On a chilly Sunday afternoon this fall, my husband and I packed up the SUV, gathered our children and headed south for a much-needed family vacation. After months of waking up early each day to a packed schedule of household chores, schoolwork, soccer practices and games, meetings, and special events, we were all ready to hibernate for a few days.

To rise to the sound of our daughter’s laughter, rather than an alarm clock, was so refreshing. We spent hours bobbing up and down in rafts at the indoor wave pool. We dismissed our low-cholesterol diets in favor of pizza, ice cream, and donuts. We lost track of time in our novels and glossy magazines. Finally, we reached that turning point in every vacation: that moment when, fully rested, one is ready to conquer what lies behind the hotel lobby door. It was time to experience something new, to explore another time and place. It was the beginning of our family field trip.

The words “field trip” often conjure up dreadful memories of loud, unruly mobs of school children pushing their way through a museum. Frazzled chaperones implore the group to “pay attention” and “stay together.” The tour is followed by a brown bag lunch with a sandwich (on white bread, of course) and a bag of chips that have been completely obliterated by a can of warm soda. Once the crumbs have been consumed and the overpriced souvenirs are purchased, the group piles into a large yellow bus, where they endure a long, noisy, bumpy ride accompanied by the stomach-churning odors of diesel fuel.

Although I suffered through my share of school field trips as described above, my memories of childhood include many fun-filled educational adventures taken with my parents and extended family. Each time we traveled, whether it was a week at the Jersey shore or a long weekend in the Poconos, my father always insisted that we take a side trip for a few hours to see something “new.” Tours of historic homes and towns were the norm. I remember seeing the splendor of the Asa Packer mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania; tasting my first bite of succulent crab at the Kings’ Arms Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia; and feeling my heart pound as I raced up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum with my arms pumping in Rocky fashion. Sometimes we chose to add a little culture to our lives through an amateur theatre production or musical performance. Other days, with an energetic spirit, we attempted new sports or hobbies, such as horseback riding or digging for Cape May diamonds. We even visited some very odd landmarks, such as Lucy the Elephant and a futuristic house constructed entirely of energy-saving foam. Through these adventures we gleaned some bits of wisdom that every family can appreciate:

1. Ask questions!

Allow yourself to become fully engrossed in the experience of your adventure. If you have a question, drop all pretenses and fire away. Usually, someone else in the group was pondering the same thought and will welcome your bravado. Most tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable people who have chosen this job not for the grand salary, but because of their passion for the subject area. Although they usually follow a set script or outline for a tour, guides will often willingly make adjustments based on the group’s age, needs, and/or interest level. They can also be great sources of information about other nearby attractions.

2. People + Nature = Unforgettable Excitement

Some of our most memorable side trips have been those where we were willing to get dirty, wet, and up close with nature. Canoeing through the Pine Barrens, enduring hail storms in a pop-up trailer, and breaking down in the Great Smoky Mountains have provided excellent fodder for hilarious holiday conversations. Just like on America’s Funniest Home Videos, animals have often stolen the show. I’ll never forget our first horseback riding lesson while camping in Darien Lake, N.Y. My father loves to recount how my young cousin and I were given animals with brave names, such as Thunder and Blaze, while he was assigned a horse named Dingle.

3. Think outside the box.

A memorable trip doesn’t necessarily require extensive travel or exorbitant ticket prices. Look in your phone book or search online for nearby attractions and ask about reduced fees for in-state or local residents. See what programs the state parks or state historical sites have to offer. Visit a working farm, a business, or factory and see how your favorite food is made. Contact local artists and musicians for their recommendations on inexpensive performances. While I will never forget seeing A Chorus Line on Broadway as a teen, the small theater production of The Sound of Music starring my own music teacher was incredibly moving.

4. Prepare, just a little.

Before you begin packing your bags for the next family vacation, take a moment to think about the needs, interest levels, and limitations of your travel companions. Will there be young children with short attention spans or senior citizens with limited mobility? Will you need a restaurant or place to eat a picnic lunch? Are special interest tours given?

Most historical sites, museums, and attractions have extensive websites with maps, touring guides, and special events or performance times. Those geared towards educational groups often provide lessons plans, recommended readings, and even introductory videos that you can view with your children in advance. In preparation for our trip to Plymouth Plantation last fall, my children and I spent hours reading books about the time period and exploring videos and games on the website. When we arrived, we were able to bypass the introductory museum exhibit and proceed directly to the outdoor historical settlement and native village.

The admonition to “be prepared” is even pertinent to active trips. For example, when I was in my early teens, my parents, a friend, and I decided to try some canoeing while on a camping trip in New Jersey. The canoe outfitter assured us that the trip was perfect for beginners. Of course, we capsized during the launch of what we soon discovered was a 13-mile trip on a narrow, winding river through a dense, unpopulated forest. The fear of water snakes kept the adrenaline pumping as we navigated tree stumps and low-lying branches. If only we had asked a few more questions at the ticket booth!

5. Life lessons are everywhere.

As a homeschooling parent I find that almost any side trip can be an opportunity to learn the tenants of good citizenship – Respect others, talk less, listen more, follow directions, show attention, and appreciate wisdom. For older students, a field trip may prompt discussions about prospective careers and future volunteer opportunities.

6. There is no age limit to learning.

Since retiring two years ago, my father has continued his passion for learning something “new” by meeting twice a month with a group of his previous co-workers for what they call Geezer Trips. After a quick breakfast at a central location, the group travels together to a predetermined destination, usually somewhere within the tri-state area. They have toured a piano factory, visited aviation museums, explored a historical prison, and even viewed an exhibit of medical oddities. Considering their scientific backgrounds, the men have been known to spend hours hurling detailed questions at enthusiastic museum docents.

Today, I continue the field trip tradition with my own family and with scores of other families through an informal homeschooling group. In the past year our group of parents and children in grades K - 12 have learned about the stars at the Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation ITEC Center, watched a Shorebirds game, toured the Dickinson Plantation, watched numerous children’s theater productions, seined in the Indian River Inlet Bay, and visited historic Furnace Town. Each trip is an opportunity for my children and me to learn more about ourselves and the world around us. •

Elizabeth McCrea and her family live and learn in Georgetown. Elizabeth is the contact for the Coastal Homeschool Network, a homeschool support group for families in southern Delaware and the surrounding areas. She can be reached at coastalhn@yahoo.com.

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