The first time I set foot in a National Park, I was 18. After all, living in the flatlands of Chicagoland, I didn’t know much about the parks. I only knew they were mostly located on or near the coasts, and I was hundreds of miles away from the closest one.
The second time I set foot in a National Park, I was 28, married, with two daughters. This was when I saw Yosemite for the first time. Here, I immediately fell in love with the National Parks and everything they represent: preserving natural areas, protecting cultural resources, and conserving the integrity of the parks while keeping them available and accessible to the people.
Now, my husband and I aren’t the Bohemian, road tripping, earthy type (even though sometimes I wish I was); we don’t exactly exude outdoorsiness in our day-to-day life. But we do love being out in nature. When our daughters were out of diapers, we took vacations to National Parks, introducing them to the majestic and natural wonders of the US. I wanted my kids to have the opportunities that I didn’t have – to see and experience our beautiful parks. However, with the stress of camping, lack of access to modern conveniences, and the repetitive hikes and nature themed activities, not all of our National Park moments were worthy of memories. We just did our best as parents to immerse them in the parks, get them to appreciate nature, and learn about the earth and its environment.
Something that helped us along the way was the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program. This is a special program that’s present in almost every National Park, National Monument, historical sites, and recreational areas. Through this program, kids are encouraged to get outside, explore nature, learn about the environment, and appreciate our National Parks. Children aged 5-12 can become Junior Park Rangers, earning a special pin and designation as steward of the environment.
When we visited each National Park or Monument, our girls always wanted to get the coveted Junior Ranger pin. In order to earn it, they had to complete a booklet (requirements vary by age) and attend a Park Ranger talk or event. In some parks, they took days to complete the packets and in other parks, they completed it under 3 hours.
Children who are interested in the Junior Ranger program must ask for a Junior Ranger booklet inside the park. Booklets are usually free, but at some parks, they may have a small fee. Inside the booklet are instructions as to how many pages the child is to complete, based on their age. Some activities in the Junior Ranger book ask children to write or draw about foliage seen, animals in the park, types of rocks, and more. Other pages have puzzles or activity worksheets.
Children will also need to attend a ranger-led activity, such as a hike, talk, or tour. Rangers need to sign the booklet at the end of the activity. Once all the requirements are met, children go back to the Park Ranger desk. Usually, the Park Ranger will go through the book and make sure everything is completed. They will often talk to the kids about certain activities, ask questions, and get the kids to explain what the National Parks mean to them. Then, the children recite the Junior Ranger pledge to receive their badge.
Parks don’t make it easy to become a Junior Ranger, especially for older children. The National Park Service doesn’t just want to pass out badges; some activities for certification take a bit of time or forethought. Many Park Rangers we encountered were very thorough: making sure requirements were met; answers were correct; and activities were done properly and done well. It’s obvious that the National Park Service really wants to educate these kids about our planet and teach them about the importance of our parks.
I think the reason my girls did the Junior Ranger program at first was because it was something fun to do while walking around the parks; at one point, they were just excited that it was something even mom and dad couldn’t do! Eventually, it just became something they did, almost by routine. Eventually our youngest was on a quest to obtain as many badges as possible. Of course, this was at that sweet spot age of 7-10 years old, when kids are curious, energetic, and love exploring the outdoors.
All in all, as my girls are older now, I think by visiting the National Parks and earning those Junior Ranger badges, they learned that we all need to do our part to preserve and protect the Earth. Both of our girls enjoy camping, hiking, and outdoor activities, and they also lead eco-friendly lives – doing their part to recycle, reduce water consumption, and even support politicians with environmentally friendly platforms.
The National Park Service has done a wonderful job implementing and executing their Junior Ranger program. Who better to teach about the environment than the people of the future? I’m grateful the National Parks encourage children to support preservation of our parks and planet. While becoming stewards of the environment as Junior Rangers, my girls realized their love of the outdoors.
Just last year, both daughters, my husband, and I completed our first multi-day backpacking trip together in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Not only was it a successful trip, but they are both eager to backpack again! Being able to share with them the beauty of nature in places seldom seen by most people, is indeed a gift.
I’m very thankful to the National Park Service, for instituting the Junior Ranger program, and encouraging children to get outside, enjoy what nature has to offer, and do their part to protect the environment and our National Parks.