by Mary Brigid Barrett
A spontaneous visit to an historical site or museum can be just as fun and educational as a planned family visit. But, if you have time, there are a number of things you can do before, during, and after the visit that will enhance your children’s experience. In addition to all the historic presidential places and museums recommended on this site, there are numerous American-history destinations you can visit all across the country to enrich young people’s understanding of our nation’s heritage. Our extraordinary art museums, science museums, and children’s museums, as well as our great urban public libraries, also provide exciting and entertaining experiences for young people that will increase their understanding of America’s history and culture.
• Visit your neighborhood library where you will find information on both local and national museums and historical destinations, as well as travel guidebooks, videos, and DVDs that can help you plan day trips and vacations. Many libraries offer free family passes to local museums and historical sites, but, remember, you often have to reserve those passes ahead of time. Once you have determined your destination, your neighborhood librarian can help you find interesting books related to the historical topic or era of your visitbooks you can share with your kids!
• Check your local newspaper regularly to find special exhibits, programs, and projects that are of interest to your family.
• Contact your destination site and/or check its website to find out admission fees, hours, and travel directions. Find out when the location is the least crowded and what days, if any, it has free admission. Check out family memberships prices. Depending on the size of your family, it may be cheaper to buy a family membership than to pay for individual admission fees. Memberships often include free admission for an entire year and provide special educational support materials and additional discounts. Also check to see if there are food facilities available where you can purchase snacks or meals and/or a place where you can sit down and enjoy your own brown-bag snack or lunch.
• If a member of your family has special needs, contact the destination to make sure that he or she will have access to exhibits and parking areas, and find out if there is a particular entrance that best accommodates his or her needs. Many museums and sites have special materials for hearing- and sight-impaired adults and children, but may need advance notice to accommodate needs.
• Talk with your kids about your upcoming visit, especially if they have never visited an historical site or museum. Give them an idea of what to expect; talk about the historical events, people, subjects, or eras that are associated with your chosen destination. Visit your local library and take out books and visual materials on topics related to your destination. Explore the destination’s website together. For example, if you are visiting President John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, first read its website with your kids. Go to the library and take out age-appropriate books about President Kennedy and read them together. Find out the year President Kennedy was born and together find out what happened in America during that era by reading books and using Internet resources. You do not have to do “in-depth” research, but a little preparation and some general information will certainly enhance your child’s experience.
• After your children and teens understand where they are going, and have a general idea of what to expect, ask them what they would like to do and see once you arrive. What interests and excites them? What are their needs? What are their questions and concerns?
• Pack a bag to bring along with paperback books, water, sketchbooks, and markers in case you get stuck in traffic or there are longer than expected entrance lines at your destination.
• That they should wear appropriate attire; and if the historical site involves walking outdoors, they should dress for seasonal weather.
• That they should walk and not run in museums and other sites.
• That food, drinks, candy, or gum are only allowed in designated areas.
• That they should be courteous and walk behind rather than in front of those who are viewing the exhibits and if they are little and cannot see, they can wait their turn or ask others politely if they can move in closer.
• That it is dangerous to touch or lean against the glass cases.
• That many exhibits are interactive; information will be posted informing visitors what can be touched and what cannot be touched.
• That questions are always encouraged! And there are no stupid questions.
• First stop: the Information Center! There you will find floor plans and maps, as well as information on special exhibits, and times and locations for interesting programs, performances, and shows. People there can direct you to restrooms, cloakrooms, and eating facilities. Ask if your parking ticket should get stamped for parking discount. They will have information and schedules for guided and self-guided tours. Materials may also be available in different languages.
• Make sure your kids know where the restroom facilities and establish public safety ground rules. Are they old enough to wander through the museum or site themselves, and if so where will you meet them and when? If a child gets lost, show them where he or she should go and/or show them what a museum security guard looks like, or point out a staff person usually identifiable by a visible I.D., someone they can approach safely to help them find you.
• Share the exhibit information, floor plans and maps with your kids and let them decide what you would like to do first. Let them lead the way. Don’t rush them. Let them enjoy the experience at their own pace.
