Mom and dad may have been scrimping and saving their whole lives to enjoy an epic RV vacation, taking on the vast American highway system and hopping from one stunning, scenic landscape to another.
But although you might be thrilled to bits merely by opening your National Park guidebook, it could be a different story when it comes to your kiddos. In a world filled with all sorts of pixelated diversions, the real world can sometimes seem a little — well, unanimated, as far as young minds are concerned.
Of course, that’s the last way you want your kids to feel about our natural environment. Not only are they seriously missing out on that literally awesome sensation of realizing how small you are in the presence of natural beauty — but they’re also the people to whom these rivers and mountains will one day belong. It’s up to us to inspire our children to help keep our planet beautiful and healthy, to help them learn to appreciate this unique environment.
Fortunately, you don’t have to have a degree in ecological science to find a way to get your kids excited about the earth. If you’re planning to take a tour of our wildest wildernesses this summer, the National Park Service has your back with its Junior Ranger program.
Combining education and entertainment, the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program helps campers of all ages feel engaged with their environment and get excited about becoming environmental stewards. And right now, there are over 200 Junior Ranger programs across Park Service properties — which means there’s bound to be one at one of your next natural destinations.
Here’s what you need to know to become a Junior Ranger — or a parent to one!
Junior Ranger Program
Before we dive into the nitty gritty on the Junior Ranger club, let’s talk a little bit about the National Park Service itself. Who are they, exactly? When did they get started?
The National Park Service as we know it was established just over 100 years ago in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating this new federal bureau within the Department of Interior. But the parks themselves — the inspiring landscapes we decided were worth preserving for prosperity — are far older. When the Park Service came into being, there were already 35 protected lands under its new jurisdiction, the oldest of which was Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park, established in 1872.
Fast forward a hundred years, and there are over 60 national parks and dozens of other conservations and protected landscapes all across America. The National Park Service is responsible for upkeep and maintenance, but also community outreach and education, including constructing interpretive and accessibility facilities on park lands.
The Junior Rangers program is one of many of these efforts, designed to help educate children and get them excited about our environment. Aimed at young park visitors between the ages of 5 and 13, its programs are both fun and informative — and best of all, affordable. At many parks, the activity booklets and materials are offered for free, but even when they’re available for purchase, they generally cost less than $5.
Junior Ranger Activities
So, what’s it like to be a Junior Ranger?
Well, you’ll learn a whole lot, for sure — but you’ll have so much fun, you won’t even notice. Junior Rangers complete games and activities, answer questions, and interview real-live adult Park Rangers in the parks where the program is active, and once they prove themselves worthy, they’re awarded with a special certificate and an official Junior Ranger badge. One example of a recent Junior Ranger activity is the Eclipse Explorer activity booklet, which was available for a variety of parks that were in the path of the 2017 total solar eclipse. There are even some Junior Ranger activities you can complete at home, including fascinating topics like the night sky, fossils, and bats. Once young rangers complete the activities in these PDF booklets, they can put in a request for a badge — with help from mom and dad — through these points of contact.
Junior Ranger Badges
Just like in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, there are many different badges Junior Rangers can acquire. As in the photo above, some participants even get a Junior Ranger vest on which to display their many badges and patches.
Different badges correspond to different activities at different National Park Service properties, as well as the badges we mentioned above that can be earned at home. Collecting badges is a great incentive for visiting as many national parks and protected areas as possible, and makes a great supplement for your National Parks passport. (Don’t forget to get it stamped at every stop!)
Junior Ranger Parks
So, how many Junior Ranger badges are there, exactly? Where, specifically, are all the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger locations?
You can get all that information and much more by visiting the National Park Service website, which you’ll find at this link. As far as finding parks that are part of the program, more parks do participate than don’t. With over 200 Junior Ranger locations, there are plenty of badges to keep you and your family exploring for many summers to come.
RV travel is a great way to introduce your children to the magic of the natural world, as well as to get reacquainted with it yourself. Simply driving through these majestic landscapes is enough to make you realize how special our planet is, but getting out there and participating in hands-on activities drives the point home even further. Whether that means strapping on your best hiking boots to tackle a trail or setting your kayak onto some river’s gentle waters, take advantage of our national parks system, one of the best in the world. There’s no better way to help your kids understand exactly how lucky we all are to live here on our special blue planet — and how important it is to work hard to keep it blue for many more years to come.
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