The junior ranger program is meant to spark curiosity in the natural world for kids. And once that curiosity gets sparked, just get ready for a torrent of questions an adult would never ask.
"What do trees eat?"
"What do bananas have to do with slugs?"
According to park ranger Elizabeth Villano, Lead Ranger at Muir Woods National Monument, kids' questions are often the most insightful she gets. They caught her off guard early in her career, but now she knows to be on her toes.
"You're illuminating more of the mysteries of the park, and we can marvel at the fact that yes, it's actually incredible that everything you see that's green is harnessing the sun for energy," Villano said. "It's those simple, wise questions that are part of what I love about it."
The best places to get badges in the are the parks themselves. Pick up a special GGNRA 50th anniversary badge at the Presidio Visitor Center, and get site-specific badges at Fort Point National Historic Site, Alcatraz Island, and the Muir Woods Visitor Center.
Lands End Lookout has "Beach Buddy" badges for friends of Petey Plover, and kids have been able to get "Reading Ranger" badges for completing Summer Stride reading, thanks to our partnership with the San Francisco Public Library.
At park sites, kids fill out a booklet and get "sworn in" by real rangers to get their badge. Booklets can be downloaded and printed at home, or sent in to receive a badge in return. Badges cannot be sent internationally. Check the NPS website or call 415-561-4700 for more information.
There are examples of National Park Service (NPS) junior ranger programs going back to 1930, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) has been running programs for at least 15 years.
Kids can get badges at several sites, and learn about fascinating history and ecology through activity booklets. At Muir Woods, they'll learn about redwood tree rings and the history of the Coast Miwok in the area. At Fort Point, they'll learn about the Buffalo Soldiers and interview a ranger. Which could even spark a park ranger career!
The booklets are easier for younger ages and available in multiple languages, making it a program for all kids.
"Youth connecting with their parks, that's the future of parks, making sure the next generation loves and cares for them," Villano said. "One of the ways to do that is to make it fun, and I think the junior ranger program does a great job of that."
Just be prepared for ANY question that follows!