Where: 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA
When: Open daily from 7 am-dusk, admission is free
As the parent of an early-elementary kid (she’s a rising first grader), somewhere in between pool trips and ice cream cones and hanging out with friends, it occasionally occurs to me that we should do something to prevent summer slide. During summer, she is required to keep a journal and for every 7 journal entries, she earns a small prize. This is great, but now that she’s nearly 7, I have been casting around for other ways to keep her reading and writing skills up during summer break. I decided we would dip a toe into the waters of the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program, which is a wonderful program designed to help kids enjoy National Parks, dig a bit deeper into the history and background of parks they visit, and make education fun and rewarding. We already have a National Parks passport which we get stamped at each park visit, but the Junior Ranger program is another way to enjoy parks with kids.
For our first Junior Ranger outing we settled on Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna. Locally known and loved as a venue for amazing concerts and Children’s Theatre in the Woods program, Wolf Trap is also a National Park, the only one in the country devoted to the performing arts. Although most people probably associate Wolf Trap with the Filene Center, the park is full of walking trails – the Wolf Trap trail, which is a 2.5 mile hike around the perimeter of the park, and the kid-friendly Wolf Trap TRACK trail, which is a 1.5 mile loop paired with a variety of activity booklets created by the Kids in Parks initiative, which works to get kids and parents outdoors and enjoying state and national parks together. By creating an account for your kids at Kids in Parks, you can track various hikes and activities using an online “journal” and access different activity pamphlets for a variety of parks.
Once you’ve parked and entered Wolf Trap, a short walk down to the Ranger Stand will get you all squared away. Simply find the park ranger, ask for an activity book, and get started! The Junior Ranger program is designed to appeal to kids roughly between the ages of 5 and 12, and the booklet we got was double-sided, with easier activities for the early-elementary set and harder ones for the late-elementary set. For my kids, the early-elementary side of the booklet was perfect, with short questions that could be answered by reading park information plaques (“Are there still wolves at Wolf Trap?”) and a scavenger hunt which encouraged a long walk through the woods in the hopes that they would find everything on the list (18 out out of 25, not too shabby).
Once we’d finished our activity booklet we returned to the ranger station where the park ranger checked to make sure everything had been completed, then signed saying the girls were “honorary park rangers.” Each park has its own Junior Ranger badge, but at Wolf Trap, kids who complete the Junior Ranger booklet have the option of choosing between the standard badge and a patch. My oldest daughter, who is also a Girl Scout Daisy, chose the patch to go along with all the other patches she’s earned that are in a Ziploc baggie because I haven’t managed to attach them to her Daisy smock yet, whoops.
Currently, over 200 National Parks around the country have a Junior Ranger program. For many of the parks, the booklets are available online and can be completed and mailed in for a badge or picked up and turned in at that park’s ranger station. The Kids in Parks program runs in both National Parks and several state parks, but the Junior Ranger program itself is only available in National Parks. Fueled by the satisfaction of success, my kids are now eager and excited to do more Junior Ranger booklets, so we’ll be squeezing in quite a few more during the last month of summer (we are lucky to be within driving distance of many Virginia, Maryland, DC, and even Pennsylvania parks). For kids around age 5, the booklet should be doable with some help from mom or dad, and older kids will be able to complete most or all of the activities on their own. I would say many kids who are rising kindergartners would be capable of doing the activities in the booklet with help, and the challenge is well worth the fun and reward that comes with completing a booklet and earning the badge.