Tell the kids you’re taking them to Disney, and you’re bound to get applause. Tell them you’re taking them to the Alamo, or some other historic destination, and you might very well get some eye rolling. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right planning, you can turn an enriching trip into one that's fun, exciting and more memorable than just another day at the amusement park.
“A lot of the problem is how we tend to approach history -- that it’s about memorizing facts, dates, names and places,” says Rene MacLachlan, licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. “In a way, you’ve got to take a lesson from Disney. Use the magic of imagination to bring a place alive with stories, to put a human face on the experience. It helps kids take information to heart in a way that will stay with and inspire them.” Here, some tips to help get your pack pumped:
Do some fun pre-trip footwork From Civil War classics like Glory and Gone with the Wind to civil rights-era works like To Kill A Mockingbird, movies provide important background info -- pain-free. Google the place you want to visit or the era you’ll be exploring along with “movies,” and you’re bound to come up with something worthy of a family movie night. Also check out Amazon for any novels that may provide interesting color and background for reading, either before or during the trip. Getting books for the car is a great strategy too.
Find a kid-friendly guide Call ahead to the tourist office, ranger station, museum or visitors center and see what guide services are available. If they can’t make arrangements themselves, representatives can usually provide you with names of guides suited to your family’s interests. “Our private guide literally brought the Acropolis alive for my two daughters, helping them imagine what life was like for girls in ancient Greece, chatting with them at a neighborhood souvlaki stand about how ancient Greeks traded and shopped, taking them to secret spots the big tour groups missed,” says Jamie Scurletis of Rumson, N.J. “It was a splurge, but it was the smartest thing we did in Greece.”
Get physical For kids and teens, seeing the sights from a tour bus or car window is deadly dull. Check with tourist offices to see if more active touring options are available. Washington, D.C., and San Antonio are just two of many historic cities where you can see the sights on a Segway, a two-wheeled motorized ride-on that will no-doubt thrill any teen. In Gettysburg, you can rent bikes and follow a licensed guide through the verdant and haunting battlefields. In Great Falls, Mont., you can learn all about Lewis and Clark while white-water rafting with an expert guide down the Missouri River.
Don’t overdo it Don’t make the mistake that you have to see all of Boston or Rome’s historic treasures in one trip. It’s a sure way to burn out the kids and drive yourself nuts. “One historical or cultural sight a day is plenty if you’re traveling with kids,” says Eileen Ogintz, a syndicated family travel columnist and creator of the Web site Taking the Kids. Then take some time to chill out and even follow the children’s lead. You might head off for lunch at a food market or go for a swim at a local beach. “These other experiences might be what your kids remember, but that’s OK,” says Ogintz. “They’ll have positive feelings about visiting a historic place and will have learned something.”
Follow up with fun at home No child will want to come home and be forced to produce a post-trip project. This is vacation, isn’t it? “But they might enjoy uploading pictures they’ve taken of themselves at famous historic sites and creating an online album, complete with captions,” says Ogintz. Another idea: Encourage the kids to purchase a postcard at each historic site they visit, write their thoughts about it on the back and pop it in the mail. “When they return home, they’ll have a daily diary of their trip waiting for them.”
Peg Rosen has contributed to numerous magazines and Web sites, including More, Self, Redbook, Real Simple, Parents, Family Circle, American Baby, Parentcenter and WebMd. She has also written two Girlfriends’ Guide books with Vicki Iovine.