The National Park Jr. Ranger Program

What is the Jr. Ranger Program?

The National Park Jr. Ranger program has been a fun way for our kids to go a little deeper into the history or science behind the National Parks we visit.

Participation involves completing a predetermined number of pages within a Jr. Ranger booklet (provided at the visitor center). Some activities may include watching a video, going on a hike, observing nature, drawing a picture or attending a Ranger led program. Upon completion of the booklets, Jr. Rangers raise their right hand and are sworn-in by promising to protect the National Park system, obey their parents or eat their vegetables (it all depends on the personality of the ranger on duty). Finally, a free badge and certificate of completion is awarded and there are smiles all around.

Our experience with the Jr. Ranger program

Our daughter (11) has been participating in the Jr. Ranger Program through the National Park system for a few years. Our younger two (5 and 7) have recently joined her. In our family, a green ranger vest is awarded once five badges have been earned. Now all three of them show up vested and ready for serious park business when we enter a new visitor center. Call me crazy but there is something seriously cute about seeing these three walk around all vested up with badges clinking.

National park Jr. Ranger pros:

  • With the exception of the Smoky Mountains National Park (which charged a few dollars per book), all ranger booklets have been free. Small pencils are typically provided as well, however this is not always the case (Mt. Rushmore did not), so it is good to keep a few extra in the car just in case.
  • Activities in the books often provide a great overview of the park. Details about what make the park unique are often presented in an age appropriate way.
  • The Park Rangers have been very kind, supportive and encouraging to our children at all of the parks we have visited.
  • Our older son almost opted to participate with the plan to sell his newly earned badges on eBay for a profit. We noticed that Jr. Ranger badges can sell for around $5-$8 so if you have a budding entrepreneur this might be the angle that intrigues them most!

national park Jr. Ranger cons:

  • Depending on the length of time we have to visit a park, we have occasionally felt almost enslaved to the completion of the booklets, especially if the required number of pages is on the upper end and our time in the park is on the lower end. I therefore really appreciate parks that say “complete as many pages as you like” in order to qualify.
  • Some of the pages are more along the lines of what I would consider to be “busy work”. For example, some children really enjoy word searches but I don’t consider them to be highly educational and yet they seem to be a very popular inclusion in the booklets.

national park Jr. Ranger tips:

  • If you have multiple children, try paring up youngers with olders to help work on the booklets. Most booklets are geared for ages 4-12 however all ages are welcome and even adults can participate. I recently heard from one mom who has been earning badges right along with her kids and said that made all the difference in their motivation.
  • I recently learned that the Jr. Ranger booklets are typically able to be accessed on the National Park’s website and printed off at home. This could prove to be very useful if our time in a park is going to be short and some activities could be completed ahead of time.
  • Keep in mind that if you don’t complete your booklets before you exit the park, you can mail them in. A ranger will review your child’s booklet and send their badge in return. We have not done this yet but have heard positive things from others who have–including a hand written note of congratulations from the ranger and some fun extras!
  • Ranger vests cost about $35.00 but we’ve found that this varies by a few dollars depending on the park. I’ve also noticed that not all parks carry every size on hand at all times. In addition to that, most parks don’t have sizes that accommodate children much older than 10. Therefore, if you are hoping to purchase a vest for an older child, keep your eye out at each visitor center gift shop and perhaps check on eBay for a used vest.
  • Purchasing an $80 America the Beautiful annual pass is a great value if you are going to be visiting several parks in a year. However, it might be worth researching ahead of time the entrance fee of parks you plan to visit. We’ve been surprised at how many parks have been free. In general it’s the larger National Parks that charge an entrance fee while a lot of the National Monuments and Landmarks that we have visited have been free.
  • If you have a 4th grader, be sure to take advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program. During your child’s 4th grade year your entire car load of family and friends can visit ANY participating National Park for free by simply filling out the form online and printing your pass ahead of time (homeschoolers are eligible as well)!

Still hungry for more?

