Today I want to share the second best-kept secret about our national parks: the Junior Park Ranger program.This program is "an activity based program conducted in almost all parks." From our experience, you simply ask for a Junior Ranger booklet at the information desk or ranger station at the park. Would-be rangers then complete a series of activities based around experiencing and exploring the park itself.
I cannot tell you how wonderful this was! Not only did it help us better explore all the national park had to offer, it allowed my kids to digest what they saw and heard in an age-appropriate way.
While in the Great Smoky Mountains, we identified trees and bugs. We attended a ranger talk about the history of Cades Cove, devouring an ice cream cone in the process. At the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, we listened to King's iconic speeches and wrote out our own dreams to change the world in which we live.
When kids complete the required pages in the booklet, they return them to a ranger. It seems like some rangers take more care in looking over the booklets than others. Be that as it may, the ranger bestows a certificate and badge to the Junior Ranger.
As if that weren't enough, the Junior Ranger takes an oath, officially presided over by the real ranger. This was, by far, the most exciting part. When we were at the MLK Historic site, the ranger came out from behind his desk, put on his official hat, and escorted my kids across the lobby, stationing them in between the American flag and the flag of Georgia. Before a crowd of supportive visitors, my kids promised to honor the United States, care for its resources, and protect its national treasures. At the conclusion of the oath, the crowd burst into spontaneous and enthusiastic applause.
How's that for a memorable activity during vacation?
And it's free. Forgot that part. Totally free.
The Quick and Dirty on the Junior Ranger Program
+ A great way to learn about the national park
+ Offers a variety of age-appropriate activities
+ Keeps kids engaged while touring the park
+ Kids receive a badge and certificate upon completion
(a great keepsake for the trip)
+ Completely free
- Not advertised - you may come unprepared to fill out the booklet (no pen, crayons, etc.)
- Can take a long time. If you are only visiting for an hour or so, you will probably not have time to complete enough activities.
Overall: I'd do my research. Check out the Junior Ranger Program site to see if there are activities where you are going. Then plan ahead. Allow yourselves enough time at the park, and bring pens or pencils to be prepared to complete the booklet.