Hop in the car and head to the nearest National Park. Sounds like a good vacation outing to me. But far too often, this simple activity is met by complaining from the back seats: “Do we HAVE to…?” “This will be BOring…” Turn down the whines and help your kids look forward to what they can “Explore, Learn and Protect!” by getting involved in the Junior Ranger program at more than 400 National Park sites.

Our family discovered this fabulous hands-on challenge when we wandered the western USA in an RV nine years ago. Daughter completed the information scavenger hunt, earned her first badge and was sworn in as a Junior Ranger at Arches National Park when she was just seven years old. (As a paparazzi extraordinaire, I must confess that somehow I have no photos of this momentous occasion. In my defense, I had no idea that this would be more than a one-time entertainment.)

nps, hiking, southwest USA

The quest for ever more badges has continued. Wherever we go, we look for National Park sites along the way for daughter to add to her collection. She started adding the replica badges to a lanyard. Then we bought her a vest to show off her collection. Eventually, she had so many badges that she made a wall hanging to display all of them. This past weekend, she earned badge #100 at the Statue of Liberty! Woohoo! Way to Go, Andowen!

earn badges, nps

nps, statue of liberty, collection

Originally this program was targeted to children ages 7-13 years old. There has been enough interest that anyone of any age is now allowed to become a Junior Ranger at each location. Let’s walk through the process together:

  • Pick Your Park to Visit—Whenever we drive somewhere, I check the list of parks at nps.gov to see where we could stop along the way.
    nps, travel itinerary
  • Go to the Desk at the Visitor Center and ask for a Junior Ranger Book—Complete the required number of activities. It is perfectly acceptable for family members to help. (In the process, we often learn more than our daughter does!) Because we consider these activities to be part of our homeschooling curriculum, we insist that the entire book must be finished, in the car if not at the park itself. (You can read more HERE about how we include travel activities as part of school.)
    family, homeschoolingearn badges, nps
  • Many Different Activities Help Complete the Booklet—Watch the park movie. Take a tour. Explore the plants and animals outdoors. Write poetry or draw pictures. Go on an information scavenger hunt in the museum. Interview a Ranger.
    National Park Service, Visitor Centernps, explore naturenps, displays, scavenger hunt
  • Take the Booklet Back to a Ranger—At minimum, he will check to see you have fulfilled the requirements. Sometimes, she will discuss what you have written or explore what you have learned. A few of the rangers have taken time to encourage our daughter to imagine how she might get involved with the National Park Service as a career. Junior Ranger, Ft Davis, npsJunior Ranger, nps, valley forge
  • Raise Your Right Hand and Be Sworn in as a Junior Ranger—promising to continue to explore National Parks, do one’s best to protect the parks, and share what is learned with family and friends. Then shake hands with the ranger and accept your new badge. nps, raise your right hand, biscayne bay
  • Add the Badge to Your Collection—In our family, that means adding a few pages to yet another scrapbook as well as pinning the latest badge or patch to the custom wall hanging. nps, junior ranger, collection

BONUS: Here are links to my daughter’s favorite National Park Sites that we have visited (so far).

Read more about Chaco Culture National Historic Site (in New Mexico) HERE. Andowen has many happy memories of this park since we lived near it for three years and visited often. nps, junior ranger

Read more about Craters of the Moon National Monument (in Idaho) HERE. This was one of the most desolate yet fascinating sites we have seen. nps, junior ranger

Read more about Kenai Fjords National Park (in Alaska) HERE. Andowen enjoyed tasting a bit of ice from Exit Glacier. And she was completely WOWED by seeing orcas and a whale fluke on the boat tour! nps, junior ranger, awe, excitement, whale watch

We would love to hear from you—what is YOUR favorite National Park to visit?