Explore, learn, protect

The poor Maiden. Her parents leaf through 1001 Places To See Before You Die every couple days and are determined to actually see all 1001 of said places before they die.  They also obsessively collect National Park stamp cancellations for their Park Passport.  They’re geeks and they drag her all over the country on ridiculous driving trips.  She’s going to love being a teenager in our house.

Sightseeing and visiting parks and museums isn’t always that thrilling for younger kids, either (unless it’s a please touch museum specifically geared to kids, in which case it’s not so thrilling for parents, especially afterward, when the kid gets swine flu from “please touch”-ing some germy exhibit).  One thing that’s helped the Maiden keep from driving us crazy when we’re trying to sightsee appreciate what she’s seeing is the National Park Service’s excellent Junior Ranger program for kids.

The Junior Ranger program isn’t a glorified scouting program, and it’s much more than just taking hikes and collecting rocks.  It’s an incredible opportunity to learn about the natural history or culture of an area or people.  The program’s motto is “Explore, Learn, Protect,” and that’s the focus of the hundreds of sub-programs available.  That’s right, hundreds: each of the hundreds of participating National Parks, Places, and Monuments scattered across the U.S. has its own Junior Ranger program centering around what makes that park or area unique.  Most have prepared an activity booklet (and it’s often available online as well), but some have special ranger-led programs for the kids, and others have even more complex activities.  Age ranges vary; although many of the activities seem to focus on older kids (the six to twelve-year-old age bracket seems a good fit), most of them can be done with some level of success with a much younger kid.  It just takes a lot more parental guidance and patience.

The guidance and patience have paid off, though.  Whenever we’re about to visit a site affiliated with the National Park Service, we download and print the activity booklet, and start working through it with the Maiden.  She may not understand everything involved, but we do our best to make it relevant: for example, when we visited Lincoln’s birthplace this summer, we focused on Lincoln’s family, what he did as a boy, and how log cabins were made.  (Lincoln Logs helped with the latter!)  When we arrive at the site, she has a little perspective on where she is and why it’s important.

Better still, because we save an activity to do when we’re actually there– like a scavenger hunt or picture matching– she gets to interact with the exhibits instead of lying in a bored lump on the floor while her parents read descriptions and prod her along with their sneakers.  On our last park excursion–visiting a historic plantation–the Maiden was actively interested in finding a punkah, a human-powered fan shaped like a giant paddle.  I couldn’t believe how much better she behaved than her typical museum persona, and I think the difference was her involvement beforehand.  If she wanted to go to the plantation so that she could see the “funny fan” she’d learned about– and circle it in her Junior Ranger book– it put the trip in her hands.  Perhaps she didn’t  feel as though we were dragging her to yet another parent-place against her will.

National Parks, Historic Areas, Monuments, Trails: they’re all over the country, and chances are there’s one not far from your home.  On vacation or visiting family?  First visit the National Park website to see if there’s something to see nearby.  If you’re unable to visit any of the sites (or even if you are), check out the online Web Ranger program; it’s an additional way to explore America’s natural and cultural heritage.  It’s worth the effort, and not just for the kids.  Whole families will start developing a new appreciation for the natural, historical, and cultural forces that shaped the nation.

When the kids complete a specific park’s or area’s Junior Ranger requirements, they receive a Junior Ranger badge with the park’s name.  Apparently, some kids collect them as obsessively as their parents collect park stamp cancellations.  I guess this means we’ve started the Maiden on the track of compulsive traveling…and we couldn’t be happier.  Someday, we may need to formally apologize to our grandkids for how we raised our daughter.  In the meantime, though, we hope this is a step towards a lifelong interest in exploring the amazing things in just about every corner of the globe!

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