Educational Family Vacations in the USA: Why, Where, & How to Get Started

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In 2014, I convinced my husband that we should take educational family vacations. He agreed, but added that they had to be road trips so we could take our time. Since then, our educational family vacations consist of us choosing destinations in the continental United States that have cultural attractions, museums, outdoor spaces, etc. that will provide knowledge, a history lesson, and awaken curiosity. These have become our signature family field trips that combine learning and fun. 

When our family of four embarked upon these trips, initially there was skepticism. 

Our first trip as a family in 2014 was to New Orleans, Louisiana, for a family reunion. After the reunion, we drove to Houston, Texas, to see the Space Center Houston for a couple of days. My son was less excited about the family reunion and more excited about the space center due to his strong STEM interest. With every rocket and exhibit, his imagination was sparked and our family photos from that trip show his wide grin.

Tips for Starting Your Educational Family Trips

Based on the many experiences we’ve had since that first spark, I encourage your family to embark upon an educational family vacation in the near future. I have plenty of US-based destination recommendations, but first, some advice to get started with your planning. Remember that our trips are based within the continental US via road trips.

First, you need to decide the budget, how many days your trip will be, and the states you want to visit. I recommend doing this at least 4-5 months in advance. 

Secondly, visit the official website for the states you are visiting and download the travel guide for the state. Every state has an official travel guide that includes lodging, dining, places of interest, family-friendly places, etc. 

The typical places of interest that we choose to explore are museums, outdoor spaces, cultural attractions, and something related to African-American history since that is important to us. It is the “places of interest” section of the guide where we typically find African-American history-related places. 

We also Google the top-rated tourist attractions in each state to see if they align with our interests. Then, every person in the family can choose 2 to 3 activities individually. And then, we discuss collectively what we agree to explore in the state that we are visiting. When my children were younger, my husband and I would choose things we thought they would be interested in experiencing. 

Third, since it is a road trip, we typically start in the place that is farthest from home and slowly travel our way back home over the course of the trip. For example, our recent trip was to Missouri. Since we live near Chicago we went to Kansas City first, then Jefferson City, and lastly St. Louis. 

Once you decide the time frame, state(s) to explore, and your budget, finally, it is time to purchase tickets for attractions that are of interest to the family. Typically, you can purchase tickets in advance for the day and time that you choose; I do this to take the hassle out of purchasing on-site and standing in line. 

Due to COVID-19, I am noticing that places of high interest or that are popular are recommending advance reservations or ticket purchases. Also, be sure to know what the photo and video policies are prior to your arrival so that you are aware of what is appropriate during your visit.

Recommendations for Educational Family Vacations in the US

concrete road near brown mountain under blue sky

Destination: Quad Cities Exploration on a Multi-Generational Trip

In 2015, we went to the Quad Cities (3 Illinois towns and 1 Iowa town). My mother joined us, making this a multi-generational family vacation. Prior to our trip, I did a few things to ensure that my mom — who is a senior citizen — would be comfortable. 

I shared our itinerary in advance so that she could choose what activities were interesting to her. I searched for lodging that had adjoining rooms on lower floors in case the elevator was not available. Finally, I rented a minivan so that our family would be comfortable as we logged the miles for our trip; my mother’s contribution to the trip was paying for the minivan while my husband and I took care of lodging, meals, and activities.

Some Top Attractions for Educational Travel in the Quad Cities:

  • Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island, Illinois
  • The John Deere Museum in Moline, Illinois
  • A steamboat ride on the Mississippi River
  • The Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa 

The John Deere museum in Moline, IL, was the highlight of the trip for my mother and children. She was able to explain to my children all of the various equipment and their uses because she grew up on a farm. My children enjoyed getting in the seats of all of the various green and yellow farm equipment. 

Posing on the equipment at the John Deere Museum
Posing on the equipment at the John Deere Museum | Photo courtesy of the author
Enjoying the John Deere Museum
Enjoying the John Deere Museum | Photo courtesy of the author

They still talk about that museum because the equipment is regular sized and you climb atop to get in the seat, which is perfect for active children. I have at least a dozen pictures from that museum because my kids sat in tractors, dump trucks, excavators, and made sure I took their pictures each time. 

Experiences: Reflecting on Our Black History in the US

In 2016, we visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. As an African-American family, this museum touched our souls in ways we had never imagined. While we did not take any pictures here, the recreations of slave quarters and the pictures of the slave ships are etched in my memory. 

In 2017, we took another multi-generational educational vacation with my parents. We went to Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee and Louisville in Kentucky. Since my parents joined us on this road trip, we had historians for a couple of the places that we visited. 

We began in Memphis, Tennessee, at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. My children also saw the parallels with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center from the prior year. However, this time, my mother and father were able to provide my children with real-life examples of every exhibit that they saw and what they felt because both of my parents grew up during the Jim Crow era in Mississippi and Alabama. 

In Nashville, Tennessee, I wanted my children to see the campuses of Vanderbilt University and Fiske University so that they could compare and contrast a predominantly white institution with a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). 

