Learn what the Junior Ranger Program is, how to become one, and why your family should take part in this long standing National Park Service Program. On your next trip to our national parks, connect with nature, culture, and history in a fun and engaging way. Let’s inspire the next generation of park visitors.
The following post about the Junior Ranger Program is not affiliated with nor does it express the official views of the National Park Service. The quotes from current NPS employees included in the article were shared with approval from the ranger and their national park.
Swearing in Junior Rangers was one of the most fun parts about my job as an Interpretive Park Ranger. I could always see the excitement as a group of kids walked to the visitor center desk. Some were shy and would hide behind their parent’s legs as they cautiously placed their completed booklet on the desk. Others would proudly place their booklet in front of me with an enthusiastic, “I’m done!” I always loved looking at the booklets with pretend rigor. After confirming all required sections were complete, I began the official swearing in ceremony. Some rangers are more casual with swearing in, but I liked to make it an event. I would ask them, “stand up straight, raise your right hand, and repeat after me”. Sometimes with a nudge from mom, they mirrored my body language, and so began the pledge, “As a Junior Ranger…”
Does any of this sound familiar to you? If not, that’s okay. I’m going to break down what the Junior Ranger Program is, why you and your family should participate, and how to get the most out of it. I spent three seasons working in the National Park Service (NPS). As a ranger, I learned the ins-and-outs of the National Park Junior Ranger Program. While I am no longer with NPS, it is still something I highly recommend to anyone making a trip to an NPS site.
What is the Junior Ranger Program?
The Junior Ranger Program is a wonderful initiative by the National Park Service to connect and engage young park visitors–the future stewards of our parks–to their surroundings. Participating parks have Junior Ranger Booklets that include activities and information about the park. Once a booklet is completed, a ranger will look it over for completion. If everything checks out, your kiddo earns a badge or patch. Some Junior Ranger Programs are National and I will list those later on. Note that while most programs are directed towards children ages 5-13, many parks encourage all ages to participate.
Why Should My Family Participate?
- Cost-friendly entertainment
- Incorporates Place-Based Education (PDF)
- Can help kids focus
- You and your family learn about the park
- Teaches kids to work towards goals
- Creates connection to the environment
- Empowers kids to take care of public lands and the environment
- Can work as part of a home school program
- It’s fun!
Most research says that the National Park Junior Ranger Program started with the Yosemite Junior Nature School in 1930. Charles A. Harwell, a Park Naturalist at Yosemite, started the program which was filled with questions, activities, and meetings to attend. It wasn’t long before other parks followed suit and the idea of a program became a national conversation within the National Park Service and the Forest Service. In 2005, national standards were set and the program continues to grow and develop today to best engage with the audience. If interested in learning more about the history, The Ranger Archivist has a more in depth post on how the Junior Ranger Program came to be.
How Do I Get Involved?
How to Get a Booklet
Usually you can go to the visitor center for whatever site you are visiting and ask a ranger for the Junior Ranger Booklet. Majority of booklets will be free but some can charge $3. This money usually always goes right back into maintaining the Junior Ranger Program for that site. There are over 200 participating NPS sites with a Junior Ranger Program. If you research the site’s junior ranger program beforehand you can see if there is a downloadable PDF to print off before you even get there! This is often helpful if you are only on site for a day or two because some of the requirements require some time to complete.
Remember that the time of year can affect access to the booklets. Many parks have seasonal closures at their visitor centers. If visiting during the “off-season” for a park (approximately October-March in some areas), call ahead of time to see what your options are for completing the junior ranger program.
What Are The Age Limits?
This one depends on where you go. Typically, a Junior Ranger Booklet will have activities that a child must complete. How many and/or which activities are determined by which age bracket they fall in. For example, a 6 year old has to complete 3 pages and the 12 year old must complete 7. Age brackets might look like 7 and under, 8-10, 11 and up. Some parks have additional programs for those kids who are older but I recommend just doing the traditional booklet if the age limit allows it.
The booklets are quite educational for all ages so I often get the question, “Am I too old to participate?” Short answer: No! A lot of parks will allow anyone to participate, and encourage it! I highly recommend that you complete the Junior Ranger Program with your kids. Remind your teenage kids that its not “lame” to learn about the natural world. Some of the most excited Junior Rangers I swore in were a group of college friends who were completing the program at every park they visited on a summer road trip. The oldest visitor sworn in as a Junior Ranger at Grand Canyon National Park was 103 years old! The program is surprisingly educational for people of all ages!
What Parks Participate?
