Get your kids involved in the National Parks Junior Ranger program

Courtesy photo The columnists son and niece participate in the Junior Ranger program this summer.

Recently my family and I went on vacation and we visited several of the National Parks out west including Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. We had been there before but when the boys were much younger. This time they had more fun and are old enough to participate in the Junior Ranger program at our National Parks. Most of them recommend that the child be at least five years old, some start at age four.

This was our first experience doing it, but my niece had done a few before since she is older. The Junior Ranger requirements for each park vary, but for the most part it consists of a booklet to be completed. The number of pages you need to complete varies depending on the child’s age. It’s important to note that the Junior Ranger program is designed to foster an interest and appreciation for our National Parks and conservation of wild resources. In other words, this is an educational experience and not just a freebie handout that you get by stopping by a park office.

So how do you earn a Junior Ranger badge? Start by searching for the park you’re going to visit online. On their website they likely will have a “For Kids” or “Junior Ranger” section on the site. In some cases, you can even print the booklet ahead of time and take it with you if you would like. Or, stop by the park office when you get to the park and pick up a booklet. I would recommend you do this at the beginning of your visit, not when you are ready to leave. The worksheets in the booklet take at least 30-45 minutes to complete, especially if your child needs assistance with reading. Some of the activities include a scavenger hunt in the park, so you certainly don’t want to have to go through the park twice if you do not have the time.

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Work with your child to complete the required number of worksheets and then you bring it back to the park office (or other area they have designated) and show it to them. A ranger will look over your child’s work and then present you with a badge. At Grand Canyon NP, they required that we sit through a ranger educational program first. Make note of this so that you can pick a program your family will enjoy. Ours was on geology which was interesting to me but a bit much for my 5 and 7-year-old. I think they would have preferred the Birds of Prey one, but we hadn’t planned ahead enough. The ranger at Grand Canyon National Park did an official swearing in ceremony and everything. It was very cute but unfortunately I cannot share the video in a newspaper column.

We also completed the booklets for Rainbow Bridge National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. My son was actually able to apply some of what he learned at Grand Canyon to the other programs so that was really exciting to see. I could see his answers in his new booklets were affected by his previous experience. If you do not have time to complete the booklets on site, ask about other options. My niece was able to take hers home, complete it and mail it in. Each badge and booklet is specific to the park and has the park’s name on it. My son is already asking about how he can earn more, so a day trip up to Hopewell Furnace NHS in Elverson is on our agenda for this summer.

We currently are raising a generation of children that spends a record low amount of time outdoors as compared to previous generations. This is resulting in our environment not being protected because they don’t have an appreciation for it. We even recently had a U.S. Senator propose selling off some of our National Parks land to private, for-profit companies. Getting your child started in the Junior Ranger program is a great way to foster interest and appreciation in our National Parks system.

Outdoor enthusiast Lisa Lightner lives in Avondale.