  • In doing research for this post, I discovered a neat WebRanger program that allows your child to explore parks remotely and participate in a variety of activities in different degrees of difficulty.

How about you? Have your kids tried out the Jr. Ranger program? What has your experience with it been? What have been your favorite National Parks to visit?

Giveaway: Wright On Time RV roadschooling 4 book collection

Last month I completed my project to curate a book list of over 300 children’s chapter books organized by the state they take place in. I wanted to create a resource that we could use as we traveled across the US allowing us to choose books to compliment the places we were visiting. (By the way, if you haven’t gotten your copy of this book list, simply subscribe to my blog email list and I’ll send you your own copy lickity split).

While researching books for my state book list, I came across something that I got really excited about. Someone had written a series of books about an RVing, roadschooling family who travels the USA!

A RV, ROADSCHOOLING BOOK SERIES?!

Each book in the Wright on Time series takes the family to a different state each with a new educational adventure. The series (which currently covers 6 different states) is tied together with a fun sci-fi mystery. I couldn’t believe how perfect this was for my booklist. Not only were they a great fit, but these were the first books I’ve ever come across that are written about a full-time RVing family! Even if you are not traveling in an RV, I believe your kids would enjoy learning from a family who does.

ABOUT THE WRIGHT ON TIME BOOK SERIES

writeontimeI contacted Lisa Cottrell-Bentley, the author of the Wright on Time series and told her how excited I was to find her books. Together, we decided to offer you a chance to win her Wright on Time book collection (of books 1-4) in either the Audible format which contain 5 hours and 47 minutes of listening time or the Kindle versions of books 1-4. Curious about what the first four books focus on?

  • Book 1: Wright on Time: Arizona the family explores caves and learns about minerals and bats.*
  • Book 2: Wright on Time: Utah the family goes on a dinosaur dig.*
  • Book 3: Wright on Time: Wyoming the family explores various alternative energies.
  • Book 4: Wright on Time: South Dakota the family goes to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and also learns about how newspapers are made.

Before offering this giveaway to you, Lisa gifted my family this audio collection so that we could preview it first. Each of my kids (ages 13, 10, 7 and 5) found the series to be both entertaining as well as engaging. In their own words:

Tanner (5): “I liked the books, really I did.”
Quinten (7): “Once I got into them I really wanted to hear more. Now I want to hear the next books in the series.”
Ashlyn (10): “I thought it was really fun to hear a story about another family that travels in an RV. It was neat to hear them have some of the same kind of things happen to them as we have. Each book taught me something new too.”
Hunter (13): “I really enjoyed the books. I liked how each story progressed and built on the previous one.”

*You might find it useful to know that the books did not endorse a particular age of the earth. There was no mention of “millions of years” or “evolution.”

HOW YOU CAN WIN THE WRIGHT ON TIME BOOK SERIES

Below you have multiple options to enter to win this 4 book series by Lisa Cottrell-Bentley. The Rafflecopter form will offer you several ways to enter. You can sign in using your facebook login or with your name and email. It is necessary for us to have your email so we can contact you if you are the winner. Your email address will not be used for any other purpose.

The winner will be chosen at random and contacted via email within 48 hours with your prize details. The Wright On Time book series (books 1-4) will be sent via Audible or Amazon Kindle (according to the winner’s preference). The giveaway begins on December 17 and ends December 21, 2016.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Curating a free 50 state book list to share with you

In days past when our home also had a driveway, porch and patio furniture, we had so many books that my husband gifted me with a locally crated bookshelf one year for Christmas. In addition to new book titles, I collected old books acquired from thrift stores and garage sales. These old books became part of my home décor. Our bathrooms had baskets of books and our librarian knew us all by name. Books and reading was an integral part of our family culture.

When we were in the planning stages of our suburban exit strategy, books became an area of concern. They are heavy. After all, they carry the weight of changed lives and struggles overcome. Heavy things are not welcomed in RVs; they are donated, given away or stored. While we had parted with many possessions willingly, this was a challenging area.

