Connect the dots with your children’s interest in history by allowing them to explore the Virginia sites that let them get their hands dirty and in the mix. Visits to the following 17 locations are perfect for spring break, weekends, and the summer season.
Located in Yorktown, the Yorktown Victory Center puts the struggle for America’s independence on display with exhibits pertaining to the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, plus, there is also a Continental Army encampment and 1780s farm. Kids will enjoy their time here because they may be invited to join an artillery crew or drill with wooden muskets at the aforementioned encampment, help plant and water the garden, or ”break” and “comb” flax at the farm.
Jamestown Settlement invites you to explore America’s first permanent English colony. Literally step back in history as you and your children steer with a tiller or whipstaff aboard a re-creation of one of the three ships that brought the first English colonists to Virginia or try on 17th-century-style armor and play quoits at the re-created colonial fort. Want to get your hands dirty? Grind corn, weave plant fibers into cordage and use oyster shells to scrape out a dugout canoe at the Powhatan Indian village.
The Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton introduces you to life in West Africa (1700s), England (1600s), Ireland (1700s), and Germany (1700s) before these cultures settled in America, bringing their traditions, trades, customs and animals with them. Crops and animals representing each country live at each of the interpretive farms. A special upcoming event that allows you to get especially hands-on is Wool Days, when the sheep will be sheared. Take part in weaving on the Irish farm, carding and spinning wool on the 1820 American farm, sorting and scouring wool at the English farm, and processing flax on the German farm.
Nauticus is the home of Battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk, and is a maritime science museum. Among the things you can get involved with here are the shark and horseshoe crab touch tanks, experiencing a Category 1 hurricane (fee), exploring an historic World War II battleship, raising the signal flags, packing a sea bag, and more.
Gunston Hall in Lorton was the home of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights upon which the United States Bill of Rights was based. The home and expanse of land are fabulous to tour as the property backs up to and overlooks the Potomac River. Daily between July and August is a program called History’s Mysteries, an interactive, hands-on search of the grounds and mansion featuring a special clue book and a prize for solving the 18th-century mystery.
See who the Virginia Hall of Famers are and then maybe try your hand at their sport when you visit the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in Portsmouth. Baseball, football, golf, and basketball areas are all waiting for your best shot. Also check out the Redskins Skybox and the Media Center for simulations of what it’s like to be on the other side of the sports.
The second Saturday of each month is Family Day at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle. Kids of all ages can explore the interactive museum, venturing through a gallery scavenger hunt and trying on period uniforms. The whole family can experience the weight of a pack as you each go through boot camp, or feel the ground shake as you land on Iwo-Jima in 1945. End the day with a meal in the Mess Hall.
Let your kids travel back in time and experience the life of a solider during the Civil War at the Brentsville Courthouse Historic Center in Bristow during special Civil War camp opportunities. Hands-on activities include “Enlist in Virginia’s Army” and “Civil War Medicine.” The camp also features a field trip to Manassas National Battlefield Park. Upcoming camp dates include April 14-18, July 21-25, and August 18-22.
The Rapidan Camp: President and Mrs. Hoover’s “Summer White House” in Shenandoah National Park has recently been restored to its 1929 appearance and is an excellent reflection of not only its era, but also of President Hoover. Kids can board the “Hoover Mover” at Byrd Visitor Center and start learning the history of Rapidan Camp, told by a Park Ranger. Upon arrival at the camp, children explore the restored “Brown House” and nearby Prime Minister’s House, which is a living museum. Visitors are encouraged to wander the camp, and discover why it was the perfect location for the President’s summer getaway.
Join in the living history aspects of Patrick Henry’s Red Hill in Brookneal. A variety of activities are available, from pottery making, tin punching and blacksmithing to spinning, weaving, and processing flax to linen. The children that attend the living history program spend the day immersed in what life would have been like in Patrick Henry’s day and time. They will get to try their hand at a multitude of activities that would have taken place years ago at Red Hill.
The Virginia Living Museum in Newport News depicts Virginia’s natural heritage from the mountains to the sea. Kids will especially enjoy the Touch Tank with its sea stars and horseshoe crabs, not to mention other opportunities to touch live spider crabs and fossilized dinosaur tracks!
Head to Hampton and the Virginia Air & Space Center where you can launch a rocket, pilot a shuttle and try on wings to feel the lift that makes things fly.
Kids will love the chance to experience their own “Night at the Museum” with the sleepovers offered at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville. Special hands-on activities are offered on these themed nights. Pizza, an evening snack and breakfast are included as part of the fun!
If you have a little train lover in your midst who has never gotten to board one, head to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke and climb aboard a steam locomotive. Summer camps are available if your child would like an immersive daytime experience.
Called “the new crown jewel of Civil War History destinations in America” by Pulitzer Prize historian James McPherson, Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg has four world-class museums, four antebellum homes and is the site of the Breakthrough Battlefield of April 2, 1865, where Union forces broke through Petersburg’s defense lines. Here kids can get their hands on uniforms to try on (just their size!), and be prompted to perform other activities throughout the park. Go big or go home with the opportunity to participate in a Civil War Adventure Camp – perfect for all ages, so parents can attend, too.
The National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly welcomes you to check out their staff-led roving Discovery Stations. The stations may be different in topic each time you encounter one. For example, the Animation Station allows you to generate a stop motion animated film with toys while the Rats in Space Station demonstrates gravity. Flight simulators are also on site along with the hundreds of aircraft and space exploration vehicles.
Perhaps the quintessential hands-on history opportunity in Virginia is found at Colonial Williamsburg where the entire Revolutionary City is interprets 18th century life. Try brickmaking, try the daily chores on for size at the James Geddy House or the Powell House, and get caught in the stocks for a photo opportunity. There are opportunities to see how things were made and done during the 18th century and sometimes you’ll be invited to join in; watch for your chance!
At which Virginia attraction have you had an unexpected hands-on learning opportunity? Share your story with a comment!
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© Casey for Virginia’s Travel Blog, 2014