Presenting the problem, preparing the seeds, paddling the river and planting the prairie

To further youth engagement, Mississippi National River and Recreation area has partnered with the YMCA of the Twin Cities, and Wilderness Inquiry to give students the opportunity to become Jr. Rangers through a YMCA summer camp. This program is part of the Let’s Move! Outside campaign which seeks to connect young people and the great outdoors through the following experiences: play, learn, serve and work. Over 100 children, from four different YMCA camps, participated in the program this summer.


Jr Ranger Camps Part 1

When Ranger Abby and I arrived at YMCA Camp Streefland, we watched campers start their day with a rousing series of songs, skits, and announcements. (Announcements, announcements, annooooouncements! for all those YMCA camp alumni out there.)

Ranger Abby took the stage in front of several hundred pumped up grade schoolers to give an overview of the National Park Service and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Camper’s hands flew into the air when they are asked to share their favorite national park. Many iconic parks are mentioned, and a few lesser known. Most campers were surprised to learn there was a national park right in the heart of the Twin Cities. Raising awareness about our park‘s existence has been a priority goal and a focus of our centennial activities. Next comes the best part. Ranger Abby asked all the 4th graders to raise their hands. She then tells them about Every Kid in a Park, and after all the singing and dancing from the morning warm-up, there are squeals of delight, gasps, and a series of “WOAH!”s.

Ranger Abby asks YMCA campers at Camp Streefland about their National Park adventures.


Presenting the Problem

Next, we meet all the Jr. Ranger Campers, who eagerly ask us questions about the park and tell us all about what they’ve learned earlier in the week.

At Mississippi National River and Recreation area, we pair service activities with an education or interpretive program. We want all of volunteers, regardless of their age, to understand how their service is helping achieve the park’s mission. This is one way we meet our goal to integrate service, recreation and education.

For this collaborative program, campers learn about prairie ecosystems and their important role in river health. One way to engage the campers is through our prairie root activity. We use lengths of rope to demonstrate the length of prairie plant roots and how these plants stabilize soils and direct runoff. Students are impressed by roots that are close to their own height, like side oats gramma, and amazed by roots of the compassplant, which can reach up to 16 feet long. We also have a demonstration rope for turf grass, and the students always laugh when they see it is only a few inches long.

Campers at YMCA Camp Streefland are amazed by the root lengths of native prairie plants.

Preparing the seeds

Now that the campers understood the importance of native prairie ecosystems, they were ready to start the first half of their service project – making seed bombs. Campers also have a chance to take a few seed bombs home, and are instructed to ask an adult before planting them in their yard or neighborhood.

Photo: Seedbombs require soil, compost, sand, seeds, water, and a willingness to get dirty!


Dirty hands are proof that the YMCA Camp Christmas Tree kids are serious about prairie restoration!


Jr Ranger Camps Part 2

Paddling the River

When we arrive with the safety boat at Hidden Falls Regional Park, Wilderness Inquiry has already prepared the voyageur canoes for the YMCA camper’s arrival. These 24-foot long canoes can hold up to 10 paddlers.

For some, this camp is their first experience canoeing. Those with experience are ready to share their expertise with fellow campers.

One of the amazing things about paddling in Mississippi National River and Recreation area is how easy it is to forget that you are in the middle of a city. Campers were delighted to see great blue herons, great egrets, spotted sandpipers, belted kingfishers, and bald eagles.

Planting the Prairie

For the second part of their service, campers will help reseed a prairie restoration site. Throwing the seed bombs into the prairie provides for random seed dispersion and keeps large groups from trampling the plants. After they have finished reseeding, campers are sworn in as Junior Rangers. They then hike back to the canoes to finish their adventure on the mighty Mississippi.

Campers line up to throw seed bombs into the prairie restoration area.
YMCA campers are sworn in as Junior Rangers after completing the service component of their Jr Ranger Camp program.
These campers are headed off to their next national park adventure.

Join these Junior Rangers in pledging to explore, learn and protect national parks!


Melissa A. Clark

Centennial Volunteer Ambassador

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, MN