A family book auction ensued, with each child bearing the responsibility and right to ransom a predetermined number of books from storage. These chosen few titles would adorn the bookshelf in our RV loft. Those that remained were packed away, banished from family life to silently wait as we gallivant around the US.

Our Book life on the road

Perhaps one of the aspects of suburban life that I miss the most is the ease of book acquisition. Requesting a new title from the library or ordering a used copy online was easy and hassle-free. I’d grown particularly accustomed to pairing our reading selections to things we were learning about in Science, History or Geography. Requesting a basket-full of titles on a weekly basis was not unusual. E-readers have since become a presence in our lives, but we still miss our weekly library visits and the resulting trip into the house laden with the weight of new literature.

Creating a 50 state book list

Transitioning away from this routine has at times put me in a sate of withdrawal. To cope, I recently diverted my attention to the next most logical endeavor—curating an extensively thorough book list organized geographically. My logic was this: If I could no longer acquire baskets of books, I could perhaps focus on a few that would make the most sense for us to enjoy. Why not choose books with a geographical setting matching that of our travels? In order to choose a children’s book geographically aligned with our current location, I was going to have to set to work to find and organize applicable titles. Creating a book list organized by state seemed simple; until my husband wisely pointed out that I’d need a minimum of 100 books if I wanted even an average of two books per state. Undaunted, I set to work. How hard could it be?

Turns out, it’s pretty hard. A lot of books don’t divulge the US state they are set in without some considerable digging. Other books give this information, but take place in a variety of locations. Some states are like the popular kids in school and seem to get all the attention (hello California and Florida). While at first glance other states appear to have not been invited to the party at all (looking at you Idaho). Enlisting the help of my librarian (thank you April), Amazon, Goodreads and a handful of discovered resources, I developed a list that left no state left out. In fact, I even included a section of books for the Mississippi River as well as a few for Canada.

sharing my 50 state book list with you

In the end, my 50 state book list contained over 300 titles of children’s chapter books organized alphabetically by state. Not only that, but they also include a plot summary and a link to find the book online. This was not a simple project, nor a quick one. I decided this was not a resource to keep to myself. Surely others would find this state book list useful. Perhaps you are one of them? Simply sign up for my blog post newsletter by clicking the “sign up” link in the lower right hand corner of my blog. You will receive an email auto reply with a link to download your own copy of my 50 state book list.

If you know any other bibliophiles (a person who collects or has a great love of books), will you do me a favor and share a link to this post with them? I’d love knowing that the time I put into creating this list is benefiting others as well!

Mansker’s Station visit with kids review

This week we dipped our 21st century fingers into the pot of the late 1700s past to test and try to understand what it was like to live in a fort forged by men who were masters of skills that most of us don’t even have the vocabulary to explain. Stopping at Historic Manskers Station, just 20 minutes north of Nashville in route to Kentucky, was an ideal way to sample this life of the past.

Visiting Mansker’s Station

According to some online reviews, we anticipated costumed interpreters and expected to spend about 1-2 hours touring the recreated fort. We arrived just after they reopened from the one hour lunch break at 1:00 and discovered, much to our delight, that we had the place to ourselves. Upon our entrance to the fort, we were met by a burly mountain of a man who was enthusiastic not only about the fact that we were homeschoolers (“they ask the best questions,” he said), but about his historical knowledge. Like a pot of well warmed soup, he bubbled over with bits of information and interesting tidbits while showing us around. Any questions we asked were met with a knowledgeable answer.

Kicking back, letting our guide fill our minds with knowledge while tobacco leaves hang from the ceiling to dry.
Kicking back, letting our guide fill our minds with knowledge, while tobacco leaves hang from the ceiling to dry.

