Keep kids engaged in learning through an educational field trip in Virginia

Only 90 minutes from D.C., Shenandoah County offers lessons in U.S. history, geology and more, all in the safety of the outdoors.

When families visit the Shenandoah Caverns in Shenandoah County, Va., they get a chance to learn about the caves’ crystal formations—like Rainbow Lake, which features brightly colored iridescent drips of minerals. As they traverse the Cavern’s mile-long underground paths, parents and children alike receive a lesson in geology while seeing firsthand how rainwater can change a landscape over time and how it creates springs and sinkholes.

The Caverns are just one example of the many educational destinations that abound in the county, an inviting, historically rich destination in the Shenandoah Valley. For local families that want to keep kids engaged in learning throughout the months to come, even if they’re not attending school in person, Shenandoah County is the perfect place for a trip: It provides an expansive outdoor classroom for parents and kids that are feeling restless after months of quarantining and remote learning.

From geological phenomena to historical sites and Great Depression-era hiking trails, there’s no shortage of places that will help travelers learn something new on trip to Shenandoah County. Read on for sampling of the best places to stop during a visit.

The importance of DIY field trips

Many parents are experiencing an especially challenging back-to-school season this year; in September 2020, 73% of parents were feeling stressed about their children’s education. Students are anxious, too. Around 67% of parents are concerned for their kids’ social and emotional health due to school closures. A getaway with educational tours and outdoor exploration can help relieve some of this tension.

Families can get kids excited about these kinds of vacations before the car is even packed, too. Experts recommend helping kids learn about the sites or historical periods they plan to explore in advance of a vacation.

“It’s almost like a coming attraction. You learn about [a destination] and understand why it’s important, and then when you’re there, it’s so much more resonant,” said Stefani Hite, education director for Small World Travel, a company that creates custom educational travel itineraries for families.

Before visiting Shenandoah Caverns, for example, families can read about or view photos online of its many rock formations. And prior to a trip to Seven Bends State Park in Woodstock, Va., families can access (and print out) at-home activities, including tree and river wildlife identification games. Ecological and biological diversity define the park, according to chief ranger Thomas Stevens. Visitors might see white-tailed deer, wild turkeys or bald eagles, for example, and they can hike trails that transition from flood plains into mountainsides.

Similarly, families can boost their grasp of earth science (and learn about history) along interpretive trails within the George Washington National Forest. Interpretive specialist Stephanie Chapman recommends climbing the Woodstock Observation Tower for views of the seven bends of the Shenandoah River or exploring the wheelchair-accessible Discovery Way Trail. Many trails here were built by men at Camp Roosevelt, the nation’s first Civilian Conservation Corps camp, which is located nearby and was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation to create jobs after the Great Depression. Families should consider visiting on weekdays to avoid crowds, according to Chapman.

Beyond the interpretive trails, said Chapman, “the national forest has many opportunities for families to hike, bike, picnic or simply enjoy the natural beauty of the fall season.”

Immersive lessons in history

For families seeking out more in-depth ways to learn about U.S. history, Shenandoah County offers plenty of chances to step back in time. A visit to Corhaven Graveyard, a burial ground for African Americans who were enslaved on a Shenandoah County plantation, can help students understand the history of slavery in the region.

Visitors can then pay a visit to the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, where they can watch “Field of Lost Shoes,” a docudrama about local soldiers who fought in the Battle of New Market. Exhibits within the museum showcase Civil War art and firearms, and artifacts include a cadet’s watch fob mounted with the bullet that nearly killed him. (The museum is taking measures to ensure consumer safety during the pandemic by operating at half capacity and requiring visitors to remain six feet apart and wear masks.)

On their way out of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, travelers can pay a visit to Bushong Farm, which is located on the museum’s grounds and is the site of a battle fought by cadets as young as 15 years old. When taking a walk through the fields, students will be able to see where cadets lost their shoes in the mud and go inside the farmhouse that was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. Other buildings in park include the loom house where Sarah Bushong—of the historic family from which the farm gets its name—homespun her family’s clothing when cloth prices spiked during the Civil War.

Travelers can continue to learn about the Civil War at the Historic Shenandoah County Courthouse Museum, open Fridays and Saturdays from 11 am to 4 pm. The original building was constructed in 1795, and on a tour through the courthouse, students can take a peek at the graffiti left on the walls by both Union and Confederate soldiers.

These kinds of details are what visitors react most strongly to, according to Lieutenant Colonel Troy Marshall, site director of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War.

“People want to hear about people,” he said.

Learn something new while grabbing a bite to eat

In the autumn and early winter, Shenandoah County’s farms, markets and orchards are in full swing—and the county is finding safe ways to help visitors enjoy the best eats and drinks that the area has to offer. Restaurants throughout Shenandoah County have expanded outdoor seating to accommodate social distancing, and many have added heaters so meals can be enjoyed outside, even on chilly evenings.

The Edinburg Mill Restaurant offers patio seating, for instance, and is open Wednesday through Sunday; the Ahi Tuna and Prime Rib are sure to please. While enjoying a meal, diners can also reflect on the origins of the building in which the restaurant is located—it was once a historic mill built by Major George Grandstaff and is the only mill to survive General Philip Sheridan’s Burning Raid, which destroyed several communities in Virginia in 1864. The Mill is also home to the Shenandoah Valley Cultural Heritage Museum, where visitors can learn about life in the area throughout history. The museum features an extensive exhibit on the American Red Cross and Camp Roosevelt.

To enjoy a meal in a more pastoral setting, visitors can head to Swover Creek Farms & Brewery, which has also expanded their outdoor seating options. Order up a few of the farm’s popular wood-fired pizzas, which are made with locally sourced ingredients, or one of the many brews on tap. (Make sure to grab a pint of the Jalapeño Cream Ale, a crowd favorite.) After dinner, families can also pick seasonal berries on the farm’s grounds, play a round of disc golf or simply sit back and take in the scenery.

While the pizza and inventive brews are relatively new offerings at Swover Creek, the farm has been operated for over 100 years by the same family, which gives it the distinction of being a Virginia Centennial Farm. It’s hard to go anywhere in Shenandoah County without coming across places that have this kind of rich history. Visitors are likely to find themselves learning something new during their trips, even if they’re just going on a casual walk or grabbing a meal. And when they do, Marshall hopes that they will think about “what it must have been like” for the people who lived in the area throughout its long legacy.

“What can it tell us?” He said.

Learn more about visiting the Shenandoah County.

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