Kid-Friendly Education

Family vacations can be just as educational as they are fun. A lot of kids hear the word museum and keel over like a wilted flower, dreading being dragged through hallways where talking and touching are most definitely not allowed. That's no way to spend a holiday — or any day, especially when it's part of a family getaway.

Luckily, there are a plethora of kid-friendly museums, aquariums, and more in northern California. You can spend a week touring the region while visiting an institution or two each day, making your trip just as educational as a week at school (but without the homework, of course!). A lot of times, kid-friendly museums offer arts and crafts classes, too, so simply taking part means creating a souvenir to take home. That's an added bonus that will keep you and your pocketbook out of the nearest gift shops.

Any child (and any adult, for that matter) would find it boring to visit the same kind of educational-oriented institutions every day, no matter how kid-friendly they are. That's why this section focuses on three different kinds of institutions: living-history parks, hands-on museums, and aquariums. If you mix and match them while planning your family's vacation itinerary, then you're far more likely to keep everyone's imagination engaged.


According to the National Education Association, children whose parents are actively involved in their education tend to do better in school. If you can organize your vacation visits around a theme that correlates to what your child is learning in school, then you will reinforce those lessons — and you'll help your child achieve more than other children who don't have the chance to receive additional information.

Living-History Parks

Many people think that anyone who dresses up in period costumes or re-enacts an event is creating a living-history experience. That's not the case. Living history is actually a phrase that describes an educational medium. It must have an educational component, not just a celebratory one. The men and women who re-enact Civil War battles across the United States of America, for instance, are not engaging in living-history demonstrations. They're recreating something historic, but typically they don't do it with the educational element that is so crucial to the living-history experience.

Historians and museum workers are most often the kinds of people you'll find involved in creating living-history experiences, but in general, anyone who tries to teach others about historical events and lives by dressing up and portraying a character can be said to be taking part in a living-history demonstration. When you decide to take advantage of a living-history experience, be ready to get fully engaged. The people playing historic roles rarely drop out of character, so you'll have to commit to your role as a player on the historical stage they're trying to set.

Empire Mine State Historic Park

Empire Mine State Historic Park was mentioned in Chapter 15, which explained that living-history days are held at this Gold Country institution during weekends from May through October. Volunteers dress in costumes dating to the early 1900s, becoming everything from estate owners to the maids who served them and of course the miners who found all the gold that made the estate possible in the first place. You can talk to everyone from the guys working in the mine shaft to the men in the front office who were responsible for the miners' safety and well-being.


One of the living-history tours at Empire Mine State Park is through Bourn Cottage, a two-story home built in the style of nineteenth-century English estates. Even if it's pouring outside, you'll be warm and cozy inside as you explore the redwood interior, leaded glass windows, and towering granite walls.

There is some information on Empire Mine State Park at, but a better online resource that includes photographs is at

Wilder Ranch State Park

Just north of Santa Cruz, west of Highway 1, you'll find Wilder Ranch State Park, 7,000 acres of preserved land that used to be home to a dairy ranch famous for its butter. Before that, it served as a supply site for the Santa Cruz Mission.

Some buildings were constructed in the late 1700s, and some were built as recently as the 1940s. You'll find houses (including a historic adobe) as well as barns, shops, and gardens where, during the weekends, docents demonstrate skills such as blacksmithing and baking on wood stoves. If you want to know what it was like to be an early rancher or farmer in this part of northern California, this is the place to visit.


Wilder Ranch was driven by water power, with a water wheel that, among other things, charged three large lamps that created a fake sunrise each day. The idea was to get the cows up and moving earlier — a business idea that led some people to accuse the ranchers of cruelty to animals back in the late 1800s.

Wilder Ranch State Park is part of California's parks system. You can learn more at the official Web site,

Hands-On Museums

Talking to people who are dressed in period costumes is fun, but for more active kids, nothing beats hands-on entertainment and education. Plenty of the cities in northern California have embraced the trend of hands-on museums, creating exhibits that encourage getting dirty, wet, and interactive with everything from yo-yos to science experiments.

Each of the museums has the word discovery in its name. So perhaps they're a little short on creativity in the naming department, but they're full of great ideas when it comes to the different exhibits you'll find inside.

Bay Area Discovery Museum

The Bay Area Discovery Museum first came up in the section of Chapter 3 that described the city of Sausalito. This museum is located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with exhibits centered on art, science, and the environment. What's nice about this museum is that its hands-on exhibits are designed for different age groups, with some exhibits meant for children younger than five and others designed to intrigue older kids. There are indoor art studios and outdoor bay education exhibits, plus special exhibits that include everything from boatbuilding to visits with Clifford the Big Red Dog. Learn more at


The Bay Area Discovery Museum's Web site,, has a special section for parents that includes seasonal play tips, parenting articles, and “Ask Nurse Rona,” a series of advice columns that invites you to send in questions on virtually any topic that affects kids. The parents' section of the Web site is updated quarterly.

Children's Discovery Museum

Chapter 3 first introduced San Jose's Children's Discovery Museum. It, too, has special exhibits featuring characters such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, but there are also exhibits based on everything from circles to bubbles. A few of the hands-on exhibits at this museum are sociologically oriented, teaching kids how to run a post office, a pizza parlor, and a bank. Learn more at

Discovery Museum in Eureka

Chapter 8 introduced the Discovery Museum in the town of Eureka, where your kids can enjoy everything from a pint-size grocery store to a 3-D planetarium exhibit. If your wee ones can't get enough activity, they can climb onto the Kid Power bicycles and see how much power they can generate by pedaling. That'll tire'em out enough to keep still in the car as you travel to the next destination on your vacation itinerary! This hands-on museum's official Web site is at

Discovery Museum

Sacramento is home to the Discovery Museum, which is another name for the city's Museum of History, Science, Space, and Technology. You'll find exhibits focusing on everything from the gold rush to the space shuttle, plus “imagination play stations” where your kids can put on costumes and pretend to be part of living-history exhibits.


If you want to incorporate Asian history into your hands-on museum experience, consider a stop at the Discovery Museum in Sacramento. Its exhibits include “Chinese in the Gold Rush,” focusing on the work and sacrifice of the Chinese immigrants during this storied era in northern California's history. The exhibit is a collaborative project with the Chinese American Council of Sausalito.

You can learn more about upcoming exhibits and events by going online to


So much of northern California's history and beauty is tied to the ocean, you'd be hard-pressed to create a kid-friendly educational itinerary without including at least one aquarium. Even better, this region has a couple of the best aquariums in the world, meaning that you'll enjoy the trip just as much as your children.

Aquarium of the Bay

San Francisco's Aquarium of the Bay includes exhibits that focus on all things related to San Francisco Bay, from the animals that live within it to the conservation efforts that are required to keep it in top condition.


Okay, make that rainy “night” fun — available only to kids who are working toward national badges within the Girl Scout and Boy Scout organizations. If your child fits that bill, for $55 he or she can participate in a sleepover program at the Aquarium on the Bay. Naturalists lead activities that highlight the nocturnal behavior of the bay's many creatures.

This aquarium boasts far more than just windows you can peer through. There are glass tunnels that take you beneath the bay, plus touch pools where you can get up close and personal with rays, sharks, and other harmless bay animals. Learn more online at

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium has been educating children and adults alike for more than two decades. Exhibits and tours take place inside and out, on the bay and beneath it, so you can learn virtually everything there is to know about the ecologically fascinating body of water. For information about what's happening at the aquarium during your family's travel dates, log on to the Web site at

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