Discovering America through the National Park Service

Earlier this week I attended parent-teacher conference at my son’s Junior High School.  I experienced a “proud parenting” moment,  when the social studies teacher, Ms. Quinn referred to my son and said “sometimes he raises his hand and shares facts that I learned in college!”  I smiled and told her that we traveled frequently and that he most probably was just sharing things that he learned in the various exhibits we have enjoyed.

On my drive home, Ms. Quinn’s comment made me reflected on the many places that I had visited with my son over the last couple of years.  Often times our journey to discover history or explore nature typically led us to one of the National Park Service sites.

History can’t occur without people and some of our favorite NPS visits have been to the homes of authors,  presidents, and scientist.  Some memorable highlights have been …

  • Viewing Washington Irving’s Sketch Book at his Sunnyside home in Tarrytown, New York. My son was surprised at the original sketches of Icabod Crane and the headless horseman  since it didn’t look like the drawings in the scholastic version of the Headless Horseman that he read in school.
  • Touring President Eisenhower’s farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.   President Eisenhower had a surprisingly  small office and the wood floors were worn with scratches made from his golf shoes. Apparently he did a lot of pacing while running the country by telephone!
  • Exploring Thomas Edison’s Laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey.  Thomas Edison wanted all five buildings on the campus built close together, so he wouldn’t waste time in transit that could be spent on his work.  He even had a cot at the lab!  We learned that his efficiency and hard work paid off because he still holds the record by earning 1,093 patents!

Sunnyside, home of Washington Irving

Thomas Edison's Laboratory Complex

Visiting President Eisenhower's Farm

Of course, many NPS sites include places like monuments, battlefields, parks, natural landmarks and seashores.  Regardless if we were following the Freedom Trail in Boston, exploring the battlefields of Valley Forge or seeing the Washington Monument, the National Park Service really made learning fun!   Many places have interactive museums, short films, tours, demonstrations and a Junior Ranger Program.

Always wanting to make the most of our experience, I typically pre-plan by checking the calendar and the news and events section on the website of the NPS site we plan to visit.  This allows me to plan our day so we don’t miss any special programs or activities that are often free like the shell-fish demonstration that we went to this past summer while visiting Cape Cod National Seashore.

Learning about shell-fish at a NPS demonstration.

Checking out the websites also will alert you to any special anniversary celebrations.  For instance in 2009 it was the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, so there were many special exhibits that made our trip to Springfield, Illinois exciting.  This year is the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th Anniversary of JFK’s Inauguration.

Most sites have visitor centers and I recommend making it your first stop because you can pick up maps and official NPS brochures that have a wealth of information and history.  Sometimes short films play in an auditorium of the visitor center.  The films are great to give a little background before you set out to explore.  Information about tours will also be at the visitors center.  Tours are led by Park Rangers who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the parks.  The kids can pick up a Junior Ranger guide which will make their visit more like a scavenger hunt.

The National Park Service includes 400 places to discover!  Many of the sites are free or have minimal entrance fees.  Spending a day at a national park is most probably one of the most affordable places to go with the family to experience our nations beautiful landscape and heritage.  The National Park Service is one of the greatest resources that preserves our country’s treasures.  Who knows, maybe your kids will impress a teacher with a history or science tidbit that they learned on a  NPS family trip.  For travel ideas, itineraries or information to plan a trip to a National Park Service Site go to www.nps.gov .

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