Norman Moody, center, and classmates from the School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens learn about 19th-century life on the C & O Canal in Maryland. (Photos by Ann Cameron Siegal)

If you are curious, love exploring and want to help protect our national parks’ cultural and natural resources, you would make a great Junior Ranger.

Designed for kids from 5 to 13, free Junior Ranger programs help young visitors gain a deep understanding of each park and discover the wonders within it. Activity booklets and park programs offer fun ways to fulfill the Junior Ranger motto — “explore, learn and protect” — as you earn badges and certificates.

Hundreds of Junior Ranger programs exist across the country, but you don’t have to travel far to participate. Start with programs close to home.

Explore

Damon Davis, 9, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, said he could spend hours exploring Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Known for its large ponds of colorful aquatic plants in the summer, this park also contains Washington’s last untouched tidal wetland, making it a haven for wildlife. Damon’s patience and quiet observation skills recently rewarded him with sightings of turtles, water beetles, tadpoles, a beaver lodge and an osprey.

Damon Davis studies the wetlands at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington.

“I really love nature,” he said, begging his family to stay a bit longer.

Junior Ranger programs highlight a park’s nature, historical sites or architecture. For example, the George Washington Memorial Parkway’s 10-stop Junior Ranger program includes Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, Theodore Roosevelt Island and Fort Hunt Park. Early morning and dusk are great times to try to spot herons, eagles, owls and raccoons in these wooded, waterside parks.

Learn

Rangers at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park recently sparked the imagination of students from Washington’s School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens, telling them about the tough life of 19th-century families who lived aboard canalboats as they hauled cargo between Georgetown and Cumberland, Maryland. Children, often barefoot, were responsible for walking the mules along the rough, rocky towpath. The 184-mile trip took five to seven days.

Third-graders Angel Phillips and Mili Quinlan disagreed on how they felt about the mule-tending task. Angel said, “It would be amazing!” while Mili said, “I’d rather live in a real house.”

Another Junior Ranger option in Maryland is Glen Echo Park, the only national park that was once an amusement park. Learn about its 1900s architecture and the 1960s protests that led the park to allow black visitors. Some of the original buildings have been repurposed as art, dance and theater spaces. You can ride the colorful, hand-carved wooden animals on the 1921 Dentzel Carousel from April 29 through the last weekend in September.

Protect

Junior Rangers understand how the National Park Service emblem, which is nearly 66 years old, helps make connections across all parks. The emblem’s arrowhead shape represents archaeological discoveries that help us understand the people who once lived and worked on these lands. The buffalo and sequoia symbols represent the wildlife and plants that make these parks their home.

There are many styles of Junior Ranger badges throughout the National Park Service. You can earn this one at C & O Canal National Historical Park in Maryland.

Doing your part to keep the parks clean, leaving animals and plants undisturbed, and sharing what you learn is part of being a Junior Ranger.

With your help, our national parks will amaze and educate visitors for generations to come.

Head to a park

This is National Park Week, so check local parks for special programs or visit nps.gov/findapark/national-park-week.htm.

What: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Where: 1550 Anacostia Avenue NE, Washington.

When: Daily 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. through April, then 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May through October.

How much: Free admission and parking.

For more information: A parent can call 202-692-6080. Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the visitor center or download it at nps.gov/keaq/learn/kidsyouth/upload/Whole%20Jr.%20Ranger.pdf.

What: Glen Echo Park

Where: 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo, Maryland.

When: Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the ranger station from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (Call ahead to make sure a ranger is on duty.)

How much: Free admission and parking; free park ranger tours with reservations; $1.25 per carousel ride; fees for some events.

For more information: A parent can call 301-320-1400 or visit

nps.gov/glec/learn/kidsyouth/beajuniorranger.htm.

For George Washington Memorial Parkway, C & O Canal and all other Junior Ranger programs, visit nps.gov/kids/jrRangers.cfm, where you can download activity booklets or find out where to pick them up. Search alphabetically or by state. Click on the “i” icon on park pages for hours, locations, entrance fees and events.