Vacation may mean a break from school, but that doesn’t mean education has to take a hiatus. In fact, vacations can be the perfect time to expose your children to lessons in American history, geography, and science.
MUSEUMS FOR KIDS
During the past decade, dozens of cities have opened up “Children’s Museums.” These facilities, dedicated to the education of children from toddlers to teens, offer a mix of science, entertainment, computer interactivity, and art.
Considered the world’s largest, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis features a Dinosaur Den, an underwater coral reef, a Victorian carousel and collections of antique dolls and model trains. The museum hosts many special exhibits and classes as well. This summer, for example, My Bones: An Exhibit Inside You, will allow kids to touch and experience the bones within humans and animals.
San Francisco’s Exploratorium is a one-of-a-kind museum of science, art, and human perception. Located in the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, this massive space has more than 600 hands-on exhibits, including a tactile dome, a tornado in a box, and a centrifugal force machine that takes visitors for a spin. By the time they are done in this place, your kids will be experts in the principles of light, motion, sound, and electricity.
MUSEUMS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Of course, there are plenty of other museums that are perfect for families even though they are not kids museums per se. For example, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is always a big hit with kids. Situated on Lake Michigan, the museum features unique attractions such as a World War II German submarine, a 16-foot pulsating heart, a coal mine, Colleen Moore’s Fantasy Castle–a dollhouse containing more than 1000 miniatures–and an OmniMax theater.
Meanwhile, a drive northeast to Dearborn, Michigan, will bring you to the Henry Ford Museum. As is appropriate, considering its namesake, this facility highlights how technological innovation and industrialization have changed American life. One of the most popular exhibits is The Automobile in American Life, which takes visitors down the highway of automotive history. Included in the exhibit: an authentic 1946 roadside diner, a 1940s Texaco station, and a 1960s Holiday Inn hotel room. The Henry Ford Museum also has an impressive collection of trains, including a 600-ton Allegheny locomotive that was used to haul coal.
Then shuffle over to Buffalo, New York, where larger-than-life robotic insects will be taking up residence at the Backyard Monsters 2 exhibit going on this summer at the city’s Museum of Science. The whole family will also enjoy the centennial celebration of the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition. The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum is featuring a commemoration of turn-of-the-20th century memorabilia, inventions and items from everyday life 100 years ago.
Other places rating high on the family must-see list: New York’s American Museum of Natural History; Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute Science Museum; and the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix. In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum, both part of the Smithsonian, are always highlights for kids visiting the nation’s capital.
If the whole concept of a museum visit seems a bit foreboding, consider time travel. Scores of living history museums around the country provide visitors the opportunity to step back in time and experience life in 1620 … or 1760 … or 1830 …
Given the unfolding of colonization in America, it is no surprise that most living history museums are located on the Eastern seaboard. There is Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a re-creation of the original village set up by the Pilgrims back in 1620. Complete with costumed interpreters, a craft center, and cooking demonstrations, kids can absorb the story of the pilgrims in a fun setting. While in the area, make sure to visit Plymouth Rock, the site where the Pilgrims landed, and the Mayflower II, a replica of the three-mast, square-rigged ship that brought the Pilgrims across the Atlantic from the Old Country.
Mystic, Connecticut, is home to Mystic Seaport, the most extensive living history museum dedicated specifically to New England’s maritime heritage. Containing 17 acres filled with old boats, historic homes and craft shops, Mystic depicts life as it was in a 19th century coastal village.
Tidewater Virginia is a mecca for fans of living history. Start in the 1600s, where the Jamestown Settlement, in Jamestown, offers a recreation of the first English settlement in America. Another interesting feature is Powhatan Village, which shows how Native Americans lived at the time.
The Yorktown Victory Center and Battlefield is adjacent to Jamestown. This area covers events leading up to the American victory in the Revolutionary War. It features a Continental Army Camp complete with historic interpreters and a seven-mile driving tour of the battlefield.
And then there is Colonial Williamsburg. Perhaps the most famous of all living history museums, Colonial Williamsburg depicts 18th century life prior to the Revolutionary War. Containing more than 500 buildings on nearly 175 acres, visitors can chat with shopkeepers and politicians, visit museums of American folk and decorative arts–even eat in an authentic 18th century restaurant or stay overnight in an authentic colonial house.
Of course, the East Coast doesn’t have a monopoly on living history museums. For example, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, located near Lexington, is the largest and most completely restored Shaker village in the country. The Shakers, an ascetic religious sect, practiced celibacy, and are now all but extinct. But the family can get a good feel for the puritan Shaker existence, thanks to Shaker Villages costumed interpreters, who chronicle their spartan daily life. There are plenty of demonstrations as well, featuring broom making, spinning, weaving and Shaker furniture making.
Another singular way of life is depicted at the Amana Colonies of eastern Iowa. Founded 150 years ago by a group of Germans seeking religious freedom, the self-sustaining Amana Colonies, a communal settlement, were left unchanged for almost 100 years. Now a tourist attraction, visitors can get a taste of the old ways at the historic Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse, famous for ham, bacon, and sausage, and at the Amana Stone Hearth Bakery. The Amana General Store, built in 1858, is filled with old-world Amana charm and lots of fun and hand-crafted gifts.
LIVING HISTORY THE WESTERN WAY
Living history out west takes on a different connotation. Instead of visiting museums and recreated sites, families heading out to the Rockies can actually experience the challenging life of the pioneers or the rowdy ranch wrangling of the cowboys in the middle of spectacular natural settings.
For example, families can tour the mountains of the Wyoming wilderness via covered wagon. Jackson, Wyoming, is a popular take-off point for covered wagon adventures. Two major operators, Wagons West and Teton Wagon Train & Horse Adventure, are based there. Wagons West trips range from two to six days, while Teton offers four-day, three-night journey, both provide an authentic pioneer experience, complete with covered wagons, campfires, chuckwagons, and cowboy crooning.
According to tour operators, usually about one-fourth of the participants are kids, so there’s always plenty of camaraderie for all ages en route and at the campsite. “This type of trip levels out everything,” says Jeff Warburton of Teton Wagon Trains. “It all goes back to the old days, when everyone, from little kids on up, worked and played together. So almost all activities are suitable for all ages.”
In addition to traveling via covered wagon for several hours a day, participants can ride horses, learn roping, and enjoy nature hikes from base camp. The Teton Wagon Train adventure costs $745 for adults, with reduced rates for kids 14 and under. Wagons West charges anywhere from $340 adults/$300 children for two nights to $865/$765 for six nights.
THE ABCS OF RVS
If you prefer a motorized vehicle to horseback or covered wagon, consider renting a recreational vehicle. Going by RV allows families to take most of the comforts of home on the road … while having the opportunity to get up close and personal with a wide variety of landscapes and scenic vistas.
While the campers of your childhood may have been rather, let’s say, rustic, today’s RV’s have amenities such as queen-sized beds, fully equipped kitchens and bathrooms, and even central heating and air conditioning. Some might even be considered luxury lodges on wheels, complete with computer workstations (with Internet access), satellite dishes, and slide-out rooms that expand the interior living space at the touch of a button.
Traveling in a recreational vehicle is an ideal way for families to explore the country while keeping expenses to a minimum. Depending on the model you rent, going by RV can save you up to two-thirds of your normal vacation costs. RV rentals range from $90 to $200 per day, with reduced daily rates for longer rentals. Right there, lodging and transportation are covered. And eating expensive meals out becomes an option, not a necessity.
What better way to learn about this country’s vast geography than by RVing through the Southwestern desert, past the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, or the rolling farmland of Western New York? Your kids will be amazed at the sheer diversity of the USA … and so will you.