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Students learn how to be Junior Rangers

Civilian Conservation Corps veterans Marshall Wells and Cecil B. Ramsey talk with Junior Rangers, Cody, right, and Brandon Rackley, 8-year-old twin brothers.
Civilian Conservation Corps veterans Marshall Wells and Cecil B. Ramsey talk with Junior Rangers, Cody, right, and Brandon Rackley, 8-year-old twin brothers.

Cody and Brandon Rackley would be content playing video games all day.

But the 8-year-old twins' father wants his sons to see more of the world than what's presented through a Sony PlayStation.

So when Jon Rackley heard about the Junior Ranger program at Kings Mountain State Park, he saw a chance to get his boys outdoors.

"I just want them to ... know how to take care of the land when they're out camping at different places," said Rackley, a volunteer firefighter who lives in Gaffney.

Launched in August, the State Parks Service's free program teaches elementary school children about the parks and nature through one-on-one meetings with rangers.

Kids learn about recycling and how to identify plants and animals. As they progress, they can earn prizes, such as a Junior Ranger badge, a hat or a backpack.

The program is offered at 16 of the Park Service's 47 parks, including Andrew Jackson State Park in Lancaster County.

About 50 kids have signed up statewide, said Phil Gaines, director of the Parks Service. Other states provide similar programs, Gaines said, and South Carolina coordinated its Junior Ranger initiative to coincide with the Park Service's 75th anniversary.

But Gaines also said the program is important because the latest generation of kids doesn't venture outside, a problem he called "nature deficit disorder," borrowing a term author Richard Louv highlighted in his 2005 book "Last Child in the Woods."

"We're just in this era," Gaines said. "If we don't get kids recharged and re-energized for their natural and cultural resources, we're gonna have a generation of children who will grow up to be adults that have never experienced hiking in the woods and getting mud between their toes and smelling the smoke of a campfire."

Ironically, the Parks Service developed a Web site to market the program, an attempt to entice tech-savvy kids to join.

"The trick is, you gotta come to a park," Gaines said. "The ultimate goal is to get them back outside, to get them in nature and to appreciate their state parks."

Two children have signed up for the Junior Ranger program at Andrew Jackson State Park, and park ranger Laura Ledford said others are asking about it.

A key element of the initiative, she said, is its one-on-one approach. Rather than trying to reach many kids in large groups, park rangers hope they can be more effective if they make time to work with each Junior Ranger.

"They can really see up close what a ranger does," she said. "A lot of times, with this one-on-one (method), we can actually talk with them and ask them questions and make them think."

Brandon Rackley said hiking with a ranger at Kings Mountain State Park has been his favorite Junior Ranger adventure.

As for his father, he's happy with any activity that gets his sons into the woods.

"It's been pretty good," Jon Rackley said.

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