Time Travel: Taking the Kids to Historic Sites - My Family Travels

Family Travel Forum shows how visits to historic sites, like the Alamo or Colonial Williamsburg, can be fun for all ages.

I listened in awe at the Parents League seminar as a German woman explained her family vacations were always devoted to a Great Moment in History: her kids had gone to Greece to visit the Oracle of Delphi and were off to London to study the Rosetta Stone. “How else will my children understand the History of Mankind?” she wondered aloud.

I vividly remember the moment when I determined that “understanding the history of mankind” should motivate at least some of our family travels.

Then last Thanksgiving, a niece in Trinity College, the school break and San Antonio’s annual holiday boat parade coincided to bring four families together for a reunion in Texas.

Of course, grandparents and grandchildren would do some touristy stuff. But San Antonio’s most famous attraction, the Alamo, would offer us a ‘great moment in history’ on which to focus. This experience taught us how important audio-visual aids would be in helping kids understand history.

Going to the Alamo

To most Americans, The Alamo is synonymous with the battle of Misión San Antonio de Valero. This battle site was actually a church built by the Spanish (alamo means cottonwood) in the prosperous settlement of San Antonio, Mexico. In 1836, 188 Texians and Tejano rebels seeking an independent Texas nation occupied the Alamo mission. Hopelessly outnumbered, they withstood the onslaught of Mexican troops for 13 days. Their martyrdom in defense of liberty (“I would give my life for freedom!”) fueled the ensuing Texian victories; “Remember the Alamo” became their battle cry.

To prepare the kids for this great moment in America’s history we read “The Mystery of the Alamo” in Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children series (ages 5-9). In this book, the four Aldens and their grandfather come to San Antonio on a business trip and are asked to be extras in an Alamo documentary. Luckily (as we learned) a driving rain forced us across the street from the real thing and into an IMAX theater to see the docudrama Alamo: The Price of Freedom.

While waiting for the film, we studied the weapons in the Alamo Gift Shop and a detailed scale model of the battle site. Although we could never reconcile the enormity of the 19th-century fort with the present-day historic site, the 45-minute film did a great job recreating the scene. Sets, costumes and a serious cast helped the kids understand the motivations of the heroes: Commander William B. Travis, who had pledged his life to defend liberty; famed hunter and soldier Jim Bowie; frontier Congressman David Crockett in his coonskin cap; and Juan Seguin, who led the Spanish-born Tejanos. After sitting through this bloodless massacre (suitable for ages 4+), we headed across Alamo Plaza again.

On the way, Nana noticed a sign for The Texas Adventure, a commercial venture billed as a multimedia museum.  Having seen how much her grandchildren enjoyed the film, she suggested we try it.

After walking through the skimpy display of Old West props and cowboy tools, a narrator recounted the history of San Antonio from painted murals, which were illuminated at the mention of each incident. The music swelled and lights flashed on and off; grandparents were stunned but for a few minutes the kids were enthralled. Then, both live actors and extremely ethereal — but captivating — holograms of Alamo participants read letters and diaries about the 13-day siege. Though the multimedia elements were uneven in quality, the experience successfully conveyed the Alamo’s human drama to everyone.


Bringing History Alive: Entertain, Engage and Educate

In today’s high-tech world, media enhancements are almost essential to build children’s interest before visiting many historic sites.

For example, the actual Alamo site — a portal to the site of the original chapel, gift shop and a small overgrown park — is remarkably dull to the unprepared viewer. Fortunately, innovative museum techniques have turned many villages and battlefields into entertaining, engaging and educational attractions billed as ‘living history museums.’

The best known, Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, utilizes remarkable reenactments, Felicity-doll inspired theme lectures, interactive media support, and a fun yet historically accurate environment to bring history to life. No wonder it’s a favorite multi-generational destination.

Other sites designed to fascinate the whole family (and located in wonderful weekend destinations) include:

• The recreated early Moravian congregational town at Old Salem in North Carolina
• The prehistoric Anasazi dwellings in Tsankawi village at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
• Martin Luther King’s assassination site, now the fascinating National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
• The inspirational indoor/outdoor National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon
• Vieux Montréal’s Pointe-à-Callière glass-covered archeological site.

Making History on Your Travels

To make a great moment in history your focus, have children visit the library, research online or contact regional tourist offices for preliminary information about sites of interest. Wherever you go, I can guarantee that sites which have embraced new technology will show every generation a good time — despite the learning.

Eventually, children weaned on local history may graduate to the hundreds of sites worldwide recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as “cultural and natural properties considered to be of outstanding universal value,” even though few have multimedia embellishments.  Another resource, the Association for Living History, Farm & Agricultural Museums, has links to more than 80 international sights open to the public.

One night, 20 months after our return from San Antonio, my son called out from his bunk, “Mom, I would give my life if kids could have freedom from their grownups!”

A lesson from the Alamo well learned? Maybe it’s time to book a trip to the Great Wall of China.

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