By Rachael Graf, Community Engagement Coordinator at Outer Banks Forever
Each year, thousands of kids across the country who visit national parks pledge to protect and continue to learn about these parks, as well as share their national park stories with friends and family members.
These Junior Rangers, from earning their first badge to earning their hundredth (or more), represent the next generation of national park lovers and stewards.
“We had roughly more than 17,000 Junior Rangers sworn in across all three parks last year, which is very similar to the year before,” said Elizabeth Hudick, former North District interpreter and Supervisory Park Ranger at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and Wright Brothers National Memorial. “That was up nearly 4,000 over the previous year, though, which itself was up from the past several years. Overall, I would say that participation in the program is on the rise.”
But how does one become a Junior Ranger?
First of note, the Junior Ranger program is open to participants of any age, so anyone who wants to participate may do so.
“Our Junior Ranger program is designed for kids of all ages and anyone young at heart,” said Jonathan Polk, Supervisory Park Ranger for Interpretation, Education and Visitor Services at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Those who want to officially get sworn in as Junior Rangers can do so in a variety of ways.
“Folks can pick up a Junior Ranger book at any Seashore visitor center or museum or even download the book from our website before they come,” said Polk. “The program is designed to be an in-park program, so once they have completed the activities in the book and attended any ranger program, they can bring the book back to any Seashore visitor center or museum to get their badge.”
Ranger programs are offered in all three Outer Banks national parks throughout the year, covering topics and stories such as Seashore marine life, the Underground Railroad and the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island and the ongoing legacy of the Wright Brothers, to name only a few. These programs are family friendly, but a couple of them do require participants to be a certain age.
“During the summer season, programs like our ‘Surf Fish with a Ranger’ program and our ‘Kayak with a Ranger’ program do have age limits due to safety concerns with the nature of the programs,” Polk said.
“For ‘Surf Fish with a Ranger,’ participants of any age can sign up for the program. However, to be able to cast on their own, they must be at least 12 years old or above. Children under 12 will need an adult to cast for them. Typically, we only register one to two kids under 12 per responsible adult.
“For Kayak with a Ranger, participants aged 12 and up can paddle their own kayak. Participants aged seven and up can be seated in a tandem kayak with an adult, and children aged six and under are not allowed on the program.”
While the Junior Ranger programs emphasize attending ranger programs in the parks, options are available at each park for those who cannot attend in person.
“For anyone that can’t attend a program for any reason, they can just talk to a ranger and maybe ask some questions or check out exhibits in the museum. We’re very flexible with the ‘attending a program’ requirement of the Junior Ranger program,” said Polk. “The ultimate goal of the program is for participants to have an enjoyable experience while engaging with and learning about park resources while working to earn their Junior Ranger badge.”
The same is true at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and Wright Brothers National Memorial.
During the winter months, visitor centers at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and Wright Brothers National Memorial remain staffed, and ranger programs will be offered daily at each park. Junior Ranger books can be picked up any time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and once a participant has completed their book, a park ranger or volunteer will swear them in.
At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, things work a little differently.
“When we don’t have any ranger programs scheduled, we waive that requirement so folks can still earn their badge,” said Polk. “As we get into the winter and not all facilities are open all the time and we have limited staffing, I also advise staff to go ahead and give badges to the parents at the same time we hand out the books; that way, they don’t have to go through the trouble of finding a ranger later in their visit.”
Since the Outer Banks national parks preserve the diverse stories of the people who have shaped the Outer Banks community and beyond, the Junior Ranger programs at each of the parks reflect that diversity, like the Junior Ranger program at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
“Fort Raleigh’s Junior Ranger program encourages visitors to learn about the many stories of the park,” said Adair Raybon, former Acting Lead Park Ranger at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and current Lead Park Ranger at Wright Brothers National Memorial. “From Algonquian culture to modern-day archaeological findings, and from the ‘Lost Colony’ to the Freedmen’s Colony, there’s something for everyone!”
Junior Rangers often think creatively about history.
“Part of the Junior Ranger program at Fort Raleigh is learning about the ‘Lost Colony,’ and we love to ask Junior Rangers what they think happened to the missing colonists,” said Raybon. “They also get to pretend they’re recruiting people to join them on an expedition and create a ‘motto,’ and we’ve seen some great – and – hilarious answers.
“My favorite part of the Wright Brothers Junior Ranger program is the page [in the Junior Ranger book] where kids design a monument to anyone of their choosing. There’s so much variety – from presidents to civil rights icons to parents and siblings – and each monument is unique!”
Once a participant has attended a ranger program and completed their activities in their Junior Ranger book, they’re ready to say the Junior Ranger pledge, get sworn in and receive their badge.
While the three Outer Banks national parks have funding available for these increasingly popular programs, sometimes they need a little help from their friends, which is where Outer Banks Forever comes in.
Established in 2019, Outer Banks Forever is the official nonprofit fundraising partner of the Outer Banks national parks. In the summer of 2022, Outer Banks Forever – thanks to the generosity of their donors – helped cover the cost of locally printing 2,000 Junior Flight Ranger books for Wright Brothers National Memorial when supply chain issues delayed the park’s order. More than 9,000 kids participated in the program from April to August of that year. Additionally, Outer Banks Forever covered the cost of 2,500 Junior Ranger badges for Junior Rangers at Cape Hatteras National Seashore that same year.
“Our park rangers do such an amazing job making these stories interesting and relevant through the Junior Ranger program,” said Jessica Barnes, Director of Outer Banks Forever. “We are honored to help support them in reaching more young people, locally and from around the world!”
As it turns out, kids aren’t the only ones inspired by the program.
“I once got to swear in a Junior Ranger with the same name as me, which is not a common name,” said Raybon. “I cried. It was so sweet.”
To learn more about the Junior Ranger programs at the Outer Banks national parks, please visit the links below:
Photo Credit: Wright Brothers National Memorial