"Did you know we paid more than $900 this year in property taxes, and your school gets a portion of that money?" As I point to our annual statement, I recognize the look of boredom on my children's faces. My kids know better than to stick around when I am paying bills because they just might catch an impromptu lecture in water conservation or on the steep price of satellite, yes, that dear service that beams in their favorite television programs.
These brief lessons in home economics may be entertaining, if only to see my children squirm, but certainly there are more effective ways to reinforce consumer math, or other school subjects, while engaging in family time.
If there's one way to cement a meaningful learning experience in the hearts and minds of children, it's field trips. As in, family field trips. Enrich your family time with low-cost, educational opportunities. Whether your family is headquartered in a major metropolitan area or hunkered down in a small town, these ideas could serve as a jumping-off point for unforgettable learning adventures.
Living history museums
Location: Living history museums can be found in every U.S. state and most Canadian provinces.
What you can expect: History brought to life. Your kids will witness or participate in re-created historical events or time periods.
How to prepare: Sites may charge an entrance fee. Some locations are outdoors, so prepare for the weather.
What your kids will learn: Your family can get a hands-on experience in what it would have been like to be a pioneer forging a trail out West or a Union soldier fighting to preserve his country. Actors in full character may invite you to churn butter or make hand-dipped candles. Other experiences could include witnessing a Civil War re-enactment or a bustling railroad town.
What one parent says: "We stopped at the Stuhr Museum in Nebraska," Thriving Family editor Sheila S. says. "My boys strolled the wooden walkways, bought candy from a general store and rested under a Conestoga wagon, as if that were a natural thing to do."
Historical societies and museums
Location: Most municipalities
What you can expect: Historical societies preserve local history and landmarks and may have a rich treasure trove of artifacts and memorabilia. They often provide tours for visitors and local residents and may also host traveling exhibits that showcase the history of the region. The pace is usually slower than the larger museum tours and the narrative rich with local yore. Historical societies may also offer self-guided walking tours through a city. Itineraries can often be downloaded from their websites.
How to prepare: You may be asked for a small donation or modest entrance fee.
What your kids will learn: History unique to the area.
What one grandparent says: Letitia S. of Illinois says, "Recently, my 6-year-old granddaughter took a seat at a table where Abraham Lincoln once sat. We were not in Washington, D.C., or even Springfield, Ill., but visiting Quincy, the town where I grew up. We dropped in at one of the small local museums. Turns out Lincoln dropped in there, too, in 1858 when he came to debate Stephen Douglas. And at another museum in Evanston, Ill., we were able to research our 90-year-old family home. The staff was not only knowledgeable about little-known details about our hometown but also eager to impart their passion for local history."
Location: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates about 70 hatcheries across the country. Most states also have their own hatcheries, so there's a good chance there's one near you. See also hatcheries in Canada.
What you can expect: The tour is often free and self-guided. You'll wander and linger long enough to get a good look at the baby fish, called fry, and other aquatic life.
How to prepare: You may need to make a reservation.
What your kids will learn: The life stages of various aquatic animals and how they're hatched and farmed. They'll also learn about marine or freshwater habitats and ecosystems. Children will be fascinated by the facts of fish life and won't realize their experience is educational.
What one parent says: "One summer on our road trip home, we stopped at a fish hatchery," Kathy N. of Missouri says. "No one, including me, shared my husband's enthusiasm for the side trip. Within minutes, everyone's attitude changed. What began as an excuse to walk off the wiggles ended up becoming the highlight of our trip."
Planetarium or astronomy club
Location: Your local planetarium. If there isn't one nearby, astronomy enthusiasts may have open meetings with opportunities for guests to take a peek through a telescope.
What you can expect: A simulated night-sky presentation, often in a domed facility, that showcases constellations, comets and phases of the moon. There also may be other exhibits where kids can interact with the displays.
How to prepare: There may be an entrance fee. What your kids will learn: Fun facts about the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets in our solar system
What one parent says: "After a trip to our local planetarium, my 5-year-old daughter became interested in the night sky," Megan O. of Georgia says. "To explore her questions, we made a pocket journal of the different moon phases."