There are 417 National Park Service Sites and over 200 of them offer a Junior Ranger Program. You can see a list of these places here. You can also check out the official www.nps.gov website for each park ahead of time to see if they have a Junior Ranger Program. Some will even have pdf’s of the booklet that you can print out beforehand, like this one from Grand Teton National Park. This will allow you to see what the requirements are so that you can plan accordingly for your trip.
Are There Different Types of Junior Ranger Programs?
In addition to the Junior Ranger Programs at each individual NPS site, there are other National Programs you and your child can participate in.
The current national programs are:
- Junior Ranger Angler
- Junior Cave Scientist
- Night Skies Explorer
- Junior Ranger Underwater Explorer
- Spaceflight Explorer
- Junior Archaeologist
- Junior Paleontologist
Click the link for each program to learn more about the requirements.
Parks are typically seasonal so there may be limited edition programs for special events. For example, the NPS Centennial Junior Ranger Program that happened during the 100th anniversary only occurred in 2016. There was also a special Solar Eclipse Program for the 2017 solar eclipse.
National Parks Junior Ranger Program Activities
There are a couple of options for completing the Junior Ranger Program and earning a badge.
Print at home – mail In
You can download and print the booklet from home and when completed, mail it to the address provided on its webpage (see the links above). They will mail you back a badge or patch.
Print at home – work ahead
You can also download and print the booklet from home and then just bring the completed book with you to the park. Simply go to the visitor center at the park and the ranger can swear your child in and give them the badge or patch for that specific national program. Just be sure to call ahead to ensure the specific park participates in the program.
Work in the park
You can complete the booklet and get sworn in at the park. Just make sure to call that park ahead of time and make sure they have the booklet and badge/patch you are interested in. Most parks have the booklets and swear people in at the visitor center.
Pro-tip: use the phone 🙂
Not every park has these booklets and badges/patches available for the national programs. It is helpful to call and make sure the park has the right booklet and badge/patch. Remember you can mail the booklet and have a badge/patch sent to you. This is helpful if get to the park and find out they are out of badges/patches for your particular national program. The mail in option is also a good back up plan if your kiddo is just not having it on the day of your visit.
Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts
The National Park Service has partnered with the Girls Scouts of the USA There are separate Junior Ranger Programs for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts These programs are much more involved and require more planning beforehand but can be wonderful learning opportunities and additions to your child’s Girl or Boy Scout Program. Please click on the links above and read through the nps.gov webpage for each program’s details. You will find informational videos, additional links, and downloadable PDFs. Girl Scout Adult Leader can find an entire page of information and resources on how to get involved.
What Will My Child Receive After Completing the Program?
When you complete the booklet you can take it to the visitor center for NPS site you are visiting and have a ranger look it over. Each park is different and each ranger is different on how they check out the booklet. Generally though, Rangers won’t be very strict or deny anyone a badge. As a ranger, I would check to make sure that the requirements were met, or at least there was effort to complete the booklet. I could tell when a child and their parents gave it their best shot and weren’t just trying to get away with a badge without putting in the work.
A ranger will then swear in the participant by having them repeat a Junior Ranger Pledge. They will receive either a badge or a patch with the parks name and Junior Ranger on it. Some badges are plastic and some are wooden. I always thought Grand Teton had the coolest. Ours were wooden with a moose and if you smelled it, it smelled like campfire smoke. Each park is unique which is why collecting them all can be fun for your kiddos.
Alternative Ways to Participate
As I stated above, there are ways to complete the Junior Ranger Program by mailing in a completed booklet. Not every park offers this option but many do. This is great for when you aren’t able to get to a visitor center before having to leave the park. The mail in option is also available for all Junior Ranger National Programs.
I have not had much experience with webrangers but it looks like it could be a convenient remote resource for children looking to connect to our national parks. You can create your own profile and “ranger station”, track progress, share pictures and stories, earn rewards, and share your ranger station. With the National Park Service being a couple years behind the rest of the digital world, I found the website easy to use and navigate. I can see Webrangers being an excellent tool for homeschooling or use within a classroom.
National Junior Ranger Day
Every year, the third or fourth week of April, the NPS hold National Park Week events. This week long celebration usually starts off with National Junior Ranger Day, followed by other events celebrating our public lands. National Junior Ranger Day usually means park fees are waived that day too. Not every NPS site celebrates National Junior Ranger Day but some have an entire days worth of activities planned. I helped plan and carry out National Junior Ranger Day at Grand Teton National Park for two years. The event was always fun and packed with locals and travelers alike. Find a park near you or where you will be traveling and see if they celebrate Junior Ranger Day.
