Traveling in the United States and want a way to engage your children in nature, wildlife, and/or historical experiences? We found a great way to do this when traveling from September to December 2021. Our oldest child, Kyra (age 5 during this trip) loved the various Junior Ranger programs offered at places like
- National Parks
- National Wildlife Refuges
- National Monuments
- Some State Parks
- and more…
As it says on the National Park website, “Junior Rangers are typically between the ages of 5 to 13, although people of all ages can participate.” This program was a good way to world school (home school while traveling) in disguise. The learn while doing aspect is perfect for kids who are tired of doing other “book learning.” The “unschooling” element is also a huge positive. Essentially, the child has more say in which direction the learning goes based on their interest.
We did not pay any money for any of the materials or rewards via this program. To our knowledge, this is completely free! Obviously, you need to pay for park entry fees, but we had the American the Beautiful National Park Pass, which cost $80 for our family.
How does the Junior Ranger Program work?
We will be speaking mostly about the in-person experience. Online Junior Ranger programs are also an option. You can learn more about it via the links at the end of this post.
When we would enter the park we would always stop at the visitor center and ask about their Junior Ranger program. We did this along with getting any maps, paying fees, and using restrooms, so it was not an extra stop typically. Park personnel then explain how their program works. Each location was unique, but in general, it worked in one of the following ways:
- Given a one-size-fits-all booklet to complete regardless of your kid’s age
- Given options that you can complete for different levels and asked what you prefer
- Asked for the age of the child and then given a document for that age range
Once the child has completed this then they return it to the same location. At that point, they can ask questions and get any needed help. Then several things can happen:
- Ranger may interact with them and talk about how they are to help in their new role
- Go through a swearing-in ceremony as a Junior Ranger
- Get pin, badge, patch, certificate, and/or other materials
What is completing a Junior Ranger activity book like?
Every set of activities is different. Some activity books are only five pages and some are twenty pages. Usually, for the small booklets, you complete the whole thing. Whereas, for the larger booklets, you pick and choose which activities you want to do. Parks tailor activities to their location. For example, a natural park will have more nature questions and activities. Alternatively, a battlefield will have more history questions and activities. Booklets may contain activities like:
- scavenger hunts
- unscramble the letters
- questions to answer
- coloring pages
- talk to a ranger
- join a ranger-led program
- and more…
Activities fall into 2 categories. First, activities that happen anywhere. Secondly, others require being in the park and sometimes at specific locations. These locations can include visitor centers, at specific park sites, and anywhere in the park. Rangers are always happy to help if you have questions about anything.
Swearing in new Junior Rangers
Volunteer staff at a park do NOT swear in Junior Rangers. Therefore, a ranger needs to be available. For us, we were in the non-peak season, so it was not a problem. But we could see this being an issue for busier and peak seasons at some parks.
The ranger you get has a huge impact on the overall experience. You can tell that some rangers really enjoy this and think of it as a key part of educating the next generation. When you get the right ranger it is a great experience. For others, they do not swear in the kids or interact. In those instances, they may simply hand you the materials.
We also found the swearing-in time to be a good opportunity to have our kids (or ourselves) ask questions about what we saw in the park. Sometimes it was learning more about history. Other times we wanted help with animal identification. We found this as another way to engage the kids. Sometimes they would ask really good questions. Other times they were things we could answer. But either way, this helped us engage Kyra and understand what she was learning.
How is the booklet best completed?
As soon as you receive the booklet take some time to look through it. Then make a plan to complete the activities. We always liked to involve Kyra, especially when there were options she could choose. Doing this early helped us determine how we would progress through the activities. Additionally, since Kyra was 5 she was not able to complete this on her own. Sometimes there are expectations of attending live events. Other times you have to do certain activities. We found that doing the must-do items first worked well. Sometimes this didn’t work, for instance not being able to attend a ranger program. Then we sought alternatives (like watching an online recording).
Older kids can be more self-directed. But even with them, there would likely be a value to making a plan and seeing what elements they would like involvement in. Becky did most of these booklets with Kyra and I know she learned a lot. For certain activities, we completed them as a family. Having the extra eyes helped (like looking through museums for certain information). Our youngest Verity (age 2 during this trip) also participated in some instances. However, she was mostly too young to get much value.
