For us, the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program is an indispensable and hands-on component of our roadschool curriculum.
Designed to engage kids of all ages, and grown-ups too, the junior ranger program can range from a quick booklet to an all-day adventure. Through age-appropriate tasks, kids are asking questions, making choices, participating in park stewardship, and interacting with the National Park Service site they are visiting.
Recently, our boys completed their 22nd junior ranger badge at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. They were asked to design their own fresco, to consider what items they would bring if they were indigenous hunter-gatherers, and try to imagine what their surrounding would have looked like 10,000 years ago. That last question was made all the more powerful by the fact that The Missions sit inside the city of San Antonio and urban life is all around.
Last fall, we spent a decent amount of time traveling the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, and during those travels, our eight-year-old became really fascinated with The Corps of Discovery. He took a pretty serious deep dive and we would often find him pretending “Lewis and Clark,” in his day-to-day play, so we made sure to offer him as much information as we could, including hiking areas they traveled and visiting the Lewis & Clark visitor center in Omaha, NE. It was incredibly special watching him earn his junior ranger badge focused on a topic he was already really well-versed in.
Our three boys have become rangers at Zion, Bandelier, Gateway Arch, Voyageurs, Hot Springs, Gulf Islands National Seashore and many more. But they aren’t the only ones learning about these amazing locations. The beautiful thing about the program is that I learn right alongside my kids. As I sit with them and while they work through their booklets, I too am searching for answers and contemplating questions. When we come home at night, we often talk about the park we visited, drawing on facts we learned from the junior ranger program. I often see their play align with a park we’ve just visited, which only deepens their connection with the park, and reinforces their desire to protect these valuable places.
And that is what is so special about this program, it has the potential to light a fire under a child and bring to life places and spaces they may have never heard of before.
You don’t have to be a full-time traveling family to enjoy the junior ranger program either. Most booklets can be done in a single visit, or you can take them home, mail it in, and have the badge sent to you. We have had booklets that have taken no time at all, booklets we’ve taken home and worked on, and booklets that we really took our time with and spent the entire trip finishing.
The National Park Service does a great job of knowing that kids and their grown-ups are traveling at their own pace and because of that, they’ve designed a junior ranger program that can accommodate all kinds of visitors.
So, the next time you find yourself in one of the 421 National Park Service units, take some time to visit with the junior ranger program, you and your kids won’t regret it.