We Know Because We’ve Been There
Taking Educational Outings with Little Ones
First published in Home School Enrichment Magazine Mar/Apr, 2010.
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On my dresser mirror is a faded snapshot I love. Slightly faded, greasy, and smudged, the photo holds memories and warm feelings more meaningful than the poor focus and composition of the shot can explain. For within that four-by-six inches piece of paper, I am frozen in time, holding my Sweetie Pooh in my arms as a young toddler again and standing at the foot of the most significant monument in my favorite place in the world. We were in our nation’s capital, and I was showing my three very young children the giant statue behind me of our great leader – Abraham Lincoln. That toddler is six now, and when he reads of President Lincoln in a book or sees his image on the penny he proclaims loudly, “That is Mr. Lincoln! I know, because I saw him!” The photo on his mommy’s dresser tells him so.
One of the greatest blessings of learning together as a family is that we have the privilege to learn outside the home. My husband and I take advantage of every opportunity we can find to take our children to learning opportunities within our community and around the country. We want them to be comfortable in museums, galleries, historical sites, exhibits, and gardens from a young age, so that as they grow and mature they will come to a fuller understanding of how to learn from these experiences. We have been pleasantly surprised to find that the young children learn and appreciate much from these outings, too!
There are many easy ways to incorporate outside learning into the family life. Some families join a homeschool group or association that plans field trips for homeschoolers. The homeschool group can sometimes get a group discount or a special tour, but the families must stay together and conform to the group schedule. Our family prefers to plan our own outings. We pick what goes with our curriculum, priorities, and budget and schedule according to our own preferences.
There are many ways to make outings very affordable for families with young children. We subscribe to some community resources that we use often – like a zoo membership – to get discounts and special events. Some museums and exhibits offer monthly free days and online discount offers. Homeschoolers can find these by searching the museum website or calling the office and asking directly for an educational discount.
We go to outings most often, however, on family trips. Our vacations are primarily learning times. Whether it is a family road trip to see the grandparents, or a family vacation to a scenic destination, our itinerary is full of museums. With young preschoolers and toddlers, we have had memorable tours of Plymouth Plantation, the Smithsonian Museums, the Dallas Art Museum, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Indian Reservation, the Shaker Village, the Boston Aquarium, the Alamo, and the Spanish Fortresses of Peru (yes, Peru!). Young children are delighted at the novelty of scenes outside their usual experience and relish the opportunity to explore cultures other than their own. These family outings help broaden the young learning horizons.
There are several strategies we have adopted to help us have such happy family outings. First of all, when at a museum or historical site together, my husband and I divide and conquer. Whoever is most knowledgeable in the subject matter at hand takes the older children, the other one is with the younger. For example, when we went to the Capital, I was the tour guide for most of the time while my husband kept the baby happy and pushed the stroller. But when we went to Peru, I held little hands and counted heads while my husband taught us the history and culture of his homeland.
This does not mean that the “baby-sitter” has no fun and does no teaching. We both have become quite adept at keeping little eyes and ears busy in a museum. There is so much about things that happened “long ago” for young ones to absorb. Depending on their ability, the young child may want to comment on the color, shapes, tools, clothing, or context of the display. Surprisingly, many preschoolers understand quite a bit of what they observe in historical or scientific displays.
The learning themes for little ones will vary according to venue. While visiting a historical venue or monument, a toddler or preschooler can learn the name of the place or person represented. They may associate the name with another person, event, or object (“Mr. Lincoln was President during the Civil War. Here is his picture on the penny. Would you like to hold the penny in your pocket while we walk around the monument?”). Touring a home, farm, or village offers plenty of opportunities for a young child to practice observation (“Can you find something in the room blue like your shirt?”) and comparing and contrasting (“Is this old village like where we live? How is it different? Would you like to live back then?”). Walking through gardens, parks, and zoos offer plenty of fresh air and exercise. Young children enjoy comparing differing species of plants and animals and discussing varying colors and sizes. Art museums and exhibits are good opportunities to see historical artifacts and portraits. Little ones enjoy looking at pictures and sculptures briefly to discuss the color, shapes, and subject matter. Many art museums have a special room set aside for the young artist to try making his own artistic creation, too.
We have also learned to monitor the pace of our outing. The young children may want to linger for a while during a cheese-making demonstration, and then rush through the horse-shoeing time completely. I remember being disappointed I could not stand and stare at the Hope Diamond as long as I would have liked, because my young ones wanted to go see the large Stuffed Animals from Africa. As they become more accustomed to spending time learning in museums and exhibits, children will develop longer attention spans. But their attention will never be as long as that of a woman who wants to drool over a very large diamond.
We like to vary the outing. When we go on family vacations with several educational venues planned back-to-back, we are careful to plan a variety of learning experiences so the young ones will remain engaged and interested. Perhaps we would spend half a day at a museum, then the afternoon at the zoo. Or we could walk a botanical garden in the cool of the morning and tour a historical mansion in the day. Once we took a walking tour of historic missions all day then rode a boat down a canal in the evening after supper. Each day is different, each one is exciting, and there is always something to look forward to.
We take the opportunity to teach learning etiquette. We are doing more than teaching them to have quiet voices, walk slowly, don’t touch, and don’t push. We want our children to respect historical sites. We want them to see God’s Hand in man’s affairs. We want them to appreciate cultural events, artistic talent, and hard work, whether in the past or the present. We want them to learn respectfully from others and show consideration for the works of those that have gone before them. Taking young children on educational journeys to learn firsthand and see for themselves the places they may learn of later begins to instill such feelings of respect in their young hearts. They know these places are real. They know the places are important. They know they are learning something.
When my oldest son first began reading, he preferred only non-fiction books, and the subject he read exclusively on was sharks. He read every junior non-fiction book in our library on sharks, and then demanded I drive him to surrounding libraries to search for more books on sharks. Soon, he had read everything written for children on his favorite animal, and he considered himself quite an expert on the subject. He often imparted to his younger brother and sister his considerable knowledge, until they had heard all they could stand on sharks. Finally, one day, as she rode in the family van behind me, my three-year-old Princess declared loudly to one and all, “I do NOT believe in sharks!”
Can you imagine her astonishment as she walked through the shark tunnel of the aquarium a few months later, the unbelievable sharks swimming all around her? I assure you, she DOES believe in sharks now, not because she has read of them, but because she has seen them herself (compare Job 42:5). Now, the children believe in the Great Awakening because they have been to Enfield; they believe in the Pilgrims because they walked through Plymouth Plantation; they believe in da Vinci because they saw one of his paintings up close; they believe in pirates because they saw Francis Drake’s mark in a Peruvian catacomb.
We believe homeschooling is not just at home.