Word find where the words the kids are looking for pertain to what they are learning about at that specific park.
  • Watch the orientation film in the visitor center and write down a couple things they learned from the film.
  • Matching activity.  For instance, they might have to draw a line to match up pictures of animals to each animal’s footprints.  The animals would of course be the variety that they might see in that park.  Or another example would be if you were at a home of a former U.S. President maybe you’d have to match up pictures of Presidents to pictures of First Ladies.
  • Draw a picture.  For instance, if you’re at a Civil War battlefield they might have to draw a picture of the monument that they liked the best.  Or if you’re at a park that features ancient cultures they might have to draw a picture of a clay jar and decorate it with their own drawing and design.
  • Crossword puzzles and/or fill in the blank questions.  The answers for the questions might be found in the park brochure or on interpretive signs throughout the park or in the park museum.
  • Often times there is an activity that instructs you to find an item in the park museum or a location of significance in the park and then answer questions about it.
  • Almost all Junior Ranger Programs have one activity that teaches kids how they can be a good steward of our national parks and the importance of helping to protect and preserve these special places.

Once your children have completed their Junior Ranger workbooks the last thing to do is to take it back the ranger station or visitor center.  Your children will present their completed workbook to a ranger who will look it over and check the answers.  The rangers can help your children with any questions they didn’t understand.  Once it’s all good your children will then be sworn in as an official Junior Ranger of the specific park you are visiting.  They will hold up their right hand and take an oath to continue learning about more national parks and to be a good steward of our national parks.  Finally they will be presented with a certificate, signed by the ranger, as well as an official Junior Ranger badge or patch.  Each park has their own unique badge or patch with the name of their park on it and typically a picture or design depicting something from or about their park.

Do not underestimate the power of this badge.  I have been taking my children on road trip adventures to national parks across the country for the last ten years and they each have now completed over 140 Junior Ranger Programs.  I think a fair amount of the motivation for kids to complete the Junior Ranger Programs lies in the Junior Ranger badges.  In fact, one of my three kids once said to me, “Mom, I feel like I’m being tricked into doing school during my vacation, but I love getting the badges!”  The Junior Ranger Program seemed sort of like school because he was learning but he loved it since it was done in a way that made learning fun and rewarding.  He’s much older now and thanks to the Junior Ranger Program, history and science are his two favorite subjects.

All three of my children are very proud of their collection of Junior Ranger badges and patches but more importantly they have learned so much which has made them more confident.  They each have at different times come home from school and excitedly shared with me something that their teacher asked in school where they were the only student in the class that knew the answer because it related to a national park that we had visited.  I credit the Junior Ranger Program with teaching my children to become better learners.  Half of learning is learning how to learn.  It’s knowing how to find answers.  I think my children have become better learners because the Junior Ranger Programs incorporate so many ways to learn; listening to a speaker, watching a film, reading through a brochure, discovering artifacts in a museum, asking questions of experts, exploring exhibits and interpretive signs and most importantly by experiencing what you’re learning about where it happened and/or where it exists and bringing it to life.  For learning about the history and natural wonders of our nation you just can’t beat the U.S. National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program.

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