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Tips to make your next road trip a learning experience for the whole family

Ranger-led tour at the ancient pueblo cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. (Jeff Schrum)
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In our time traveling the country this year with our fourth and fifth grade boys, I have seen the value of context in the learning process. Experiencing the people, places, and things in real life, where they happened, has provided that context, picking up nicely where the textbooks leave off.

Variety is also key. Our year-long trek has allowed us to expose our boys to a wide range of topics in hopes of finding those that stick. Helping them hone in on their interests and discover their passions is our ultimate goal. Perhaps the biggest a-ha moment so far: Our kids each love subjects that their report cards and standardized test scores fail to reveal, or worse, peg as weak. Getting out there, in the field, hands dirty and minds open, the kids are rekindling their love of learning, branching out in new directions, and discovering what they love.

The good news is that your kids don’t need to be full-time travelers to enjoy the rewards of road-schooling. Whether your plans take you to a holiday at grandma’s house, a weekend sports tournament, or a week-long beach vacation, don’t underestimate all there is to learn and experience along the way. Opportunities seem to pop up in places I never would have expected, from urban centers to the middle-of-nowhere.

What started for us as a spontaneous day trip to simply check another state (Iowa) off our list ended up being one of the most fun and meaningful learning experiences to date. Just across the state line we found the spectacular National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. And if spending the afternoon there learning about the people, wildlife, and commerce that depend on the Mighty Miss wasn’t enough, on the return trip we stumbled upon Ulysses S. Grant’s home just a block from our route. History, social studies, agriculture, marine science, economics…this road-schooling day was all that and a bag of chips (I mean that literally, we were so hungry from the long day that the boys and I shared a bag of Harvest Cheddar SunChips on the drive home).

So here are a few tips for your next road-trip:

Join a science museum (or 300). Science centers captivate young minds, but visits can get pricey, especially when you factor in parking, iMAX films, and other extras. Here’s a secret: Membership at a participating Association of Science Technology Centers museum gets you benefits at hundreds of other science centers and museums worldwide. There are a few caveats of course, and the benefits vary slightly from museum to museum, but it’s a screaming deal for families who travel. We purchased an annual membership at the Museum of Science in Boston, which set us back $160. We made back $130 of that money on the day of our first visit, as our membership covered general admission, iMAX movie passes, planetarium passes, parking, discounts on food and gift shops and more. During the last three months of travel, we have used the passport for free admission to museums all over the country.

My favorite perk of having an annual pass–the one they don’t mention in the brochure–is that we can leave on a high note. If I would have paid full-price admission, parking, and all, I’d feel pressure to get my money’s worth, even if that meant staying way past our attention span’s use-by date. Now we can leave after an hour, or pop into a science center on a driving day for a quick break. Like a Las Vegas breakfast buffet, the very fact that you can take as much as you want means you’re going to overindulge. In this case, however, the binging is actually good for you. (Note: Children’s Museums, Aquariums and Zoos have similar reciprocity arrangements in place for their members too)

Visit a National Park. (Better yet, buy an annual pass.) Our country’s 59 national parks are the crown jewels of the National Park Service (NPS), which manages hundreds of “units” ranging from seashores to battlefields to national historic sites. One of our favorite NPS sites so far was  the Museum of Westward Expansion located under the St. Louis arch. However, all of the historic sites, presidential homes, civil war battlefields, monuments, parkways, seashores, and lakeshores we’ve visited have been worth stopping for. I can think of no better place for kids to learn and experience nature, culture, art, and history first-hand. Educational opportunities include ranger talks, films, audio tours, ranger-led tours, hikes, and, best of all, Junior Ranger programs. An agency annual pass ($80) covers your family’s entrance or standard amenity fees at all 401 NPS sites, National Forests, Bureau of Land Management sites, and more.

I’d also recommend buying (or making) an NPS passport booklet for your kids. Stamps at each location let you postmark the various sites you’ve visited. Once you start stamping, it becomes a challenge to get more.

Get your kids invested in the Junior Ranger program. When we encouraged our boys to earn their first Junior Ranger badge at the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., I expected some resistance. I fully expected them to dismiss the Junior Ranger program as something meant for younger kids. Was I ever wrong. They couldn’t get through the activities quickly enough, and wanted to wear their limited-edition badges the rest of the day.

Requirements vary from location to location. Some are pretty easy, and others, like the Minuteman National Historic Park in Massachusetts required more onsite activities than our schedule allowed. Many rangers have encouraged our boys to work together answering the questions, which helps them (and us) tremendously. When finished, they turn in the completed booklets to a ranger, who reviews it with them, swears them in (this ranges from raising their hand and reciting the oath to a informal fist bump), and awards them a badge and/or patch unique to that location.

Almost all NPS Junior Ranger programs are free. Some can be earned by downloading the booklet online and mailing it back. Many state and local parks offer Junior Ranger programs as well.

Bottom Line:
The more you can personalize the learning and create a connection for young minds, the more they absorb. Get your kids out of their comfort zones by adding some hands-on discovery and adventure to your next road trip.

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