State Park Junior Ranger programs
For state parks, at least in Florida, this is done differently. The Junior Ranger program is a statewide program. You have to complete a Junior Ranger packet and then 12 additional activities at different state parks and get a statewide badge and pins. You have to complete 3 activities in each of 4 categories and the activities are on general worksheets. Once you have these worksheets you have to figure out the best plan for where to complete each at a park.
To be blunt, it is a bit confusing, and from what we saw most rangers are not familiar with how the program is meant to work. For the first 5 stamps in the log, we didn’t even do an activity (and never got the sheets). We just had people stamping them at parks. It wasn’t until the sixth state park that a ranger who knew about the program printed the sheets for us and explained how it was meant to work. After this we found ourselves explaining what we needed to other rangers and park staff.
The needed sheets we had to complete were front and back and fairly quick, so this was easier than for most national park programs. On the upside, our kids loved all the animal stickers that they hand out at Florida State parks (if you ask for them specifically). The animal stickers are separate from the Junior Ranger program.
We were only in a few state parks in Georiga so Kyra was able to get one pin from there. Check each state when you arrive to see what they have for a Junior Ranger program for their state parks.
Did the kids enjoy the program?
Kyra loved it! After the first program at Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio, she asked when we would go to each new place. She was disappointed when we went to attractions without the program. All kids are different, but she is a naturally curious child, which works well. Some booklets and activities are more engaging than others. We liked the more interactive ones, like looking for items on hikes. For instance, nuts, leaves, or animal scat/footprints were good ones for us.
Another element that we really liked was the swearing-in ceremony. When done right this legitimizes the work done by the child. Additionally, it gives them ownership in taking care of the animals, trails, and park in general. Kyra is a kid who looked out for animals and picked up garbage before anyway. But after becoming a junior ranger she took this to another level.
The tangible reward of badges, pins, and/or patches also is a great part of the program. Both Kyra and Verity liked these. Another side benefit for us was that we used the badges earned to dress up for Halloween while on the trip. Kyra has always said she is going to be a veterinarian. But now park ranger could be in the mix as well.
Lastly, these programs “forced” some interactions we would have otherwise not had. During the Antietam National Battlefield driving tour, we spoke to a ranger since this was a required activity. Kyra asked questions at her level which helped her to understand “war” better (a difficult concept for a 5-year-old). For Brock & Becky, they were then able to ask questions from all the audio driving tours and plaques they had read to that point. The ranger was a historian and was able to give everything so much more context. We spent at least 30 minutes talking to him. It was a highlight of our time on the battlefield.
What are the drawbacks of the Junior Ranger program?
One drawback is that it is easy for a 5-year old to become fixated on earning the badge above all else. This needs to stay an element of the overall visit. It cannot become the overriding purpose of the visit.
Another issue is that there is a lot to do in some booklets. Especially for the ones not tailored for age. The interactive activities are easier to integrate into your time. The more “busy work” items are not as easy to integrate. All this extra work can detract from your child’s engagement at the park.
Lastly, this all takes time and puts you on a schedule. Sometimes you just want to relax and yet you need to get these booklets done. So it is important to understand the extra time needed ahead and be prepared to take the time needed. If this doesn’t happen it can be stressful for parents and children alike. Also, you have to be back at the visitor center before the park closes if you are leaving for the next day.
- Make a plan with your child and help get them to start on the journey and with the difficult parts of the program
- Give the kids the time they need to accomplish activities
- If possible, involve the whole family
- Have fun while doing this, but take the program seriously
- Talk to the kid about their responsibility for the environment it is good to promote personal responsibility in our view
- Have your camera ready and set to do a video for the swearing-in
- Spend time to look over reward materials
- Ask the kids how they feel about them and what they learned
- Watch the clock if you are only going to be at a park for one day since you need a ranger there and you can’t do that once the station closes
- Sometimes you are able to mail the packet to the park at a later date
- If you know you can’t get the activities done, the rangers we spoke to were willing to give us the “rewards” and let us swear in our kids later
- We prefer not to do this option but it was useful a few times due to time or locational logistics
Junior Ranger Key Links
- National Park Service Become a Junior Ranger program page
- National Park Service Junior Ranger program online resources page
- Junior Ranger programs by National Park
- Florida State Parks Junior Ranger programs