Guest post by Christine Lindstrom of Lindstroms on the Road.
What is a Junior Ranger? Each park in the National Park Service offers its own program for kids to learn about the park and complete specific tasks in order to be sworn in as an official Junior Ranger for that park. To show their status, the kids receive a badge and a certificate. Some parks even offer patches or bonus prizes for completion of additional challenges. Junior Rangers promise to take care of the park and its resources, as well as continue to learn and help educate others about the importance of America’s national parks.
Are your kids Junior Rangers? If they are, then you already know firsthand that this amazing program is a dream come true for roadschoolers. If not, April is the perfect month to give it a try! The 29th annual National Park Week is coming up April 20-28, and the festivities kick off on April 20 with a fee-free day in all parks run by the National Park Service. Saturday, April 20 is also National Junior Ranger Day, so parks across the country will be pulling out all the stops to celebrate kids, with plenty of special programs specifically geared toward the young – and the young at heart.
Whether your kids are working on their first badges or have already completed dozens, take advantage of the fee-free day and celebrate National Junior Ranger Day with a visit to a national park! With parks in all 50 states and in 4 US territories, you’re sure to find a park near you.
How to Become a Junior Ranger
Becoming a Junior Ranger is easy! When visiting a park run by the National Park Service (not just national parks, but national monuments, national historic sites, national seashores, and 15 other naming designations) just follow these simple steps:
- Visit a Ranger Station or Visitor Center and ask for a Junior Ranger book. Some parks offer full-color booklets while others have a single worksheet. There are usually pencils available to borrow, but having a pencil with you is helpful. On occasion, we’ve been thankful to have crayons or colored pencils with us. The Junior Ranger materials can usually be downloaded through the park’s website and printed out ahead of time if desired.
- Explore the park, completing the required activities. In addition to answering questions and solving puzzles, common activities involve drawing pictures of things seen in the park, interviewing a park ranger, taking a hike, watching a film about the park or attending a ranger program. These booklets are a tremendous resource and have often led us to discover areas of a park that we may not have found on our own. They give kids a fun way to engage in what’s around them and what’s special about that particular park.
- Return to the Visitor Center to recite the pledge and receive a badge. Some park rangers choose to go over the books in detail and others will take your word for it, but being inducted as a Junior Ranger is a proud and exciting moment. Each park has its own version of the Junior Ranger pledge, but all revolve around the three basic tenets of the program: Explore, Learn, Protect. If you happen to explore the park a little too long and the visitor center closes, completed books can be mailed to the park and your Junior Rangers will get their badges by mail.
Tips for Using the Junior Ranger Program in your Homeschool
One of the advantages of homeschooling is individualization, and there are as many different approaches to homeschooling as there are homeschooling families. The same is true when it comes to incorporating the Junior Ranger program into your homeschool or roadschool. There are no right or wrong ways to use this resource in your children’s education, and this list is by no means exhaustive! But here are some ideas to help get you started:
- Plan ahead. When possible, try to correlate what kids are studying and where your family is traveling. Plan some of your studies before visiting the park and some for after you have been there. There is something magical about seeing a place jump off the pages of a book and into real life, and this happens best when some of the reading is done ahead of time. Consider brainstorming some questions you hope to answer while visiting the park and encourage kids to interact with park rangers to find the answers.
- Literature connections are a great way to build interest and motivation for the place or time period the park showcases. When kids connect to fictional characters in a novel they will learn about the geographical region or historical period with curiosity and imagination. For help finding books, talk to employees at the national park bookstore, search online (most national parks’ bookstores can be accessed online through the park website), or talk to a local librarian.
- Be actively involved yourself! Let your kids see that you are learning alongside them as they explore and complete the Junior Ranger tasks. Help them with challenging tasks and encourage them to ask good questions by modeling it yourself. Follow their interests through the park but don’t neglect your own. Kids need to see learning as exciting and lifelong, rather than a necessary childhood drudgery.
- Make connections between this topic or location and others you have visited and explored together. Compare and contrast ecosystems, wildlife, landscapes, historic sites, or battlefields. Help them to see a bigger picture and how this place and time fits into it.
Every Kid in a Park
While not directly connected to the Junior Ranger program, the Every Kid in a Park program is something every roadschooling family should know about. Through this program, every 4th grader (or age equivalent homeschooled child) is entitled to an America the Beautiful annual interagency park pass. The pass is valid for the 4th grade child and his or her family as long as the child is present. The application process is surprisingly simple. Just answer a few questions, print the paper they give you, and take it to any national park to receive a card. The America the Beautiful pass usually costs $80 to purchase. But with a 4th grader (age 9-10), every day is a fee-free day in the national parks!
Favorite National Park Resources for Kids
- National Park Passport Books. Collect stamps from every national park you visit! Color-coded by region, this is a fun way to keep track of the parks you’ve visited. Get one for each child or just one for the family to share. With a dated stamp in the passport and a Junior Ranger badge, you have a free souvenir!
- National Geographic Kids National Parks Guide. All the quality you expect from National Geographic Kids, this book gives facts and info, suggestions of things for kids to do, and of course, amazing photographs.
- M is for Majestic: A National Parks Alphabet. A beautiful picture book that can be enjoyed by kids of any age. Every page inspires our kids to either say, “Remember when we went there?!” or “Can we go there someday?”
- Meet us at the National Parks. Join other kids on a rhyming tour of 120 national parks, monuments, lakeshores and other sites.
- National Parks Songs and Activity Book. Singer/songwriter Gigi Love has traveled to national parks around the country and written songs inspired by what she sees and feels there. She has partnered with Park Smarts for Kids to create a coloring and activity book to go along with her National Parks Songs CD. She also includes a link to videos to teach kids how to play her songs on a guitar or ukulele.
America’s national parks are a national treasure, and it’s never too early to teach kids to respect and enjoy them! Celebrate National Park Week and National Junior Ranger Day by getting out in a park and training some new Junior Rangers! Explore, Learn, Protect!