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Mother Neff State Park

Junior rangers learn about the park and get something shiny to take home.

By Elsa K. Simcik

As Texas’ first state park, Mother Neff is full of history. And because it’s located in Central Texas, it’s full of scenery too.

Both of these qualities make it a popular destination for families. They come to hike, fish, picnic and camp. Five years ago Park Manager John Roberts got an idea. He knew that visitors — especially kids — could get more out of the park if they had a fun way to explore it. “We wanted to come up with something for kids so they could learn something about the park,” he says. His solution? The junior ranger program — an opportunity for kids to tour the 259-acre park, learn about its history, vegetation and wildlife and ultimately earn the coveted prize — a shiny badge.

Roberts admits he “stole” the idea from the national parks, but the activity sheet he developed is a Mother Neff original.

Here’s how it works:

Kids pick up the worksheet from the front office and spend about an hour to two hours roaming the park and finding answers, scavenger-hunt-style. The explanation at the top gives them their motivation: “Mother Neff State Park is looking for some junior rangers. The park is a very special place that needs special people like you to take care of it.”

Roberts says that on a busy weekend they’ll have 20-30 kids go through the program. The kids are often members of scout troops who are camping at the park. I tagged along with Boy Scout troop 507 from Grand Prairie one weekend as they hiked the trails and diligently filled out their worksheets.

The kids learned about history (“How did the park get its name?”), geography (“Name the river that runs along the south boundary of the park”), and even tackled some more reflective-type questions (“Why do you think this area was a good place to live as a Native American?”).

In all, the worksheet has 15 questions plus a fun word-find at the end. It takes the kids through three miles of trails, encourages them to read the historical markers and asks them to do their part and pick up litter along the way.

Of course, every visitor’s favorite site (troop 507 included) is the Indian cave. Once inhabited by the Tonkawa Indians, the cave is basically a rock shelter that was used as a campsite and for burials.

After hiking among the cedar elms, possibly running into some deer and spending too much time at the Indian Cave, the kids can bring their completed worksheets back to the office where Roberts grades them. “I haven’t failed one yet,” he says. They raise their right hands, say the junior ranger pledge and of course, receive their shiny silver badge.

But beyond the prize, honor and possible fame that may come along with being a junior ranger, the kids get something bigger — a lifelong connection to Texas’ first state park. “They don’t realize they’re learning something,” says Roberts. And unlike sitting behind a desk, he says, “They’re having fun.”

For more information visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/motherneff> or call (254) 853-2389.

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