We learned:

  • The difference between a station and a fort (while they are often used interchangeably, the former typically refers to a settlement of civilians while the latter usually indicates a military presence).
  • How to card wool by hand.
  • Where the term “nit-picking” came from (picking out small impurities from the wool–best accomplished by small fingers).
  • The origin of the term “sleep tight” (from the desire to keep rope supported beds snug and firm).
Learning the correct technique for carding wool.
Learning the correct technique for carding wool by hand.

About 1/2 way through our tour we met a second guide who continued our deluge of learning. This time we received an education and demonstration of the importance of the local blacksmith. The video below shows our children trying their hand at keeping the blacksmith fire burning.

We learned:

  • That iron nails were so important at that time houses were being burnt to the ground in order to retrieve and reuse nails for future building projects (until an ordinance was passed outlawing this potentially dangerous practice).
  • Blacksmith apprentices began their education around the age of 8 when they would move out of the house and live under the blacksmith’s tutelage.
  • The 8 primary skills that a blacksmith obtains as he hones his skills.
  • Often the blacksmith would also be called on to be your dentist!
manskers-station-woodworking
The shave horse was so named because the silhouette of a person using it would resemble that of a horse rider.

Switching back to our initial guide, we were invited into the woodworking shop for a demonstration of his lathe (see the video below) and shave horse skills while explaining details of his craft and tools. The kids were invited to partake in some of the activities (sans sharp objects).

Next we were escorted into the nearby 200-year-old Bowen Plantation home (the longest standing brick structure in middle Tennessee) and given a tour and explanations of various antique medical equipment (because the home was at one time owned by a doctor). In addition, we were given a demonstration of various textile machines for the development of fabric from hemp, cotton and wool. It was also here that we saw our first cotton plants in bloom and had the chance to attempt seed removal by hand (think cotton wrapped around velcro). The afternoon was a plethora of one-on-one experiential learning.

Examining the doctor equipment (including the skull drills).
Examining the doctor equipment (including the skull drills).

Overall our experience was fantastic. I could not have asked for a better value for the time, knowledge and expertise demonstrated through their patient staff. I’d highly recommend stopping by for a visit should you find yourself in the area, you won’t be disappointed.

Mansker’s Station Travel details:

  • Nearby: Mansker’s Station is located adjacent to a park which we intended to visit but ran out of time. This would be a great place to eat if you happen to come during the 12-1 hour that they are closed or just to let your kids burn off some energy.
  • Parking: easy. We were able to park both our van, truck and 40′ RV without a problem using the park loop driveway which has designated parking areas throughout. Exiting was also easy due to the loop design.
  • Time to tour: Some may be able to tour this place in 1-2 hours, but that would require moving much quicker than we did. We were there for at least 3 hours–I guess we ask good questions ;).
  • Prices: $8 for adults (which begins at age 13-super lame in my opinion) and $4 for kids ages 6-11. For some reason I could not find any pricing info online before we arrived so I was thankful to see that they were so affordable. There are AAA, senior and military discounts.
  • Hours: They are open weekdays from 8:00-4:30 with the last tour beginning at 3:00.

WWOOFing in an RV with kids

Is WWOOFing in an RV with kids a good idea? First things first, let’s clarify exactly what “WWOOFing” is. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. As described on their website,

Visitors, or ‘WWOOFers’, spend about half a day helping out on a host farm, learn about the organic movement and sustainable agriculture, and receive room and board during their visit – with no money exchanged between hosts and WWOOFers.

When Trent and I first sat down to creatively carve out an itinerary for our trip, WWOOFing was a strong contender that we wanted to consider. We were intrigued by the potential possibilities that this kind of arrangement could offer us, particularly for our children. We liked the idea of exposing them to lifestyles that we have not had and opportunities for work that have not previously been an option. Free food and a place to park our RV would also be a helpful bonus.

