There’s no denying that travel can expand a kid’s awareness of the world and enrich their lives with new experiences and points of view. But you don’t have to travel to exotic locations—we’ve found 15 spots right here in the USA that will offer kids a chance to learn about history, science, culture and more. Keep reading to get inspired.
Think Differently in Washington, D.C.
D.C. is an awesome place to teach children about history and government. Take time to visit The National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington to give your family a new perspective on early American history. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, it opened its doors in 2004 as a place to advance the understanding of Native cultures from the past, present and future. Current exhibitions include Native Americans in the Armed Forces, the Inka Road, the history of Treaties and more. The building itself was designed by Métis and Blackfoot Indian architect Douglas Cardinal and is unlike most contemporary structures. Even the gardens offer the Native perspective: the plants of great importance to different North American cultures are not labeled, allowing visitors to experience them in a more natural way.
Have a Blast in Castle Rock, WA
Nobody thought much of Mount St. Helens until she blew her top in 1980. It’s been a few years, but she’s still a big deal and a must-see for curious kids. The Mount. St. Helens Forest Learning Center is not only the star of the show because admission is free, but also because it features an eruption chamber, a helicopter to climb in, a great playground and a killer gift shop. Other places to check out include the Johnston Ridge Observatory (which features an awesome view of the mountain), the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Sequest and the Castle Rock Exhibit Hall which isn’t as spectacular as the others, but displays a collection of home pictures from some of the survivors of the blast.
Roar with Dinosaurs in Glen Rose, TX
While it’s not as impressive as the fictional Jurassic Park, the 1,587-acre Dinosaur Valley State Park is still pretty dyno-o-mite. Many years ago, the dinos left their mark in the form of footprints in the soft mud that once covered central Texas and they are still there today. Guests are greeted by 70-foot-tall Apatosaurus and the and 45-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex which were models used during the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. In the riverbed, you can find several footprints left from Sauropods and three-toed Theropods. In addition to visiting the interpretive center, the park is also a great place to hike, mountain bike, fish, horseback riding, etc.
Watch History Come to Life in Boston, MA
Follow in our country’s forefathers footsteps by exploring the 7.6 mile-long Freedom Trail. Beginning at Boston Common, the trail leads through Downtown, the Government Center, the North End and finishes at Charlestown. The National Park Service offers a free 90-minute tour, but for the biggest impact, consider taking the Lessons on Liberty Tour—a 90-minute tour guided by classically trained historians dressed in authentic clothing. Check out the USS Constitution Museum and Ship as well but plan to come early as it is operated on a first come, first-serve basis.
Explore Space in Cape Canaveral, FL
Whether you have a space lover or you just want to explore American history and science, there are few places where you can get the real deal like Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Give yourself at least a full day to tour the complex. Learn about heroes and legends of space travel, get a behind-the-scenes peek at historic launch sites and working spaceflight areas, strap in for a Shuttle Launch Experience and check out the history of 30 years of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program (plus see an actual shuttle).
Go Underground in Auburn, NY
Auburn is a charming town in the Finger Lakes region of New York State and has an incredibly rich history. Teach your children what it really means to stand up to tyranny by immersing them in the world of Harriet Tubman. The national park that bears her name is the perfect place to learn all about this incredible woman who emancipated herself from slavery at the age of just 27 and went on to help dozens of slaves find freedom. Before you go, the kids can become an Underground Railroad Junior Ranger to learn about the system of secret houses and waystations that helped slaves find freedom. Harriet Tubman National Historical Park includes her home, a visitor’s center, the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, and the church she raised funds to build. Her burial site is also nearby. A new visitor center is planned for 2018. The town of Auburn also boasts several other history museums and collections, a memorable public theater and year-round events and festivals.
Be Innovative in San Jose, CA
Do you know the way to San Jose? Silicon Valley is known for being a hotbed of invention and innovation, especially in the tech world, and there is no better way to connect that to your kids than a visit to the hands-on Tech Museum. If you think it’s going to be all binary code on the wall and screen time, think again: you’ll find robots, earthquakes, space and so much more in a 132,000-foot building in the heart of downtown San Jose. Kids will learn about sound, shadows, movement, coding and more. Why yes, honey, you can design your own roller coaster. And then ride it. Click here to discover even more about this amazing place.
History That Goes Waaay Back in Harpers Ferry, IA
In what is now Iowa the Mound Builders created one of the most incredible sites on Earth—the Effigy Mounds National Monument near Harpers Ferry. The mounds, many of which are in the shape of animals like bear, deer, lynx and turtle, were formed between 1400 and 750 B.P. Although once a much larger area (it is thought close to 15,000 mounds have been destroyed due to farming, road expansion and similar) the National Park in Iowa preserves about 200. This is a sacred site—currently, the Monument has 20 culturally associated American Indian tribes—and a testimony to the early Mississippian and Mound Builder culture.
