For many children across Virginia, distanced learning has become the norm for this year. They’re learning about science, history, art and a handful of other subjects from behind a computer screen. Still, there are ways to bring these subjects to life.
We’re talking about fields trips. Yes, field trips. Woo-hoo! As in, safe fields trips that allow for distancing and stimulate little minds with telescopes and night skies, fossil-rich sandy beaches and Civil War battlefields, even public murals and art spaces.
For those eager to supplement screen time with safe and interactive in-person learning, we’ve got you covered. Here’s where to go to get your kids out from behind their Chromebooks and into hands-on learning across the state. Get ready to get into a few of our favorite school subjects. The school bell rings now.
Got a starry eyed kid in the house? There are fewer than 100 dark sky parks in the world, as officially certified by the International Dark Sky Association, and Virginia is home to two of them. We know, wowza. James River State Park in Gladstone and Staunton River State Park in Scottsburg are our two international dark sky parks.
Photo Credit: Virginia State Parks
These parks get so dark that the night sky becomes filled with more twinkling stars than you could ever imagine. Staunton River State Park is considered to be one of the best places on the entire east coast for stargazing. Astros in-training will want to check out a telescope from the visitor center for an up-close look at the night sky.
In the fall, both Staunton River State Park and James River State Park hold annual Star Parties. At these wildly popular stargazing events, the parks break out the really high-power telescopes to scope out the moon, stars, planets and galaxies.
Shenandoah National Park holds an annual Night Sky Festival in August with ranger chats, astronomy presentations and, of course, stargazing. Kids ages 5 to 12 can earn a Junior Ranger Night Explorer badge at the event or from home by completing a downloadable activity booklet.
Space-crazed kids may also want to visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly once it re-opens for a look at Space Shuttle Discovery. This is one of four space shuttles on display at museums and science center across the country. The museum also offers nine virtual fields trips on the moon, flight, space travel and more.
Photo Credit: April Greer
For budding archaeologists, Virginia is a world-class wonderland. Two state parks, including Westmoreland State Park in Montross and York River State Park in Williamsburg, wow with fossils, even sharks’ teeth, on their sandy beaches.
Photo Credit: Jeff Taylor
The best time to hunt for fossils, like the Chesapecten Middlesex, a shell-like fossil, is at low tide. Every visitor is allowed to take home one fossil from the beach as a souvenir. You may also see plenty of pint-size fiddler crabs scampering here and there in the tall grasses, vigilantly hunting for their own treasures.
For a taste of historic archaeology, set your GPS for Virginia’s Historic Triangle. At Colonial Williamsburg, families can drop in for twice-weekly Pop-Up Archaeology events in the Education Studio within the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. On-hand archaeologists engage visitors about ongoing excavations at the First Baptist Church and Custis Square.
Photo Credit: Mark Atkinson, IG account: @me_atkinson
Allow your little ones to tap into their creative energy by exploring public art across the state on a family field trip. In Richmond, more than 100 colorful murals can be spotted all across town, from the Museum District to Oregon Hill to Downtown. Pick and choose murals you want to see on the website for the Richmond Mural Project.
Photo Credit: Chad Williams IG account: @echadwilliams
Build your own family walking tour with this Google Map generously created by RVA local, Blake Casavant, which makes it easy to find murals in-town. Don’t miss Carytown for family-friendly faves, like yellow Woodstock birds, a cheery whale and the “It All Adds Up” calculator.
While in Richmond, plan to stroll across the Robins Sculpture Garden at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In this 3.5-acre outdoor space, you’ll find whimsical gardens, a tumbling waterfall and engaging sculptures, like King Neptune, a half-size version of the much-beloved King Neptune statue on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk.
Photo Credit: Caroline Martin, IG account: @carolinemartinphoto
Virginia Beach is also home to colorful murals in the ViBe Creative District. Entire walls of buildings have been transformed into curious and thought-provoking works of public art. Plan a scavenger hunt in search of lively murals. Don’t miss the “Greetings from Virginia Beach” mural at The Beach Bully on 19th Street.
In Charlottesville, take the kids to the IX Art Park. This walkable outdoor art park explodes with colorful, conversation-sparking murals, as well as playful sculptures. There is even a little free library, a gram-worthy LOVEwork sculpture and a stage that hosts outdoor concerts, performances and kid-friendly events from time to time.
Go below the surface with your junior geologist at underground caverns filled with awe-inspiring stalactites and stalagmites. Luray Caverns in Luray is considered the largest and most popular cavern on the east coast with more than one-mile of paved walkway that lead visitors to naturally-created formations and curious wonders.
Among the most popular calcite formations at Luray Caverns are Totem Poles, Frozen Fountain and Titania’s Veil. Of course, Great Stalacpipe Organ is a must-see as well. Invented in 1954, it’s the largest music instrument in the world. Now that’s really big. Eyes will go wide as the organ directs stalactites across the caverns to sing.
The Shenandoah Valley is a haven for caverns. Beyond Luray Caverns, there are several others, including Shenandoah Caverns in Quicksburg and Grand Caverns in Grottoes. The Natural Bridge Caverns reach astounding depths of 34 stories under the earth’s surface. Guided tours allow exploration of these world-class caves.
Above ground in Natural Bridge, junior geos will go ga-ga for a field trip to Natural Bridge State Park. It’s home to a 215-foot-tall natural limestone arch that wows from the moment it comes into view. Walk under the bridge on the Cedar Creek Trail to Lace Falls, then spend time at the new Children’s Discovery Area, which is made up of several outdoor learning spaces, such as “Poplar Art” and “Fun in the Field.”
Photo Credit: Preethi B. Harbuck
The state’s caverns aren’t limited to the Shenandoah Valley. No way. Dixie Caverns is a stone’s throw from Roanoke. Here, rock formations like Turkey Wing, Magic Mirror and Wedding Bell will bend children’s minds as they consider how and why each formation got its name. Make it a weekend with a stay at the on-site campground.
Virginia is brimming with historic attractions that bring American history to life, from former homes of presidents, like Montpelier and Monticello, to sites once called home by the original colonists of Virginia that braved the voyage to America in 1606.
Photo Credit: Big Orange Frame
At Montpelier, many of the outbuildings are closed, but you can sign up for a guided tour on weekends to get schooled on the life and times of James and Dolley Madison. Meanwhile, Monticello is open, but you’ll want to purchase tickets well in advance due to reduced daily capacity. Even self-guided tours require advance purchase if you want to learn all about our third president, Thomas Jefferson.
For military history, explore Civil War battlefields, like Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park and Richmond National Battlefield Park. Take a self-driving tour or walk hiking trails that criss-cross battlefields, like the 5.5-mile First Battle of Manassas Trail at Manassas National Battlefield Park. Kiddos can explore field artillery and historic monuments, like Matthews Hill where Union troops rushed into battle.
Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.
At Jamestown Settlement, check out re-creations of the three ships – Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery – that carried the first colonists from England to America. The largest of the three ships, Susan Constant, is open for visitors to climb aboard to learn about the construction of each ship and the challenging life at sea.
Children can learn about colonial life in the 1700’s by visiting with tradespeople, such as blacksmiths, weavers and coopers, at Colonial Williamsburg. Take a guided tour of the Governor’s Palace, the Courthouse or the Capitol (or all three). At the Play House Stage, a whimsical 18th century troupe entertains with daily performances.