Though Carhenge and the World's Largest Ball of Twine make for great family vacation snapshots, they don't really offer much in the educational department. And, as the most recent test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed, American kids could probably use a freshening up of their historical knowledge this summer.
To that end, we asked the staff of the Education and Public Programs office at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) to create a master list of their favorite historic sites and museums to visit during the summer (or any other time, for that matter.)
Below, we give you their list broken down by category, as well as a handy map to help you locate the historical stop nearest you. And now, we turn it over to the experts at NMAH.
First, A Strategy: READ – VISIT – EXTEND
Integrating family reading with visits to historic sites, trails and museums builds excitement for the visit and is a fun way to introduce children to important stories in American history. Look for an historical fiction picture book related to the place you will visit and read it together. Visit the site and look for connections to what you read. After the visit check the website of the historic site to see what games and activities they offer to encourage your child’s interest in the subject. These three simple steps can really instill a love of learning and history in your child. (Check out our book recommendations here.)
For example, read “The Flag Maker” by Susan Campbell Bartolett, walk the Star-Spangled Banner Historic Trail, visit Fort McHenry, and then come see the actual Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History (and visit the museum’s online activities.)
View Summer Trips Back in Time in a larger map
Living History Sites, Historic Trails, Forts and Battlefields
If your family loves the outdoors and can’t bear the thought of spending the summer day inside a museum then living history sites, historic trails, and forts and battlefields are great places to enjoy the weather and learn about American history.
Forts and Battlefields:
History Museums & Historical Sites
When looking for an American history adventure, don’t forget to check out your state and local history museums in addition to traveling to museums far from home. Check out the American Association of Museums website for a listing of accredited museums near you.
Historic homes tell the stories of both famous and everyday Americans. You can find them in communities across the country. They are a great way to learn about local and national history.
What better way to learn about the history of transportation than to take a ride on an historic vehicle? After you take a ride, check out some of these online games about transportation history.
Native American Sites
American Indian cultures exist all across the United States. Many have visitors’ centers, museums or other forms of public outreach. Regional Pow Wows are great places to celebrate native cultures in a festival atmosphere.
Family Friendly Archaeological Sites
Volunteer to help with an archeological dig or attend a public dig family event. Search for “public archaeology” or “family archaeology” or “family dig.”
Record Your StoriesSummer is a popular time for family reunions. Consider recording oral histories of family members. Ask an aunt to tell you a favorite story about growing up; look through photo albums with parents or grandparents; or make a recording of your favorite family story and share it with younger relatives. You may find your family has surprising connections to events in American history. You can also visit a Storycorps recording location to interview a family member.
Music and FoodGo to one of the thousands of summer concerts of Jazz, bluegrass, country, blues, Zydeco, Hip Hop or other traditional American music forms. Explore books and websites to find out more about the origins of the music and the artists. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra is a national treasure that travels the world sharing the vibrant jazz tradition with people of all ages.
There are food festivals in all 50 states every year. Taste foods of different regions and diverse cultures. Try the Pierogie Festival in Indiana or the Maine Lobster Festival. If festivals are not your cup of tea, ask a family member over to teach you that fabulous family recipe you’ve always wanted to make.
Sites of Conscience and Civic Responsibility (12+)
If you are looking to teach your child about civics and becoming an active participant in our democracy, these sites are ideal. They present difficult questions about what it means to be a good citizen and what it means to be an American. These sites are more appropriate for kids 12 and up.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.