Badges of honor: celebrating Junior Rangers

Raise your right hand and repeat after the ranger:

“I am proud to be a National Park Service Junior Ranger. I promise to appreciate, respect, and protect all national park places. I also promise to continue learning about the landscape, plants, animals, and history of these special places. I will share what I learn with my friends and family.”

With that oath, and a completed Junior Ranger booklet, you too can join the millions of people, the young and the young-at-heart, who have become Junior Rangers with the National Park Service (NPS).

The NPS Junior Ranger program is an activity-based educational program aimed at visitors between the ages of 4 and 12 (although any visitor can participate). Many NPS units have their own booklet and activities tailored specifically to the history and resources of their park — the Apostle Islands booklet for instance includes activities about Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe Language) and a lighthouse log book activity among other things — most feature hands-on games and investigations in science, history, and art.

Junior Ranger Activity Guide
Junior Ranger Activity Guide

The booklets ask young visitors and their families to “Explore, Learn, and Protect” (as the program’s motto goes) the park that they are enjoying with the goal of observing, learning, looking closely at the park around them, and having fun. Upon successfully completing the booklet, prospective junior rangers show their work to a ranger who may gently guide them towards correcting a few of the answers before “swearing them in” and presenting them with an official Junior Ranger patch, certificate, or badge.

“This is a long-established tradition that connects ‘kids’ of all ages to the park,” says Justin Olson, Deputy Program Manager, Interpretation and Education at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore who himself became a Junior Ranger at six years old. “Growing up in Denver,” says Olson, “my family did trips to various national parks around Colorado and neighboring states. I loved talking to the rangers, going to the evening programs, and especially the Junior Ranger books. Can I trace my career back to that first badge at Rocky Mountain National Park? Not with a straight line, but it certainly influenced my love of the outdoors and national parks, and the Junior Ranger program.”

Most park historians trace the origins of the program back to the Yosemite Junior Nature School begun in 1930 by park naturalist Charles A. Harwell. That program engaged young visitors in nature activities, answering questions, even attending meetings and was so successful that by the 1960’s similar programs had been widely adopted in other parks. By 2005, national standards were established, and the number of participating parks soared.

Today, Junior Ranger programs are offered in 315 of the 423 NPS units across the country, including the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. In most cases they are free (although a minimal fee is charged in some parks). Each year well over a million patches, certificates, and badges are given out across the country at school programs, to park visitors, and now even online for those who cannot visit a park in person through the “WebRangers” program at www.nps.gov/webrangers or by downloading the booklets from individual parks.

Just as many people collect the passport stamps from the various parks they visit, some people have taken on the collection of Junior Ranger badges. Aida Frey, a teenage from Kentucky, is unofficially known as “the most decorated Junior Ranger” with over 300 badges.

Ranger Katie Sloan keeps her collection of 145 Junior Ranger badges including one from the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, on the visors of her car – photos by Katie Sloan

Katie Sloan, herself now a NPS Ranger who has worked in a variety of parks, says “My collection began in Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument. I was visiting and they were offering a junior ranger program designed for kids of course, but they were talking about scat and that fun stuff. I got sworn in and was hooked.” Sloan’s collection of 145 badges and counting, including one from the Apostle Islands, is proudly displayed on the visors of her car.

Erica Peterson, a board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands who has worked in various parks including Everglades, Rocky Mountain, and Apostle Islands, has seen the program work its magic, on kids and rangers alike. “One of my most rewarding job responsibilities as a national park ranger was to encourage young people to become a junior ranger. From my position behind the visitor center’s information desk, I experienced many a child’s excitement upon completing the program booklet’s activities, puzzles, games, and questions. At first it is intimidating, somewhat hard, but then the wonder of discovery takes hold, and the mad dash to find all the answers prevails. Sometimes parents are involved and other times it is brothers, sisters, or friends. As the ranger I fielded many curious questions without giving any answers, just hints. Their final reward is a badge, just like the one I wore on my uniform, and presented with an announcement to interested bystanders. When pinning on their badge I frequently detected a sense of pride, a light kindled, and found myself imagining the good this young person will some time do for the sake of a park. If only we could add ‘Junior Ranger’ to the list of all the things every child should experience.”

To help make that experience a little more possible for everyone, Friends of the Apostle Islands is proud to support the program by providing the funds to purchase the 600-800 Junior Ranger badges given out each year at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. So next time you are at the park, ask for a Junior Ranger booklet, have fun, explore, learn, discover, and then raise your right hand and repeat after the ranger.  

For more on the Junior Ranger program of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore including digital versions of the booklet and a video of a swearing-in ceremony, visit the park website.

Apostle Islands Junior Ranger Activity Guide
How to become a Junior Ranger in the park or at home

Featured image: swearing in ceremony outside the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore headquarters – NPS photo


Jeff Rennicke is Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He is also an educator, outdoor adventure travel writer and photographer.