WWOOFing in an rv with kids:
first impressions

Last week Sunday we arrived at our first WWOOFing location nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains entirely unsure what we were in for and hopeful that we would have a positive experience. Right out of the gate, we realized that our first error was assuming that because this ranch had RV hookups, they would also be in a location that was easy to access with our 40’ 5th wheel. I slowly followed behind my husband as he turned off the main road and inched along a narrow drive. Lined with beautiful deciduous trees bursting with color and threatening to baptize our home with branches, the one-lane road wound slowly toward our destination. With each turn I winced inwardly hoping he would not come to a low overpass or narrow bridge that would end our progress forward.

Thankfully, we had been advised to arrive in daylight and the road finally opened up to our destination. Upon our arrival, our WWOOFing hosts exclaimed, “You just pulled that RV down that road? I am so sorry; we had no idea your RV was that big. We would have advised a different route had we known that!” Lesson learned: give more details about the size of our RV before assuming that it will be a perfect fit.

Our little home tucked into the foothills of the Smokey Mountains
Our little home tucked into the foothills of the Smokey Mountains

The upside to having a rough entry road for a remote ranch is fewer neighbors. For the first 6 days of our stay, only one little Class C motor home (another WWOOFing couple) shared our view. One additional pull behind RV arrived at the very end of our stay. Being in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains with this fall backdrop right outside our front door was an intense treat. Having so much breathing room around us was an extra bonus.

unfettered room to roam
unfettered room to roam

Our second erroneous assumption was that we would be the only WWOOFers during the duration of our stay. In reality we shared the week with five other WWOOFers. Three of them were young single men and the other two were the before mentioned motor home couple. We were the only WWOOFers with kids, but we enjoyed the mix of consistent workers throughout the week. After a month of consistent traveling, getting to interact with the same group of people each day as we worked was nice. Everyone treated our kids with kindness with some even going so far as to let our kids borrow personal art supplies, play their guitar, share a saddle on a their horse and letting the kids help with cooking projects in the kitchen. We appreciated the willingness to let our kids participate whenever there was interest or opportunity.

WWOOFing in an rv with kids:
The upsides

Community:

The community feel created by the mix of WWOOFers seemed like a strange college déjà vu. We would all sleep in our own rooms at night but then see the same non-family faces for breakfast, lunch and dinner while also intermingling for work and downtime. Cooking, washing dishes and working next to others day after day creates a unique environment to visit and learn from each other and certainly makes what could be a menial task more interesting.

Learning to make wontons
Ashlyn learning to make wontons
Hosts:

Aside from the other WWOOFers, our hosts displayed an incredible aptitude for encouraging learning throughout the week. Want to learn to drive a tractor? No problem! Want your son to learn to drive a zero-turn mower? Sure! Would you like to use our horses to go trail riding with your kids? Absolutely! It was obvious that their intent was to share the experience of their ranch to anyone who was interested in receiving it.

Food:

This particular location offered cabin or lodge room rentals, RV hookups, and room for horse trailers throughout the week, as well as a café that operated on the weekends. Having a professional, well-stocked kitchen was ideal for feeding our WWOOFing group. I’ve enjoyed our little RV kitchen much more than I thought I would, but having free rein to cook in a large space again was a real treat. In addition to having space to cook, having no food costs for the duration of our stay was a huge benefit.

trail riding
Getting ready to go trail riding
RV Lodging:

It is my understanding that while many “RV friendly” WWOOFing locations may be able to provide electricity and water, having sewer hookups is not common. In light of that, having full hookups with sewer was also wonderful.

impromptu concert
Quinten and Tanner enjoying an impromptu concert
Play:

Despite the fact that we were the only WWOOFing family with kids, our hosts did have children. Each weekday after their kids returned from school, our kids had the chance to interact, play cards, chess, soccer and tag with new friends.

First time driving a zero turn lawnmower
First time driving a zero turn lawnmower
Kid’s work:

We appreciated that our kids could participate in several jobs around the ranch. This was after all, the primary reason that we opted to WWOOF. It was also something we discussed specifically on the phone with one of our hosts before coming.

wwoofing in an rv with kids:
The downsides

Schedule:

Obviously it is understood that the intent of the WWOOFing arrangement is to trade labor for learning, room and board and (depending on the location) food. Exactly what you may be asked to do may or may not be something that appeals to you. In addition, the schedule of your day may vary from one day to the next.

