Visiting historic sights, those places where an important event happened or places significant to America’s story, can be more for kids than a day’s diversion. There are teaching moments in these places, opportunities for even young children to find connections to the past. When they do connect, these experiences stick with them and enrich their understanding of their heritage.
Even small historic sites usually have some special outreach to children — exhibits, a worksheet or pages to color, a treasure hunt. We were recently at Brandywine Battlefield in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where the small visitors’ center had an entire room filled with period clothes to try on, tools to use, uniforms, artifacts and reproductions kids could touch, handle and try. Our kids were fascinated by how things worked and how tools and technology changed; it appealed to their curiosity.
Sometimes it takes a little effort from parents — and even a little reading up beforehand — to draw connections between the past and our kids’ experiences. Other times all it takes is a few questions, like what kind of games do you think girls played dressed in those long skirts? Or what would it be like to travel and live in a covered wagon?
Look for some incident or some historic figure that will capture a child’s attention. It doesn’t need to be a significant event or famous person, just something that piques their curiosity or sense of humor. It wasn’t America’s history, but our girls will never forget Carisbrooke Castle on England’s Isle of Wight for the window where the overweight King Charles I got stuck while trying to escape. Incidents like this bring a place to life and a little advance research may turn up the perfect story. Many historic attractions have special pages on websites designed for home-schoolers or young visitors where you can download brochures, apps, maps and treasure hunts designed for kids.
Often you can relate a place or event to something they learned or will study in school, and you’ll be surprised how actually being some place will stick. Our teen was able to tell her history class the famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware got it all wrong, because she had seen the river herself at Washington’s Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania, and seen replicas of the actual boats.
Look for small things, quirky details and side stories that will connect them to the bigger picture. Focus on things kids can identify with — how people lived, how they dressed, what they ate, what schools were like, what toys they played with, how things worked (our girls were always fascinated watching the water-powered saw mill at Old Sturbridge Village saw logs into boards).
Trips to historic sites don’t need to feel like being in school; if you keep the experience interesting, kids probably won’t even realize they’re learning something.
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