To date our kids have earned 112 Junior Ranger badges at the various National Park, National Historic Sites, and Monuments run by the National Park Service. Its a great way to learn more about the parks we visit, often giving us direction and more information about the wildlife, geology and history (see our list of badges).
We find these booklets are a great learning experience for kids and adults alike. Sam and I have learned a lot about our National Parks by helping our kids complete their activities. These badges aren’t just for kids though! Anyone can complete the work and be sworn is as a Jr. Ranger so don’t be afraid to ask next time you visit a NPS site.
We decided its time for a little Junior Ranger 101 and tried to tackle the most common questions we hear. If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask!
What is a Junior Ranger?
The Junior Ranger program is an activity based program conducted in most parks across the country. Potential Junior Rangers received a booklet from the visitor center, and upon completion are sworn in and received a patch or badge. The motto of Junior Ranges is “Explore, Learn, Protect!” and the activities reinforce these values through puzzles, question and answers, observation, and outdoor activities. Each program is unique to the park and they vary widely. Some have been newspaper fold outs, some are extensive booklets with amazing graphics, some are simply printed in black and white and stapled together.
Where Can I Earn a Junior Ranger Badge?
Most National Park sites have Junior Ranger programs. Many people don’t realize they are even in a NPS run site – when we visited the St. Louis Arch three years ago I was shocked that there was an entire museum below ground run by the National park Service. Its official name is the “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial” and yes, there is a badge. I’m still waiting for the chance to get back there and earn it.
Wildlife refuges often have badges (we earned our first one in Florida last year), and many state parks also have their own programs. California’s program is quite extensive and time consuming as its designed for local kids to visit multiple parks over their summer break. Humboldt County also an an EdVenture Quest where kids can solve a riddle to earn a patch (California Jr. Ranger Program & Redwood EdVentures Quest). Colorado has one badge for all the parks, while Arizona has a unique button for each park.
The most unique badge we’ve heard of is the Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg for the Junior Secret Service Agent in Training program. You have to go to the Gettysburg National Battlefield Visitor Center and take a bus to the site, but then can be sworn in as Junior Secret Service Agent. How cool is that?
Chances are, if there’s a visitor center they probably have a program for kids. You just have to ask.
How Does the Program Work?
Our first stop at most NPS sites is the Visitor Center where we pick up our books. Rangers are generally excited to hand them out and are supportive of kids wanting to learn more about the park! Books in hand, we take a look at the activities required. There are usually different age groups with various requirements. Older kids have to do more complicated activities, while younger kids have activities that are more appropriate to their age. The best part is that as they get older our kids are more capable of doing it one their own! At this point, Cara still needs quite a bit of help but she’s getting there now her reading skills are up to snuff.
Once you’ve completed the book, take it back to the visitor center and have the ranger check it over. They make sure the kids have done enough work and check their answers. Some rangers are extremely thorough (Saguaro National Park) and others give it a cursory glance and call it good. Depends on how much time they have or how many kids are lined up to pass off their books. The ranger then signs their certificate, and the kids line up for their pledge. After raising their right arm the kids repeat the pledge after the ranger. My favorite pledges involve promises to “eat their vegetables” and “obey their parents”. After they’ve been sworn in, they get a handshake and their badges!
Does it Cost Money?
Most of the programs are free, but a few charge a nominal fee. Yosemite has both a free and a paid version (you earn a patch with the paid book), and Yellowstone charges $3 per book. I think they just get so many visitors that it would be cost prohibitive to provide the program for free at those parks.
What do the Badges Look Like?
Each badge is different. We’ve learned that some have the generic NPS logo (the arrowhead, bison, river, tree) on them, while others have a graphic specific to the park. The latter are definitely our favorite and now the kids are disappointed when its just the “regular” one.
Some parks have wooden badges and we are finding these more common. At first I thought they weren’t all that great, but slowly they’ve absolutely become my favorite ones. We’ve found wooden badges at Yosemite, Zion, Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Chiricahua and Fort Bowie to name a few.
We’ve also run into a few metal badges. They tend to be smaller, but also are unique and fun to collect.
Most parks no longer have patches. I feel like budget cuts have made it impossible for parks to keep offering these. Sometimes you can buy a Junior Ranger patch in the bookstore (they are usually around $5) or if a park still has some, they offer the choice between a patch and a badge. We snagged up some of the last patches White Sands National Park had as they said they aren’t getting any more.
Junior Ranger Hats & Vests
Some visitor center bookstores have a collection of Junior Ranger items. We’ve seen binoculars, books, pencils, and most importantly: hats & vests. We bought our kids hats when they had earned their first 5 badges, and then vests once those started to fill up. If we loaded ALL our badges and patches onto the clothing I’m sure I wouldn’t even be able to see my kids anymore! It does create quite a stir when they walk into a NPS site all decked out.
For awhile we sewed patches on the back of my kids’ vests, but then it got crowded! I still love having them on there, even if the kids don’t to wear their vests anymore. I think they just got tired of all the attention, plus the vests just got HEAVY.
At some point, I’d love to create a wall hanging for the badges, or even a quilt with a map of the USA and sew on their patches. There’s lot of options, but for now we collect and then drop them off in storage when we swing through Utah. We just don’t have room for all of them right now!
Other Options for Earning Badges
If you can’t make it to a National Park, or miss out on earning a badge don’t worry! Many of the parks have the booklets available for download on their sites and then you can mail it in (see our post How to Mail in Jr. Ranger Booklets to Get Your Badge).
You can also mail in your books if you don’t make it the Visitor Center before it closes, or just run out of time to get it done.
There are also badges connected to multiple parks, or even no parks at all. We’ve earned the Ocean Steward Badge (picked up at Olympic National Park), Wilderness 50th Anniversary, Junior Night Ranger Explorer (coolest patch ever!), Paleontologist, Underwater Explorer (picked up in Wisconsin and turned in in Florida), Historic Preservation, and the Centennial Jr. Ranger.
We’ve also printed off the Junior Archaeologist Book, Cave Explorer, and the Underground Railroad. I have these on hand and we work on them occasionally to supplement our school work. Eventually we’ll mail them in to collect our badges!
Web Rangers Online
Last, but not least, there’s also a Web Rangers program! It is an online activity for kids where they learn about, History, Nature, Puzzles, Science, Parks and Animals.
After logging on, each child gets to design a ranger station. From there, they can explore many activities about our presidents, animals, sea, earth, and lots of other topics! My kids also like that there are lots of fun puzzles to do to.
As they complete activities, a bar graph on the side moves on the category of Easy, Medium, or Hard. When you finish all of the activities the “lamp of brilliance” turns on and you can submit your name for a patch!
Related Articles – For more information check out these other great articles on the Jr. Ranger Program!