While many of the mounds are associated as effigy or burial sites, others remain a mystery. A visit here will change your view of what you think you know about early American history and can help give children perspective on first peoples, indigenous rights and how to move forward with respect to those rights. The park itself is teeming with year-round natural beauty and wildlife and natural beauty.
Say It with Science in Portland, OR
If you’re interested in “everyday encounters with science” in an environment that makes the ordinary extraordinary, then add the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to your bucket list. Want to know what a Black Hole really is? Or maybe you’d like to tour a real submarine? From physics to chemistry to space and beyond, your kids will learn new concepts and discover phenomena without even trying (there’s a 7,000-square-foot Science Playground!). Plus, it’s location along the Willamette River in Portland ain’t too shabby either.
Be Honest in Springfield, IL
In the charming mid-sized city of Springfield, Illinois, you’ll find more sites dedicated to the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, than anywhere else in the world. Explore the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library as well as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the Lincoln Depot and the Lincoln Tomb, his final resting place. You can also check out Lincoln’s New Salem, a reconstruction of the village where Lincoln lived as a young man. Experience life from two centuries ago and imagine you work alongside Lincoln at the post office, chopping wood and more. Discover the early influences of Lincoln’s life that helped form his principals, including the belief in the abolishment of slavery. Also home to the University of Illinois at Springfield, the college campus is well worth a romp around.
Star (& Planet) Gaze in Flagstaff, AZ
The Lowell Observatory has been a private, non-profit research institution since 1894, founded by Percival Lowell. One of the oldest in the U.S., they are credited with the discovery of Pluto in 1930, co-discovering the rings of Uranus in 1977, accurate orbits of Pluto’s two new moons, variation in brightness of Halley’s Comet, among many other exciting and important astronomical discoveries. They offer daily guided tours, a junior astronomer program and even summertime Lowell Observatory Camps for Kids, for ages pre K to middle school.
Get Inventive in Alexandria, VA
The National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia makes a perfect destination for curious kids and grown-ups alike. You’ll learn about the inventors of everything from internet technology to the Hubble telescope, plus how things are invented, patented and more. Little creators will love Camp Invention in the summer months, but the museum offers year-round invention programs for pre K to adult. Click here to read more about the museum.
Visit America’s Aquarium in Stone in Kemmerer, WY
There’s no shortage of fossil beds throughout the United States, but Fossil Butte takes it to another level. Known as “America’s aquarium in stone” some of the fossils here are so well preserved you almost don't need to imagine what these plants and animals once looked like. Fossils here are from the Cenozoic Period—between 2.6 and 65 million years ago. Kids can get hands-on with a rubbing table to make their own impression of a fossil, along with ranger-led programs and hikes.
Get Ahead in Keystone, SD
The new Mount Rushmore Self-Guided Tour has changed the way visitors see the legendary monument. For $8, visitors can rent a special device that presents a multi-media experience incorporating narration, music, interviews, sound effects, photos, videos and historic recording all along the way through 29 tour stops. You can pick and choose the places you want to see and learn more about and skip the ones that you don’t. Also included is the Junior Ranger Quest game that allows kids to participate in up to 16 challenges at different tour stops around the park. Once they complete challenges, they receive a Junior Ranger badge from a ranger desk. Read our insider's guide here.
Learn About the Man Behind the Mouse in Marceline, MO
Sure, your kids know all about the animation that Walt Disney created in Hollywood, but they might be interested to learn that he was once a kid himself. In Marcelin, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum features a number of interpretive exhibits telling about Disney’s early life: You'll find movie footage, personal letters, photographs, Mickey Mouse memorabilia, an actual Midget Autopia car from Disneyland and more. See the Disney family farm, visit Walt’s “dreaming tree,” the Disney Farm Arboretum, the Walt Disney U.S. Post Office (the only federal building named after the artist), the Walt Disney Elementary School (where Walt had his studio produce a unique mural for the school interior) and the Walt Disney Complex at Santa Fe Lake.
National Parks Everywhere
From spelunking, canyoneering and canoeing to stargazing, fossil hunting and fly-fishing, America’s national parks offer up a ton of exhilarating activities for your tiny explorers. Whether it’s a program led by park rangers or by national parks-approved concessionaires, each one is a spine-tingling good time. Bonus: Find out how to help them become Junior Civil War Historians! See our favorite national parks for families here!
—Jeff Totey & Amber Guetebier
Feature photo: Josh Grenier via Flickr