• Encourage them to ask questions by asking questions yourself, and if you do not know the answer to a question they pose, ask a staff person, and/or encourage them to ask a staff person.
• Share your interests; show your enthusiasm! Talk with your kids about what they see and hear. Ask them questions, seek their opinions. Compare and contrast what you see and do with other things you have seen and done. Ask them if they like or dislike something, but also ask them why. Encourage them to tell stories about what they see and what they experience.
• Bring sketchbooks and pencils along and encourage your children and teens to draw things that interest them. They may want to take some quick notes on things they would like to investigate when they get home.
• Take a rest now and then. Sit down somewhere away from the exhibits and breathe. Have a snack or lunch. Historical sites and museums are often crowded and all the people and the exhibits and shows can be overwhelming, making everyone more tired than they would be at home. Make sure to take some time to relax because it will increase your family’s enjoyment of the day.
• If permissible, take photos of your family visit or have the kids film a video, narrating their activities. In many museums and sites, where photos of exhibits are restricted, you can sketch and write notes about what you see and do. Many families can afford to allow kids to buy a souvenir of their trip at the gift shop in the museum, some cannot. Whether or not your family is on a tight budget, those photos, sketches, and notes can be used later to create a much more significant souvenir of your day! (see After Your Visit suggestions)
• Don’t try to see everything on your first visit; it will be too much to digest especially with younger children. Remember, you can always come back!
• Have a conversation with your kids about your excursion. If they are tired, that conversation may take place the next day; if they are still full of energy, a lively conversation could erupt in the car on the way home. If the conversation falters, ask your children and teens open-ended questions that stimulate the discussion. For example, if you have visited the Nixon presidential library, do not ask them if they liked the exhibits, for that kind of question usually evokes a simple one-word response of “yes” or “no.” Instead, ask questions that inspire them to think on their own, to think critically. Questions like: The exhibit on President’s Nixon trip to China was interesting, it made me realize I do not know very much about China. What do you know? Or: What do you think Richard Nixon could have done as president to help our country if he had not had to resign? How would you have handled the Watergate situation? Or: What things did Mrs. Nixon do as first lady that you thought were interesting? If you were the spouse of a president what would you do?
• Create a family souvenir of your day. Gather all the things you have from the tripadmission tickets, brochures, floor plans, photographs, sketches, notes, the wrapper from the cheeseburger someone ate at the snack bareverything and anything. Grab some markers, paint, glue, and a giant piece of cardboard and make a collage of your day. Or, make your own scrap book. But don’t just put photos and scraps into the book. Have your children and teens write their own captions for each item placed in the book. You’ll be delighted with their observations, insights, and humor!
• Suggest they write a letter to an extended family member describing their visit. Letter writing seems to be a dying form of communication, but think how you treasure the letters you have received, for handwriting expresses so much about an individual. Let your kids know what a special gift a letter is to the person who is receiving it. Think about how many letters and handwritten notes you’ve saved over the years, as opposed to the number of emails you actually save.
• If you cannot inspire your kids to write a letter to a loved one or friend about their experience, encourage them to write a letter by email. Emailing can be a terrific medium of communication, one that we as a culture have decided to use for quick, easy, and often abbreviated communication. But, email can be used for a more depth-filled communication. Encourage your kids to experiment with email, to use it to write meaningful letters about their experiences as well as short communications to their friends.
• Throughout the school year, reference your historical excursion. Help your kids to make connections between their experiences from your family field trips and the things that they do and learn in school.
• Encourage your kids and teens to read newspapers and news magazines in both traditional and electronic formats, and then help them to make those important connections between current and historic events, and things they learned on your family outings. If your family visited Franklin Roosevelt’s amazing library in Hyde Park, New York, and learned about the events that led to World War II, and if you and your kids are reading the news about events in the Middle East, it could be fascinating to have a family conversation comparing and contrasting the 1930s and 1940s to what is happening to America now in its interactions with the world.
• And the best way to get kids into a daily or weekly habit of learning more about current events and what is going on in our nation is by doing so yourself. Kids and teens do what we do, not what we say.
©2008 Mary Brigid Barrett; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance