As most parents know, traveling with kids can be totally awesome or totally catastrophic . Our secret recipe for success usually involves two ingredients – get outside as much as possible, and immerse yourself in activities that kids and adults will enjoy. Living history museums are an interactive way to learn about the past, and they’re a perfect side trip when you’re on the road. No matter where you’re traveling in the United States, chances are you’ll be close enough to plan for a family history adventure. There are hundreds of living history museums throughout the country. Here’s a sampling of our favorites.
Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut
This seafaring village on the shores of Mystic, Connecticut will immerse you in the rich fishing and sailing culture of the 19th century. Dozens of New England buildings host storytellers, craftspeople, historians, and musicians. These beautiful buildings aren’t replicas– they’re businesses from all over New England, dating back to the 1800s, that were transported to Mystic. Here you can explore all kinds of bustling maritime trades, including shipsmiths, coopers, woodcarvers, and riggers.
While you’re exploring Mystic Seaport, be sure to tour the Charles W. Morgan, the oldest commercial ship still in operation. First launched in 1841, it was once part of a huge fleet of whale ships that numbered more than 2,500. You can also cruise down the Mystic River on a coal-powered steamboat or captain a wooden rowboat of your own.
The children’s museum is a highlight for kids under seven, and if you’re in town for more than a day, check out the Mystic Aquarium, where you can see beluga whales and penguins up close. Summer is the busiest time to visit Mystic, but also the most pleasant. If you decide to go in the off season, be forewarned that many exhibits will be closed and staffing will be limited.
Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts
My kids loved visiting the original settlement of the 17th century English colonists in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This living history museum takes you back to the 17th century, when English settlers first arrived on the shores of New England. Here you’ll find historical interpreters that will interact with you “strangers,” teaching you about the life, customs, and cultures of the time.
The settlement at Plimoth expertly recreates they year 1627 in a way that is fascinating, incredibly fun, and educational. Climb aboard the Mayflower II, a replica of the original wooden ship that brought the pilgrims across the Atlantic. It’s so much smaller than you would imagine, especially when you think of the 102 passengers that had to cram aboard to make the original journey.
The Wampanoag Homesite lets you get a glimpse of what life was like for the American Indians living nearby. Unlike the English Village, the Wampanoag people you will meet are not actors. They are members of the Wampanoag tribe dressed in historically accurate clothing. They will happily converse with you, but it will be from a more modern perspective. Plimoth is open from March until November, and if you’re planning a New England road trip, both Plimoth and Mystic Seaport are must-see attractions.
Connor Prairie, Fishers, Indiana
photo credit: Mike via Flickr
Step back in time and immerse yourself in life on the prairie in 19th century Indiana. The time is 1836 and life is pretty hard. Mostly you’ll find men and woman (actors) doing chores — chopping wood, tending animals, gardening, creating pottery, and cooking. Both kids and adults are encouraged to join in, and the actors will happily answer all you questions while in character.
The highlight of this sprawling living history museum might just be the interactive 1869 balloon ride. Full of exhibits and activities that help you understand the trials and tribulations of manning a balloon, the fun culminates with a tethered balloon ride high above the prairie. I’ve heard the view is spectacular, but I’ll keep my feet planted firmly on the ground, thank you very much.
Connor Prairie is open year-round, but some outdoor exhibits close during the winter months. Go out of your way for this one, it’s well worth it.
High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon
A great combination of wildlife and culture, the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon has a little bit of everything. You’ll find 135 acres of animals, nature trails, and interactive exhibits. Visit the Miller Family Ranch to learn what life was like on a farm in 1904. You’ll meet the Miller family and their cast of farm hands and livestock. Participate in authentic homesteading chores and try your hand at a few frontier-style games. Then head over to the wildlife exhibits and meet the resident bobcat, watch otters frolic in the river, and get up close and personal with some amazing birds of prey. Before heading out, be sure to stroll along the interpretive trail to learn more about forest succession and prescribed burning. There’s quite a variety here and the whole family will find something fascinating.
Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia
Saving the best for last! My favorite living history museum, Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia, is so well crafted and so immense that a simple drive by will not cut it. In fact, I recommend a full weekend to really immerse yourself in colonial times! Pitch a tent nearby or reserve a room at one of the local hotels and give Williamsburg a few days.
The recreated city is teeming with revolutionary spirit as the colonies move toward war with Britain and an independent nation. Not only are the townsfolk in character, but there are reenactments throughout the day. You will you find yourself immersed in the struggles of daily colonial life, but you’ll also be there as the colonists decide whether or not to remain loyal to the king, you’ll witness the news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and you’ll stand by as Benedict Arnold tries to take over the town, and is instead tried himself. Colonial Williamsburg is the larges living history museum in the United States and is open 365 days a year.
Add these field trip ideas to your next road trip and your kids will never complain about learning history again. For a more thorough list of living history museums in the United States, check out this comprehensive list.
Tips for Exploring Living History Museums with Kids
Before You Visit
- Check the museum’s website. Living History Museums often work with schools and other youth groups to provide hands-on learning experiences for kids. In addition to maps, hours, and a schedule of events, you will often find a robust library of lesson plans, discussion topics, videos, and other supporting material. It’s a treasure trove for families interested in history.
- Check the weather forecast. Most living history museum events take place rain or shine, which means you and your kiddos should be prepared for whatever Mother Nature sends your way.
- Prioritize exhibits. Some living history museums are so big, that you can’t possibly see and do everything. Ask your kids to choose a few exhibits that they really want to see and make those a priority.
Make the Most of Your Visit
- Ask questions. Many of the characters you meet at living history museums are playing the part of a real person who lived long ago. Living history reenactors are passionate about history and would love to share their knowledge with you.
- Dress the part. Kids love to dress up, so if you’ve got some spare colonial garb or a prairie dress in the closet, now is the time to dust it off and put it on!
- Encourage kids to document their experiences. Give them a camera, a journal, or a sketch pad and let them share record their experiences and share them with others.
Does your family have a favorite living history museum? Please share with our readers in the comments!