In Louisville, Kentucky, we visited the Muhammad Ali Museum. On the day we visited, one of Malcolm X’s daughters was in the foyer after a speaking engagement and I was mesmerized that I was in the presence of legacy. I can still see her regal presence and the people around her engaging her in conversation; I was too nervous to approach her so it was a missed opportunity. 

My parents provided commentary throughout the museum as they fondly recalled some of Ali’s greatest moments. My children enjoyed the boxing ring the most and they still have the miniature boxing gloves that they begged me to buy in the gift shop. 

On another trip in 2019, we visited the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Center and took pictures in front of the high school. At the time, my niece lived there, so she was able to provide us with a lot of contextual knowledge. My son was struck by the fact that we were only 60 years removed from this moment in history. 

Dr. Vanessa Scott-Thompson stands with her child in front of the Little Rock Central High School
Dr. Vanessa Scott-Thompson poses with her child in front of the Little Rock Central High School | Photo courtesy of the author

Education: Making Museum Time Fun and Informational

We have visited countless niche museums during our family educational trips. Visiting smaller cities and towns by road trip gives us greater opportunity to explore more. 

In 2018, we visited the Discovery Center Museum and the Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens in Rockford, Illinois. My daughter and I visited the Discovery Center Museum while my husband and son visited the Burpee Museum of Natural History. The pictures from the Discovery Museum show my daughter smiling with Curious George and sliding down the green slide from one level to the next. She had a blast! 

The author's daughter posing with Curious George at the Discovery Center Museum
The author’s daughter posing with Curious George at the Discovery Center Museum | Photo courtesy of the author

On a trip in 2016, we visited the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis. This is a massive place that takes hours to see everything. I was so overwhelmed that I cannot recall any specific exhibit. But I do remember that we were exhausted when we left. 

On that same trip, our last stop was to the Creation Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. My children wanted photos in every exhibit because it made the Bible stories come alive that we had been discussing as a family, such as the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark. 

On our trip in 2017, we visited the Adventure Science Center in Nashville. It had similar exhibits to the Putnam Museum in Iowa. My children reminisced on those memories as we were in the museum. Seeing them draw connections between our educational family vacations proved how valuable these trips can be.

In 2019 on a trip to Branson, Missouri, we visited the Titanic Museum. The most interesting fact we learned was about the only Black family aboard the Titanic: the Laroche family. We used Google a lot that day to learn as much as we could. This was something that none of us had learned in any of our history lessons. 

During that same trip, we also visited the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. We took a memorable photo in the replica of the Oval Office. I can still remember how important I felt when I sat in the seat — being President of the USA was a childhood dream of mine!  

Culture: Exploring the Arts on Our Educational Family Trips 

Since my son and I are interested in art, we visited the Milwaukee Art Museum during a trip in 2018. His favorite memory is the Kehinde Wiley painting because he had learned about him in art class; he also wrote about him for a recent college application because the picture of an African-American man on canvas still resonates with him. 

My favorite memory is seeing the sketches of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte. In the end, it states that the actual painting is in the Art Institute of Chicago. I smiled because I have seen that painting many times but never knew the process of how he did it. 

Standing atop the steps at the Milwaukee Art Museum
Standing atop the steps at the Milwaukee Art Museum | Photo courtesy of the author

On our trip in 2017, I made sure we visited the Parthenon in Centennial Park while we were in Nashville; it’s a replica of the one in Athens, Greece. The pictures of my children and me still make me laugh out loud; we are dots in the midst of the columns of this massive structure. We walked around it quite a few times to absorb the grandeur and magnificence of this structure.

Challenges: Learning Tragic History Together

In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, my son and I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. My son was not aware of this tragedy; he was only aware of 9/11/2001. My son and I were both sensitive that 168 lives were lost at this site and the empty chairs are a reminder of that. 

Dr Vanessa Scott-Thompson stands before the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum Reflection Pool
Dr. Vanessa Scott-Thompson stands before the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum Reflection Pool | Photo courtesy of the author
The Oklahoma City Memorial Museum Reflection Pool
The Oklahoma City Memorial Museum Reflection Pool | Photo courtesy of the author

We only took one picture of the memorial space and it is the reflection pool; we treated it as sacred ground. 

Our journey through tragic events continued in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on what used to be Black Wall Street. The only photo that we have is of the memorial wall with all of the families and businesses that were lost in the spring of 1921. I would encourage you to research it. It was a very painful experience for my family that has left an indelible imprint on our psyche. 

A black memorial plaque for Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Massacre
A memorial plaque for Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Massacre | Photo courtesy of the author

Not shying away from the tragedies in these destinations we visit helps our kids to learn and grow.

Reflecting on Our Educational Family Vacations

I recently asked my family if they enjoyed our educational family vacations. My children’s eyes lit up and they began a dizzying recall. They shared all of their favorite and memorable moments from each trip, providing great detail about each experience that has left a lasting impression. My husband even interspersed his experience and he expressed that he’s grateful that I came up with the idea. 

My once-skeptical family now proudly boasts about our educational family vacations, even when others judge us for not visiting tropical destinations. We will stick to our style of travel. Our lives have been enriched by the history, the myriad of emotions and experiences, and the lessons learned. I hope that if you and your clan decide to do the educational family vacation that you, too, will have an experience that is both informational and fun.

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