AZTEC — Exploring and learning about the area is important for children of all ages, and the National Park Service offers a program for youth to do just that.

The Junior Ranger Program allows children to become members of the park service family. They are encouraged to learn and explore parks with their families, all while learning about their public lands. The program is offered free to the public and helps to teach the younger generations how they can do their part in protecting these public lands for the future.

The National Park Service has a distinct mission: to preserve the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.

The Aztec Ruins National Monument is pictured in early November.
The Aztec Ruins National Monument is pictured in early November. (Jaclyn Waggoner — Special to The Daily Times)

Farmington has four national parks within two hours of driving distance and dozens more an extra few hours away.

Aztec Ruins National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Mesa Verde National Park and Hovenweep National Monument are the four closest parks, and any of them would make for a great day trip for a fun family adventure.

The National Park Service has more than 200 Junior Ranger Programs.

Children receive a booklet and answer questions about the park and complete different activities and games associated with the park. After the children complete their booklet, a park ranger swears them in and they receive their own certificate and official Junior Ranger badge.

Some parks have programs specific to age groups, like the one at Aztec Ruins National Monument. They have a program for children as young as preschool all the way up through high school. Aztec Ruins also offers free admission for children.

During the fiscal year of 2013, the Aztec Ruins swore in 2,100 Junior Rangers.

"The Aztec Ruins is a wonderful place to learn about the history of the area and cultures of New Mexico," said Lauren Blacik, a Park Ranger for Aztec Ruins. "The Junior Ranger program gives youth a sense of exploration and discovery. Our hope is that then these Junior Rangers will be stewards of all our national parks."

The National Park Service has been around for almost 100 years, and Blacik hopes that with the education that the Junior Ranger program provides, it will be around for at least another 100 years.

Aztec Ruins has also started a new program to help youth who may not be able to make it out to the park -- whether for cultural, economic or other reasons -- still learn about the area.

"We spent the summer creating an online Junior Ranger program," Blacik said. "Students can now complete online activities, and then we will mail them a Junior Ranger patch."

The link to the new online feature is at nps.gov/features/azru.

The Junior Ranger program isn't just for kids. Dana Sullivan, a mother of two Junior Rangers, said the program is an effective way for the entire family to learn about different parks, nature and history.

"The Junior Ranger programs are an outstanding first introduction to nature. It also helps not just the kids but parents explore nature and the parks in a completely different way," Sullivan said.

Jaclyn Waggoner covers outdoors for The Daily Times. She can be reached at jaclynwags@gmail.com.