We recently returned from a massive summer road-trip and are amazed at all our preschooler learned along the way.
Learning through travel is not a novel concept – expanding your horizons happens automatically when you’re exploring all that a destination has to offer…like art and culture, history, science, different people and food…
We hit cities such as NYC, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. — locations which just ooze with learning opportunities, but what you might not think about while trip-planning is just how much the National Park System (NPS) can provide!
When you think of the NPS, images of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite probably spring to your mind. Hiking and active outdoor opportunities in these locales are obvious, but the NPS offers so much more.
First of all, there are several different National Park Site designations – more than just the typical Park that you immediately think of. There are actually 417 units of the NPS and they can be found in all 50 states as well as at least 5 U.S. territories.
These units include:
- National Parks
- Historical Sites and Parks
- Military Parks
- Battlefields and Battlefield Parks
- Recreation Areas
- Historic and Scenic Trails
- Heritage Areas
- And other, special areas, like the National Mall or White House
Can you believe all the variety offered to your family through these parks?
Not only will you find opportunities to hike and explore outdoor recreational fun, but you can learn about history, science, art, music and even more – sometimes you can even get all of this in one park, like we did on the Blue Ridge Parkway this summer!
Some of Gv’s favorite parts of our trip included not only our many hikes, but watching an artist at work at the Folk Art Center, learning about the differences between different mountain instruments at the Blue Ridge Music Center, and discovering the difference between a rock and a mineral at The Museum of North Carolina Minerals.
She even stumped the rangers at the main Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor’s Center by asking them what the difference was between an insect and a bug!
Learning just happens, when you travel!
Once you realize just how many NPS sites are out there, it shouldn’t take you long to jump onto nps.gov to search for one near you.
After you locate a nearby NPS site, it’s time to head out the door and explore what it has to offer. There will most likely be many options for your family, but you’ll want to make sure you check out the Jr. Ranger Program.
Almost all of the NPS sites offer the Jr. Ranger Program. Just request a packet from the Visitor’s Center upon your arrival and get ready to explore the site on a whole other level!
The program is tailored to ages 5-12, but it’s open to all ages and there are plenty of items that a preschooler can complete, either on their own or with the help of a parent for the writing.
After completing the packet, your child will meet with the Park Ranger to answer a few questions, recite the Jr. Ranger Pledge, and receive his or her very own Jr. Ranger Badge for that location!
On our trip this summer, Gv earned 10 badges, along with a special patch and pin for her efforts. She learned so much (so did her parents!) and had a blast participating in this program.
Pop on over to my Epic Road Trip post to read more about all that we saw and experienced this summer, as well as see what this travel-learning actually looks like for a preschooler!
It was such a fantastic way to stay connected as a family while we were exploring the sites and I just kept saying that I wished they’d had this program when I was little!
When we returned home, we learned that not only can you earn badges from the various NPS sites, but there are several you can earn from home, as well!
Badges for archeology, bats, preservation, caves, paleontology and many more are available for your child to earn – just download the packet and mail it in. There’s even a special badge for the upcoming solar eclipse! Click on over here to find what you need.
Besides earning physical badges, the NPS site also offers WebRanger activities. These are set up for older children, but Gv has already collected several virtual badges on this site. G or I have to read the information aloud to her, but so far, she’s been able to complete the activities all by herself!
Another great resource that we found at several NPS locations is the Track Trails Program. This is run by www.kidsinparks.com and sends your child fun goodies to mark each accomplishment.
We collected brochures from special Track Trails kiosks during our travels. Each brochure presents a different topic to focus on while hiking in that area. Gv completed brochures focusing on flowers, trees, music, bugs, and more. You can use your smartphone to immediately log each trail, but since we still have dumb phones, I just logged them on the website when we returned home.
Gv has already received a certificate, tattoos, and a nature journal and has other goodies (like a patch) on the way!
Trails for this program are only in a limited number of states so far, but you can print out a “Backyard Adventures” brochure online to get started as you wait for other states to be added (or to head out for a big trip, yourself!)
Finally, when we returned home, I poked around our neighborhood to see if I could find any other options for programs like these. I discovered that the state of Florida offers its own Jr. Ranger Program for visiting state parks, so now we’ve got a new bucket list of places to explore, all within a day’s drive!
The state program is organized a bit differently than the national one, but we’re still looking forward to all the fun it will provide. Check to see if your state’s park system offers a similar program.
In addition to the national and state options we’ve found, I discovered that several local parks and preserves also offer fun activities for kids. We attend a weekly story-and-craft time at a local wildlife preserve and even they print a fun little scavenger hunt brochure for kids to use while hiking the trails.
The world can truly be your classroom and utilizing the National Park System is one way to take advantage of all the amazing resources that are offered throughout the adventure of travel!
Get out and explore all that the NPS has to offer in your area!
Has your child ever participated in the Junior Ranger Program? I’d love to hear! Either leave a comment below or email me at lisahealy (at) outlook (dot) com.