Junior Ranger Program Tips
Before You Arrive
- Check out the nps.gov webpage for whatever site you are visiting and/or give the park a phone call to ask about their program.
- Find out if there are any seasonal closures affecting access to the Junior Ranger Program at a particular site.
- Find out the age limits beforehand if you or someone older than ~13 years old wants to complete the booklet.
- If completing a National Program, either call the park you are visiting beforehand to see if they have booklets and can swear you or your child in or print the booklet on your own and mail in to the provided address.
PLAN ENOUGH TIME TO VISIT A RANGER LED PROGRAM
Many Junior Ranger Programs require you attend a ranger led program to complete the program. These are programs put on by rangers about a variety of park topics. Programs can be from short 20 minute programs to 2 hour hikes. Each park offers a wide variety. Program offerings are available on the park webpage, by calling the park, or grabbing a park newspaper when you arrive. Do your best to attend a program but if you really can’t get to one, talk to a ranger at the visitor center. Most will understand, as long as you tried, and can still swear you in.
When You Arrive
- Grab a booklet and talk to a ranger at the visitor center.
- Find out if you need to attend a ranger led program and grab a schedule from the visitor center.
- Make sure you have time to get to a visitor center before it closed to get sworn in. If you do not have the time to make it to a visitor center before it closes, you can usually mail the booklet in after your trip and get a badge or patch. I talk more about that below.
My Personal Pro Tips
Below are some of my personal opinions on how to make the most of the Junior Ranger Program. I acknowledge that I am not a parent and ultimately, you know what is best for you and your child. So take the following with a grain of salt.
Let the kids do the work
Don’t do the work for them. If your child needs help with the program, by all means, please help them, just don’t do the entire program for them. I often received booklets that were clearly done by the parent just hoping to fast track the process and get the “reward.”
Talk to the rangers
Let them talk to the ranger: Did you complete a booklet? No? Is the ranger swearing you in? No? Then let your child interact with the ranger! When the ranger asks them a question, let them do their best to answer. There were so many times that I would be looking at the child, bent down to get to the child’s eye level, and I would ask them a question about the book and their parent would answer, without giving the child a chance! Some kids were shy and needed some communication help from their parents but the former still happened frequently.
It’s not about the reward
Your child might get fixated on the “reward”: I’ve heard from some parents that their child becomes so focused on just getting another badge, that they rush through program as fast as they can, missing on the opportunity to connect to the NPS site on a deeper level. I’m not saying every program needs to be a life-changing experience for your child, but this is something you can help keep in perspective with them.
Don’t stress out about it: I know saying that to a parent as a non-parent, might make you laugh but I’m saying it anyway. This program is not meant to be an added level of stress to your vacation. If things are going to plan when you are at the park just talk to a ranger at the visitor center. It doesn’t make you a good or bad parent if you complete the program or not. So do what works best for you and your family.
- Call or visit the park’s nps.gov website or check out this list to see if where you are going has a junior ranger program.
- Make time to attend a Ranger Led Program-most booklets require this and you can learn about the park from ranger!
- Remember, the program is about connecting to a place, not about achieving the badge or patch.
- Have fun and let the program help facilitate the experience, but not make or break it.
- Do your research and always check out the nps.gov webpage and or give the park a call to help plan your trip.
It is never too late to start participating in the Junior Ranger Program. And I’m talking about you individually and your family. Will your park experience be less valuable if you don’t participate in the program? No, of course not. There are many different ways to experience our public lands. The Junior Ranger Program was not created as something families had to do to enjoy a place. It was meant to help facilitate a positive outdoor experience–a tool for learning and exploration.
I asked an old coworker why they thought the Junior Ranger Program was important. Here is what she shared:
“The best part of my day is swearing in a new Junior Ranger. The Junior Ranger Program is the reason I became a Ranger. As a kid it focused my attention so I could learn and not become overwhelmed. Today I make a point to introduce people at every skill level to the Junior Ranger Program. Many parks only require you be young at heart to become a Junior Ranger, so I continue to do books and collect badges. “
-Lucy Craft, Park Guide at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, Longtime Junior Ranger
Lucy was my mentor at Grand Teton National Park and continues to be that and a friend today. She has shown me her Junior Ranger badges and patches from when she was a little girl. I’ve seen the faded photos of her visiting the national parks she would one day be a ranger at. I’m not saying every every child who becomes a Junior Ranger will grow up to to work for NPS. What I am saying is that it just might be the activity that makes that one trip that one summer, a lifelong memory. It just might be the activity that inspires a lifelong connection to the outdoors. It just might be the activity that inspires them to take their own kids to a national park one day.