Living History With Kids in Williamsburg
We went to Williamsburg, VA to take a walk through American history.
Within a few square miles, Williamsburg offers up a “historic triangle:” the first successful English colony in North America, the battlefield where we won the Revolution and the town that was Virginia’s capital until 1780.
We wondered if it would be too much education for our 7YO’s summer vacation. But we interspersed the history lessons with some modern playtime. The sites are so well done and interactive, it was the best possible way to introduce these key moments in our history; she was quite hooked. Here are our thoughts on a family vaction to Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown.
We’d gotten lukewarm feedback on Williamsburg* from a few friends before leaving. But we enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. Here’s what I think made a difference for us:
Kids ages: Coming out of second grade, Tiny Traveler is finally old enough to understand and be interested in history. We brought with us a great book, If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution, which provided age-appropriate context for what she was seeing and hearing. I wouldn’t recommend visiting Williamsburg with kids younger than 7; I think too much would go over their heads.
Tickets: You can walk around Williamsburg for free (and go into the stores and taverns), and quite a bit happens outside in public. But if you’re going to take the time and expense to visit with kids 7 or older, it’s worth making room in your budget for tickets.
Because we had tickets I had lengthy conversations with the bookbinder and silversmith and got a lesson in 18th century letters from the printer. And we had a very insightful tour of one of the bigger homes. We also paid extra for a fun but slightly cheesy ghost tour one evening. All these activities helped us to appreciate Williamsburg as a real town and taught us about real people who lived, loved, quarreled, worked and died there (though not necessarily in that order, as far as the ghost-tour lady is concerned).
Aid the Revolution: Best of all though, our admission allowed us to play the spy game RevQuest. As “friends of Virginia” we had to collect and deliver information the Patriot army would need to defeat General Cornwallis at Yorktown. Armed with our “communication device” (cell phone), a map and a codebook, we made our way around town contacting agents, finding dead-drops, and coding and decoding messages. It helped us to explore more buildings and interact with the interpreters and some of it was quite tricky. We saw lots of kids and tweens really get into it.
If it’s too much of a commitment there’s also a kids’ scavenger hunt that takes you around town quite a bit.
Not-to-miss: Every morning a local resident stands on his steps and reads the Declaration of Independence town-crier style. As with Shakespeare’s plays, having it read out loud by someone who has taken the time to get to know it helps you to understand and appreciate it. I highly recommend it. Say for at least so of the hour-long drama that unfolds on the street after, where local citizens drift in and out conversing about how the impending war might help or hurt them.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown*: This museum has officially reopened after a $50 million upgrade that more than doubled its space and produced a very modern history museum with indoor and outdoor exhibits. Again, I think it’s best to visit Yorktown with kids old enough to have the patience for the museum and who have had some history in school.
One of the curators told me that they wanted to the museum to tell a story. They developed a narrative and collected and organized artifacts that inform that narrative. You start your visit with a 20-minute movie that takes you from the Boston massacre to the battle of Yorktown and introduces characters you’ll meet again in the exhibit halls, which are organized around the story laid out in the movie.
The highlights are the interactive spots. A tabletop screen lets you organize the strategy one of three key battles leading up to Yorktown then shows you how they actually played out. Another screen offers a personality quiz that tells you which of several real-life characters you might have been in the war; then those those people tell their stories in their own words.
The highlight is a round, 4-D theater that dramatizes the battle of Yorktown from both sides. Smoke rises beneath your seats, which shake, along with General Cornwallis windows, with every canon shot. Toward the end, at your thoughts on freedom and democracy to the digital lanterns on the liberty tree.
Heading outside, there is a military camp and a good size farm. There are lively talks and demonstrations throughout the day on topics like 18th century medicine, colonial long guns, farming and cooking. Even expanded it’s compact and less crowded than Williamsburg. It’s easy to see everything and talk as much as you like with the interpreters. This space shows you what late 18th century farm life was like and rather than being redundant to Williamsburg it provides a rural counterpoint to bustling and sophisticated “city life” in Williamsburg.
Yorktown Battlefield: Admission to this is included with your Jamestown ticket because both are National Park sites. There is a driving tour of the battlefields that take you all over the area. For hardcore military history fans it’s a must. But most kids wouldn’t sit through it. There is also a small museum, but of all the historical sites here I would say this is the most skippable.
Jamestown is also two separate sites. Seeing them both properly will take most of a day but is worth it. I think you can visit Jamestown with kids slightly younger than you can with the other two sites. The story of the colony is easier to understand and the outside exhibits draw in even the very young.
Historic Jamestown, the actual colony, is an active archeological site managed by NPS and Preservation Virginia. They’ve learned most of what we know about Jamestown in the last ten years. A 45-minute tour covers the archeologists’ work as well as the colony’s history. Rich and I were fascinated but I had to admit TT was hot and bored.
We made it up to her with a visit to the tiny “Ed Shed,” where kids can identify and sort tiny artifacts and handle recreations of the site’s artifacts made on a 3D printer right there. We stayed nearly 30 minutes as she examined every item, tried every tool and asked tons of questions.
Jamestown Settlement offers an excellent indoor exhibit, plus outdoor recreations of the walled-in colony, a Powhatan village and three period ships.
This museum hasn’t had the total overhaul Yorktown has but it’s updated a lot to add more screens and interactive features (top) and uses the same narrative organization. This time a movie and the exhibits tell the story of how English, Native American and African cultures came together at Jamestown. One particular feature was a room full of artifacts with a big screen behind them. Each item would light up at the movie told about it. Others let you compare various aspects of the three cultures (above).
Moving outside it very dusty but you can go everywhere and touch everything and kids love it. TT wanted to explore every rudimentary house in the colony and every hut in the Indian village. We marveled at how small the ships were that carried the colonists. The interpreters here are also very good. One struck up a conversation with us about how women were introduced to Jamestown and how they fared there (many did quite well). The interpreters here and at Yorktown where period clothes but don’t take on period personas as they do at Williamsburg. In some ways it works better because the conversation can be a little looser and wider ranging. And they can address things like common perceptions versus reality.
It was the one place we could have used more time than the afternoon we allotted to it.
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*Visit Williamsburg provided my family with tickets to the Yorktown and Jamestown sites. It provided me with a ticket to Williamsburg. On a later visit, the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation provide me with tickets and curator tours at those two sites. We made no promises about whether or how we would write these places and our opinions are always our own.
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