Seven sites in seven days


Family vacations don’t have to be all fun. They can be about learning, too. My family has found out they can somehow, strangely, be both fun and educational. Any family vacation takes some planning and preparation, so what you’ll be doing is pulling together all three elements: fun, learning, and good planning. Or it can even be average or not-so-great planning! I won’t say “bad planning,” because that wouldn’t be giving great advice. But you don’t need days of planning or notebooks full of plans and maps. You can do just a minimal amount of planning; leave a lot of room for spontaneity, and let things fall where they may.

That’s how our “Seven Sites in Seven Days” vacation became seven sites in seven days. Actually, it should have been five. But upon a simple Internet search on the road (in the hotels) we decided we could also visit a Northern Virginia Civil War battle site and the Flight 93 National Memorial, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And so we did.

Our family, about every three years, likes to take advantage of the homeschool discount days at the Historic Triangle of Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, in Virginia. We have a wonderful, giving, friend who owns a ministry house in the area, and she allows us to stay in the upstairs bedrooms, without cost, for about three days and nights. What a cool blessing! (Tip: Do leave your host a present of some sort, after hospitality such as that!)

So our vacation went like this: after visiting some friends and going to church in southwestern Virginia on a Sunday morning, we went halfway across the state to Appomattox, in the center of the state, where Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army on April 9, 1865. We were only there about three hours and saw everything; (you could spend a whole day if you like.) We heard a soldier-interpreter speak for nearly an hour, and had a great time! That was Site One. Then, after spending the night at our friend’s ministry house, we went over to Colonial Williamsburg the next day (a Monday.)

Tuesday and Wednesday brought full visits to both Yorktown (where the British gave their most important and essentially final surrender to the American armies in 1783) and Jamestown (site of the first permanent settlement in North America by Europeans. The Raleigh colony came first, but did not survive; the Massachusetts Plymouth settlers came a few years later.) All of these are excellent sites, with tons of hands-on stuff for children and adults! Part of the Jamestown exhibit, in fact, is a re-creation of a surrounding Native American village.

There, my son and I tossed arrows made of whittled corncob shafts through hoops, in what was an Indian target game at the time. How cool is that? At Yorktown, you see what the army encampments along the James River looked and felt like. Williamsburg? I can’t even begin to describe all the amazing things there are to see and do. By the way, the Williamsburg Foundation slashes prices expressly for homeschool families twice a year, usually for one week in September and one in February. It’s like you can’t afford not to take advantage of this deal!

Thursday brought a travel day to the north to get to the national historical park at Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania. If you’re following these sites, you’re seeing that the chronological order of how things happened is all out of whack with how we traveled them! (Appomattox was the next-to-last event in our historical timeline, and we were there the first day.) But we ended up having fun with that small twist. And if you have small kids, (my kids are in middle school and late elementary) you could pretend to “enter a time machine” (it could be your car) to aid your travels, or something similar just for fun.

At any rate, on Thursday, while driving, at the last moment—nearly literally—I decided to pull off at a site near four battles in the Civil War, in the Fredericksburg, Virginia area. We only saw one site of the four in a thirty-or-so-mile area, but it had an original house still pockmarked with shell holes from the battle, an awesome cemetery and a very cool stone wall that soldiers fought over (boys love stuff like this).

Friday, then, was all about the Gettysburg National Military Park, which is one of my favorite places on earth, with thousands of acres and thousands of monuments, cannons, statues, etc. If you go, climb the eight-story, open-air observation towers, and see things like the massive Devil’s Den (which contains rocks the size of houses which soldiers actually fought over). Don’t forget the hillside of the famous charge on Day Two of the Battle of Gettysburg by Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine regiment (which may have been the key tactical move that won the three-day battle for the North). It’s like Diana Waring proposes: when you make history come alive, is fun for everyone!

Saturday, the final day, was about traveling back home, but only a short trip off the beaten path allowed a visit to the Flight 93 National Memorial in the hills of southern Pennsylvania. We saw where the September 11th flight went down—after heroic passengers attempted to take back control of the plane from the terrorists. If you’ve never been able to visit, it is moving beyond words (and here is no fee). I can’t put into words the value of seeing this site. You will be stunned by the emotion of the place.

What we did not once call “Seven Sites in Seven Days” before we started the trip became just that, in our minds, when we realized what we had been able to do with the trip!

Such a vacation is entirely possible for any family—and you can do it on the cheap like we did! It could be three sites in three days, or five in five, whatever you want it to be.

More Ways to Make Your Vacation a Learning Experience

  • Learn as much as you can soak in; stretch yourself! I’m a “marker and signpost reader;” most of the others in my family are not. I read everything, every plaque and every signpost that I can. It drives them crazy. But I, and we, have learned to strike a balance; my kids are starting to read them to learn a bit more, and I’m learning to move on!
  • Journal at the end of each day, even if it’s just 50 or 100 words. You’ll have made sure you captured your most important memories. Without doing so, over time, those thoughts simply slip away.
  • Some historical stops will have to be shorter than others (like our 60-minute Fredericksburg, Virginia, one) but that’s okay! You can blow it out at other places; for us, those were sites like Williamsburg and Gettysburg.
  • Give yourself room to adjust. Things never go just as planned. We had passes for three days at Williamsburg, but got there for only two of them. We still saw tons of stuff. It’s okay!
  • Enjoy other people along the way, and have fun. We had dinner with friends away from the historical sites. Do not always be “on assignment.” That’s a bad idea. Swim in the pools; play some soccer in a yard or park for a few minutes, or watch a movie.

Plan a little; learn a lot, and have even more fun!

Biographical information

Bob Irvin is communications manager for The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine. Bob worked in a number of reporting and editing jobs in journalism before entering publishing. He’s now thrilled to be part of the TOS team. Bob and wife Joan have four children, from a 26-year-old college graduate to a ten-year-old. He loves to teach and preach the Bible, coach youth sports, run, bike, read, and work with other writers to make their projects even better.

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Summer 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.