Q: After an awful winter, our family is planning a summer trip. No theme parks! We'd like to visit museums, natural areas and historic sites. What's the best way to research a trip with educational stops that will hold the attention of boys, ages 8 and 11, and a girl, 12?
A: Start early, plan smart and let the kids do much of the research, says Eric Hamilton, assistant director of the National Center for Science Literacy, Education and Technology at New York's American Museum of Natural History.
Hamilton offers families these tips:
-- Zero in on kids' interests. "That's rule No. 1. When kids choose the places to visit, they arrive excited to learn more because they own the decision," says Hamilton.
Get them to list their current passions. Are they into space? Technology? Art? Music? Wildlife? Using those as a guide, make a list of possibilities culled from sources such as travel magazines and guides such as Fodor's, Frommer's and Lonely Planet.
For museums, go to the American Alliance of Museums' website and click "Find a museum" (aam-us.org). The site covers everything from air and space, aquariums and art to natural history, planetariums and zoological parks.
Check the Association of Science-Technology Centers (astc.org) and the Association of Children's Museums (childrensmuseums.org). Find a list of sites and itineraries under the "Travel" heading on the website of the National Register of Historic Places (cr.nps.gov/nr).
Explore options at the National Park Service (npca.org) and National Conservation Lands (blm.gov/NLCS) for historic monuments, wilderness and conservation areas, scenic rivers and historic trails.
-- Settle on a geographic region. Don't spread yourselves too thin. "Too often, parents try to shoehorn in too many places across too many miles. Kids lose focus and everyone gets cranky," says Hamilton. Check local hotel and visitor's bureau sites for nearby attractions.
-- Refine your list: Print out descriptions for family discussion. Does everyone agree that the destination is worth the family's time and money?
-- Create a well-paced schedule. "Include variety and time to recharge batteries," says Jamie Stuve, president of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum in Florida (jupiterlighthouse.org). For example, says Stuve, "if you're visiting northern Palm Beach, climb our spectacular lighthouse in the morning and kayak on the Loxahatchee River in the afternoon. The next morning, take in the South Florida Science Center (sfsciencecenter.org). After lunch, visit the Juno Beach Loggerhead Marinelife Center (marinelife.org)."
-- Double-check logistics: As your trip approaches, confirm hours of operation, locations, parking, pricing, driving distances, traffic patterns and so on. Check to see if special demonstrations or programs have been added.
-- Lock in some learning before you leave. In a trip notebook, make a short list of three things your children want to see and do at each of your stops. "Build interest by talking about specific things they will see and do," says Hamilton.
-- Remember, this isn't school. No quizzes, warns Hamilton. "It's the conversations parents have back at home that really help kids remember what they learned. Talk often about what they liked, what they thought and what questions they still have. Most important, enjoy the memories! Recall the highlights often!"
(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.)