Because we only stayed for a week, we decided to let the experience take precedence whenever we had a conflict with school. This meant that we did school in the morning on some days and in the afternoons on others. Some mornings we got up earlier than typical. Some days we worked late into the evening pushing the kid’s bedtime out farther than typical.

Flexibility is important and something we worked to maintain. However, almost every night of our stay Trent and I went to sleep very tired and I believe that juggling our family needs with work needs with an ever-changing schedule played into that. We could have set school aside for the week of our stay but because we have had so many travel days packed into our last month (and we opt not to do school on travel days), we chose to work school into our routine this week despite the extra business it would create.

Internet:

Internet service for us in our RV was dependent on what we could get through our phones. However, in the café area we were able to connect to the local Wi-Fi. It would have been nice to have access to this Wi-Fi in our RV because we had almost used up our monthly data when we had arrived. I imagine that this would vary at each WWOOFing location. If internet is important for your work or school, be sure to clarify this before arrival. Thankfully for us it wasn’t essential.

wwoofing in an rv with kids:
The work we did

Some of the jobs that the kids helped out with included:

  • Watering plants
  • Washing dishes
  • Food prep
  • Breaking down boxes for recycling
  • Cooking
  • Lawn mowing
  • Assisting with building projects
  • Cleaning a hot tub

Jobs that I did included:

  • Meal prep, planning and cooking
  • Washing dishes
  • Kitchen cleanup
  • Organizing the laundry room with labels

Jobs that Trent did included:

  • Fixing leaking toilets
  • Helping with the initial construction of an outdoor pavilion
  • Weed whacking
  • Hot tub cleaning
  • Dish washing

WWOOFing in an RV with kids:
other details

  • Food: you may or may not have food included in your arrangement as that varies from location to location. Exactly what benefits are included are typically defined in the profile of each host on the WWOOF.org website. If you have special diet needs (vegan, vegetarian, etc) this may limit how may “matches” show up as options for you when you search for potential farms but there are filters for those diet requests. Some locations may cook meals for you, while others simply provide ingredients and expect you to cook for yourself.
  • Hours: While the WWOOFing website says you can expect to spend “about a half a day” working, this varies from location to location as well. As I read though different farm profiles, I noticed some expecting as many as 6-8 hours of work while others were much more laid back. Some expect work on certain days of the week with specific days off, while others may have lots of work on one day and little to none the next day.

wwoofing in an rv with kids:
Final thoughts

As a family traveling in an RV, we do not fit the typical demographic in the WWOOFing community. Our host said that we are the first WWOOFing family they have had in the three years they have been a part of the WWOOFing program. However, the WWOOF.org website does have filters allowing you to specify that you only want to be shown farms that allow RVs and farms that allow families with kids. (There is also a filter for those that have pets as well as filters for how long you wish to stay at a location).

WWOOFing in an RV with kids

As a RV WWOOFing couple with kids, we tried to clarify through our initial phone call “interview” that my husband would be doing most of the regular work and that the kids and I would be available to help out once school work was completed. I think it is important to decide ahead of time what your family is comfortable offering in terms of work and hours. Be sure to discuss this ahead of time with your potential host. This will help ensure that everyone has similar expectations.

We like having flexibility in our schedule and freedom in our days. Therefore, I don’t see us WWOOFing frequently or for long durations of time. However, we did have a very positive first experience. We are be open to WWOOFing again. Particularly if the location or farm is unique and offers something we want to learn. It is the people and the experiences that create the unique memories that make this lifestyle rich and rewarding. Because of the people and the experiences gained, our first experience WWOOFing in an RV with kids was a success.

Are considering WWOOFing in an RV with kids? I hope hearing about our experience will help you decide if this might be a good fit for you.