Happy 100th birthday, National Park Service! This milestone marks a full century of Americans enjoying the natural and cultural wonders to be found at the 412 national parks from coast to coast (as well as Alaska and Hawaii, of course).
In honor of the auspicious occasion, I’m thrilled to welcome today’s guest poster. Frank Barrows, a dad and the superintendent at Fort Stanwix National Monument who has more than 16 years of experience with the National Park Service, shares his top tips for visiting national parks with kids. He knows from all perspectives the power of a great family visit to a national park and that’s more likely to happen with his words of wisdom.
I think there is a misconception that you have to be into camping, hiking, or adventure sports to enjoy visiting national parks with your kids, when in fact, parks are closer than you might think and you don’t have to be Bear Grylls to enjoy them. In reality, most people live within one hour of a national park and many of them are in urban settings.
Visiting national parks can lead to discovery and may facilitate connecting your kids with a new interest. My son has connected with different resources in every park that I’ve worked in. Here are some of my tips for visiting parks with kids:
1. Find out what kid-friendly options a park offers
Many parks have programs geared for kids such as story-hour gatherings, recreational trails, and other fun activities and events. A lot of these programs are free. If you are planning on attending a guided program, find one that is specifically for kids.
2. Become a Junior Ranger
Most national parks have a Junior Ranger program that focuses on the site you are visiting. There are also several national Junior Ranger booklets that explore topics such as the National Park Service Centennial, Underground Railroad, Archeology, Fossils, and more.
Many parks have Junior Ranger booklets available for download so you can print them out in advance.
Children can earn badges and patches for completing the Junior Ranger programs. Even if the activities are slightly advanced for your child’s age, or if your kids are older, many of them can be adapted.
Collecting Junior Ranger badges and patches can be a great way to keep track of all of the parks you visit. And, being sworn in as a Junior Ranger is cool at any age. You can also begin familiarizing your children with some of the more than 400 national park sites and community-based programs by visiting the WebRangers page and completing activities online that introduce them to national parks.
3. Don’t forget the basics
Bring a lunch, snacks, plenty of water, bug spray, sunscreen, and a couple changes of clothes (including swimming gear if you will be near water) – there will be plenty of opportunities for your children to get dirty while exploring in national parks, and that is half the fun.
Visiting a park with wildlife can be a very exciting experience for children. It is always a good idea to read up about the wildlife you may encounter in a park or talk to a ranger about how to view wildlife safely.
4. Alter your expectations and make room for spontaneous exploration
You may not get to see as much as you think you should and that’s okay. This is about creating an experience geared toward your child.
For some parents, this might mean shifting the way you typically engage with the natural and/or cultural world.
Before I had children, hiking was all about getting from a trailhead to a postcard view. I have been hiking with my 5-year-old since he was two and I learned that for him, the postcard view is far less exciting than the rocks underfoot, the sticks on the ground, and the animals and birds all around.
It’s okay if you don’t make it to a summit or get the perfect Instagram photo, just being outside and exploring can be the memory your child cherishes.
5. Create a fun game that teaches “Leave No Trace” and navigation
Whatever your child is interested in – streams, bugs, rocks, trolleys, cannons, etc. – make a game out of it. Count birds, bugs, or marked trees along a trail or try to find something that begins with every letter of the alphabet in the park you are exploring. Find a way to keep a record of what they find by letting them take photos, or simply by writing it down. This will allow them to pay attention to the activity and not feel the need to pick flowers, take leaves, or anything else that should remain in the park.
It can also be fun to reminisce about your visit when you get home by thumbing through your photo album or notebook. If hiking on a marked trail, let them learn to navigate by identifying trail markings and finding your location on a park map. Sometimes I like to pretend that I don’t know which way we need to go so my son feels like the leader.
For even more ideas on visiting parks with children, you can download the National Park Foundation’s free guide, Parks for Play: 35 National Park Adventures for Kids of All Ages.
A version of this post first appeared on the National Parks Foundation website here.
I hope that these great tips from a dad who has make your next experience visiting National Parks with kids fantastic!
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