The Joys of Being a Junior Ranger

By Kate Havelin, Community Outreach

OK, kids, step away from the TVs, it’s time to earn your badges.

I’m talking Junior Ranger badges—the small, shiny bits of bling that kids ages 5 to 12 get after they complete an activity booklet at a national park. Here in the Twin Cities, kids can earn their badges at the Mississippi River Visitor Center (located in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul); Mill City Museum; and the East Coon Rapids Dam Visitor Center; and this month, kids can come to Coldwater Spring to earn their badge outdoors, at Junior Ranger Day January 18, 1 pm.

So what’s the thrill of getting a gold (OK, gold plastic) badge?  For lots of kids and their families, the badge is a coveted collectible. You can’t buy these badges in a store. Kids have to do a little work to get them. Becoming a Junior Ranger gives kids a chance to have some fun while they learn about a national park.
Ranger Brian helps two Junior Rangers 
At this month’s Junior Ranger Day, kids and their families can become nature’s detectives, seeking out animal tracks and scoping out the signs of wildlife. We’ll play matching games with animal footprints. Thanks to the Jeffers Family Foundation, families can sip cocoa while they play in the park. It’s free fun for all, no signup needed.

You never need a reservation to earn a Junior Ranger Badge, and there’s no limits on how many badges a kid can collect. The National Parks Foundation notes that there are more than 200 Junior Ranger programs nationwide. I volunteer at the Mississippi Visitor Center and see families who make a special trip to the Visitor Center so their kids can earn their latest badge.

It’s cool to see kids filling out the Junior Ranger booklets. At the Visitor Center, they play a mussel matching game, and measure their footprints as they step across a floor graphic, a giant aerial photograph of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Kids carefully count their footsteps as they walk along the birds’-eye view of the river, trying to find out just how big our national park is here. (Spoiler alert—the park spans 72 miles of the river, from Dayton to Hastings). It’s amazing to see just how focused kids, from preschoolers to teenagers, can get when they’re tracking their footprints to count the miles. Once kids complete their Junior Ranger booklets, it’s often picture time. Parents like to take pictures of their kids with a National Park Service ranger, as the kids take the Junior Ranger pledge, “As a Junior Ranger of the Mississippi River, I promise to explore the river, learn about the river, and protect the river.”

The Junior Ranger activities vary at each park. At the Mill City Museum, for example, kids learn about the Minneapolis riverfront, Mill Ruins Park, as well as the city’s explosive history of flour milling. Kids count the tracks in the museum’s train shed; play I Spy, Fill in the Blanks, and Scavenger Hunts to find answers to why the Stone Arch Bridge was built, what was stored in metal tubes, and what caused the mill’s fires. At Coon Rapids, kids look for signs of some of the park’s abundant wildlife then write a short story about one animal.

So kids, it’s simple. It’s time to play games, answer questions, and earn badges. You too can be a Junior Ranger! Come to Coldwater, and earn a badge on Saturday, January 18.