It’s no secret that our lives have changed dramatically over the past few months, and the world of youth environmental education is no exception. The transition to remote learning models has presented unique challenges for environmental educational nonprofits, as the exploration that would traditionally take place in exciting new outdoor settings is now limited to local surroundings, often indoors. For many, school field trips have become homeschool “backyard” trips, hikes have become walks around the neighborhood, and bird-watching means gazing out a window rather than heading to the nearest park.
Junior Wildlife Ranger, a nonprofit focused on creating free educational programs for national wildlife refuges, is determined to make the best of these difficult circumstances by building upon our work to make youth environmental education more inclusive.
Growing up spending time in the California outdoors, founder Lynnea Shuck started Junior Wildlife Ranger in 2013 to address barriers inhibiting equal access for all children to environmental education. She was inspired by the dedication and commitment of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Area National Wildlife Refuge staff to combatting these inequalities, and she wanted to design an ongoing, self-guided program for the refuge. Since then, Junior Wildlife Ranger has expanded nationally and carries out its mission by providing free activity booklets and guided walks at national wildlife refuges and public parks. So far, we’ve provided over 10,000 children the opportunity to learn about environmental science and the National Wildlife Refuge System. The organization has expanded from the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge to offer programming at national wildlife refuges across the country, including at additional locations in California as well as in Texas, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Virginia.
With the closure of many national wildlife refuge visitor centers due to Covid-19, Junior Wildlife Ranger’s programming risked becoming obsolete. But the Junior Wildlife Ranger team, which has grown to a three-person executive staff leading a group of 20 volunteer interns, has been quick to adapt. Our new Neighborhood Badge program is a free, printable activity booklet that rewards kids ages seven and up with a digital ranger badge upon completion. The program allows kids across the country to learn about native plants and animals right in their own neighborhood.
This virtual educational program can be utilized anywhere, by anyone with a computer or smartphone. In this way, Junior Wildlife Ranger has taken advantage of the shift to virtual learning to increase the accessibility of youth outdoor education. For children without access to technology or the Internet, we are planning to place hard copies of the Neighborhood Badge activity booklets in local community centers, grocery stores, and schools. Our programming is no longer limited to children who live near public land; it is now available to everyone, regardless of physical location or access to technology and the Internet.
The Covid-19 crisis has renewed our commitment to breaking down barriers to environmental education and overcoming limited access to national wildlife refuges. The Neighborhood Badge program is the next step in our efforts to remedy the inequalities in youth outdoor education. In a time of great uncertainty for the country, Junior Wildlife Ranger is dedicated to providing activities for youth that foster curiosity, learning, and lifelong environmental stewardship while conforming to health and safety guidelines.
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