Be a Junior Ranger
Park programs elevate experiences for kids.
This summer, many families will explore the beauty and wonder of the National Park System. Comprised of 407 areas and more than 84 million acres, the national parks offer numerous family-friendly vacation destinations.
The NPS Junior Ranger program is designed to elevate the park experience for young visitors, teaching them about park history, wildlife and conservation. "Explore, Learn and Protect!" is the Junior Ranger motto. More than 800,000 children became Junior Rangers in 2014. The program is conducted at almost all national parks — from the National Mall to the Everglades and Alcatraz Island.
How it Works
To get started, children pick up a Junior Ranger book at the park visitor center and then complete activities as they explore the park. Activities vary and may change depending on the season. Some examples include a nature trail scavenger hunt, interviewing a park ranger about his or her job, drawing a picture of something in nature, using a map to find a certain place, and using one’s senses to locate places or items in the park.
"If you’re just tagging along with your parents, you might get bored," says Leah Taber, park ranger at Kings Mountain National Military Park in Blacksburg, S.C. "The Junior Ranger program gets children involved in the park story. It’s the best way to really get to know the park."
Kids complete most activities on their own or with parental help, but some larger parks offer ranger-led Junior Ranger programs, especially during summer. The program is geared to ages 5-12, but all ages can participate. A few parks have a Not So Junior Ranger program designed specifically for children over age 12.
"The hands-on program component is the best part because children get to do things with the ranger in the park that they might not get to do with parents," says Caitlin Worth, park ranger at The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. "The youngest kids really love to explore nature firsthand with a ranger."
Once Junior Ranger participants complete specified activities, they present their book to a park ranger to earn an official Junior Ranger badge and certificate. Swearing in as a Junior Ranger also includes taking an oath to protect and preserve national parks for future generations.
The Junior Ranger program is helpful to families who are unsure about how to navigate a park experience with young children, Worth says. "It gives them a starting point or a springboard on how to get into the park," she says.
The Web Ranger Program
Web Rangers, an online extension of the Junior Ranger program, presents an interactive way for kids to learn about national parks, monuments and historic sites across the country. Keep them busy before vacation playing games and taking quizzes of varying difficulty — even hiking virtual trails at the different parks. Sign up for a free account at nps.gov.
Holly Becker is a freelance writer in Cornelius, and a mom of three elementary school-age children.