Thursday, August 23, 2012

South Dakota National Parks: Junior Rangers

If you ever make it to any of our nation's National Parks, and are a homeschooling family, make sure you check out the Junior Ranger Program. It's an absolute must.

Admittedly, it takes a whole lot of extra time, but the level of learning just cannot be found in any other way. They are there. They can see, smell, touch their surroundings, and the Junior Ranger program encourages them to look at all the tiny details they would otherwise glance right over.

If you visit a park ranger, they will give your kids a workbook, based on their age. The program usually includes kids ages five to twelve, and there are different requirements for finishing based on how old they are. The workbook is filled with activities that require them to walk through visitor centers and read the displays, search for details, and answer questions. They cover all kinds of history and science and social studies, and some of them really make kids think. Many of the programs require a hike or walk through the area, where they will complete a 'scavenger hunt' while looking for little bits of nature around them.

Usually, in order to complete the program and receive a badge, you are also required to attend a ranger talk, walk, or other program. We learned years ago how educational these can be - rangers are full of information specific to their park, and they love to share it - especially with kids. On our trip, we spent an hour being led through a cave, we listened to a talk about fossils (complete with real fossils to look at and touch) and we attended a walk around Mt. Rushmore where we were taught about the history and geology of the project.

When the book is all finished, and you've attended your ranger program, your kids take their books back to the visitor center where they are presented with a certificate and a Junior Ranger badge. They are also required to take an oath that they will do their best to preserve America's lands and share their newfound information with family and friends.

My girls earned three badges on this trip. First, we visited Jewel Cave National Monument:

Since the ranger leading the walk knew they were working on their Junior Ranger badges, she gave them the honor of occasionally leading our tour group to different locations. They loved this.

And of course, The Daddy and I are were just as fascinated (if not a little more) than the girls were with all the cave formations we saw. Really neat stuff down there - definitely worth the time if you are in the area, and aren't claustrophobic.

After that, we drove through Badlands National Park. It has it's own kind of beauty, though it's not far off from what we have here in Western Colorado. The colors were more impressive though. I did buy some yarn as my trip souvenir in the colors of the Badlands. :-) 

Next, we visited Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. It's awe-inspiring, the way the mountain was carved. You don't really have any idea just how huge it is until you are there and actually seeing it.

And after all those, we took a quick scenic drive through Custer State Park. While not a National Park, Custer does have a Junior Naturalist program available for kids too. I was a little bummed we couldn't spend more time there, as I think this area might have been my favorite out of everything we saw. Wildlife abound...

And who can resist pushy donkeys that actually stick their heads in your car begging for treats?
We sure can't.
We drove all the way through, looking at the Needles, and driving along narrow, twisting roads and low, one-lane tunnels. I would have loved to have just stopped and spent a day or two hiking and looking and taking it all in. The plethora of different geological formations all through South Dakota is so impressive.

We're blessed here in the west to have so many different National Parks within driving distance, but I know they are scattered all over our country. So if you're looking for a really neat, hands on way to teach your kids some stuff about the world they live in, definitely go check them out. Each one has something different to offer!

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