Notes: The presentation at a planetarium may include stories about ancient religions or zodiac mythology. Once the show is underway, you may not be permitted to leave to prevent light from filtering through exit doors.
Location: Almost anywhere, in both rural and urban areas
What you can expect: Pronounced jee-oh-cashing, it's a treasure hunt that turns your smartphone into a map. People all over the world hide treasures and upload the GPS coordinates to Geocaching.com. Two rules apply: Take something/leave something, and sign the logbook.
How to prepare: Register at Geocaching.com, and have your GPS-enabled smartphone at the ready. You can also bring along a field guide to identify birds, trees or flowers. Wear comfortable shoes and remember to bring a collection of unique "treasures" for swapping with items from the cache.
What your kids will learn: Map skills when navigating with the road map. If using a field guide, your kids can also identify native plants or animals. You can even encourage writing skills when kids write a note to leave in the cache.
What one parent says: "Even the little guy gets a turn being the leader as he follows the treasure map," Shari P. of Missouri says. "We've learned that part of the discovery is not necessarily the treasure in the cache but comes in finding a new favorite site, a new adventure."
Location: Anywhere letterboxing enthusiasts live or play. Search online for letterbox clues in your area.
What you can expect: Similar to geocaching, letterboxing is a treasure hunt, using cryptic clues instead of a GPS device.
How to prepare: Purchase or make a rubber stamp to represent your family and take a small artist's sketchbook or other notebook with high-quality, archival paper to be used for logging the stamps you've found. Visit Letterboxing.org and search for letterboxes that have been planted in your area or for ones that are hidden along your road-trip route.
What your kids will learn: The ability to decipher clues, read maps and follow directions.
What one parent says: Jody R. of Colorado says, "My daughter and I enjoy spending the time together as we hike, appreciate nature and work as a team to find the hidden letterbox. It's also a great way to strengthen our problem-solving skills."
Note: Take great care on trails or parks to ensure you're leaving conditions just as good or better than you found them. Carefully seal the letterbox to prevent moisture or other potential damage. Read the instructions at the letterboxing website to get an overview of the rules and etiquette before embarking on your journey.
Location: Your state's capital city
What you can expect: You can enjoy tours of the Senate and Assembly (or House) chambers as well as the Capitol rotunda, and if the legislature is in session, you may be able to catch a debate. You will need to pass through a security checkpoint to gain entrance. You may also visit historic U.S. sites in Washington D.C. or legislative assemblies for Canadian provinces.
How to prepare: Check your state's website to book a tour or find out if self-guided tours are permissible.
What your kids will learn: Statehood history, the legislative process, architecture of the building, state symbols such as the state flag, song, seal, bird, flower and tree
What one parent says: "A few weeks after catching a two-hour debate at our state capitol, we were watching the news," ViAnn P. of Washington state says. "Our 14-year-old son pointed to the TV and said, 'Hey, they want to change the age kids can get their learner's permit.' I explained that it was soon to be debated and decided as to whether to make a change. My son said, 'We should go watch. It was pretty cool last time.' "
Location: Your neighborhood fire station, U.S. and Canada
What you can expect: A demonstration of fire-fighting equipment. Kids may also have the chance to try on a firefighter's gear, climb in and around the fire engine and tour the living quarters.
How to prepare: Call to schedule a visit. Encourage your kids to prepare a few questions to ask during the tour.
What your kids will learn: Fire safety and prevention. The importance of knowing their home address and phone number in case they need to call 911 in an emergency.
What one parent says: Rachel Z. from Colorado says, "My 3-year-old recently became fascinated with fire trucks, and he loved finding out what it was like inside the firehouse. Our trip was cut short because the firefighters had to go out on a call, but he was so excited to see them in action."
Note: There may be a minimum age requirement for kids. Since emergency responders are on call 24 hours, you may find your scheduled tour postponed or canceled.
Other Points of Interest
Here are more ideas to consider:
- grain mill
- working farm
- manufacturing plant
- butterfly or botanical garden
- pottery or glass-blowing studio
- old military fort
- mining museum
- underground cavern
Find information about attractions in your area by visiting your local chamber of commerce's website or taking a few brochures displayed in local hotel lobbies.