Q: We want to take an educational family road trip so our kids -- going into third, fourth and sixth grades -- can experience things beyond our small town. Do you have any suggestions? No theme parks, please.
A: Begin the "educational" part before you set out. Ask the kids to do the research on where you should go and what you should do. Give them a budget and time frame. Then pull out the maps, apps and guides.
First, settle on a geographic region that offers several attractions to be explored without driving all day.
Next, make a list of all the events, institutions, parks and places in the region that might appeal to your kids.
"When they choose the places to visit, they arrive excited because they own the decision," says Eric Hamilton, the assistant director of the National Center for Science Literacy, Education and Technology at New York's American Museum of Natural History (amnh.org).
Create your list from travel magazines and the family sections of online guides such as Fodor's, Frommer's and Lonely Planet. Check out the family travel bloggers at Red Tricycle (redtri.com). Scan the region's hotel and visitors bureau sites for nearby attractions.
Find kid-friendly museums at the American Alliance of Museums website (aam-us.org). The Association of Science-Technology Centers (astc.org) and the Association of Children's Museums (childrensmuseums.org) also have excellent options. Check listings on the National Register of Historic Places (nps.gov/nr). The National Conservation Lands website (blm.gov/NLCS) shows monuments, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and historic trails.
Is there a National Park in the region you've selected? To celebrate the 100th anniversary of our parks system, the Department of the Interior invites fourth-graders and their families to visit for free. Go to everykidinapark.gov to get your family's pass.
Once you have a working list, ask your sixth-grader to create an Excel file with key information on your destinations. This should include their addresses, websites, prices (including "free family" days), hours, if reservations are needed for special events, the availability of free educational materials, what not to miss, visitor reviews and so on.
Be mindful of how much time you will have on your vacation. "Don't overschedule. Too often parents think kids will motor through one stop and then want to rush to the next, but we find young visitors want to take their time," says Jack E. Lighton, the president of Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, Florida (marinelife.org).
"When kids see these huge, magnificent creatures that have lived on Earth for more than 100,000,000 years, they have so many questions for our docents," Lighton explains. "They want to post their photos to Instagram. They want to follow the progress of turtles that we've brought back to health and released. It's a very personalized learning experience."
While you want the trip to be educational, don't overdo it. "If your kids want to keep a notebook, great. But don't require it or anything else that smacks of an assignment," says the American Museum of Natural History's Hamilton.
"The real educational value comes from the many conversations you will continue to have with your children long after the trip is done," he adds. "You'll connect what they saw to new learning. For example, if you visited a planetarium, discuss a news item about a SpaceX launch. Each of these experiences are building blocks for new knowledge."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)