GUEST POST: Mt. Vernon

Sometimes when you are writing and posting online, it is hard to know if your words are having any impact. So, it is ALWAYS nice to hear back from readers that they are enjoying the blog and using the info.

When one of them asks if you want a review of a museum visit they just had…that might be even better! Jim Chandler, a friend from my hometown, recently visited Mt. Vernon and asked if I wanted an updated review. Since I haven’t been back since 2012…I jumped at the chance!

Read his thoughts below and, if you need more tips on places to visit in D.C., check out “Your Family Adventures in Washington, D.C.” Also, if you have something you are interested in writing about, let me know!


If you think that Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, is just a collection of buildings and antique furniture, you need to think again. In a 3-hour visit to Mount Vernon today, we just scratched the surface.There are many experiences for all ages. Admission is free for children under 5 and quite reasonable for adults. If you live in the area you might consider an annual pass that would pay off after the second visit. The whole region is steeped in history and you are surrounded by experiences that bring history to life. For younger children it is a chance to explore the life of colonial America as well as introduce them to real the George Washington, Martha Washington and their life. A trip to the Mansion will give people a feel for the surrounding of Washington’s life. There is a guided tour that is not too long to lose the interest of children.   However the real attraction is the Education Center and the special interactive programs that vary from day to day and from season to season.

The Education Center is a fully interactive series of displays that follow all aspects of George Washington’s life from childhood to his later years.   This is how every museum should be with hands on displays and videos that surround you with the sounds and images of the time. A particular pleasing highlight for children would be the video on Washington and the Revolutionary War , “Revolutionary War Theater” ,where you can feel the rumble of war in the seats and feel and experience the fog and snow they had to endure. Quite amazing! There are also displays that show his false teeth, agricultural innovations, life with his wife, the issue of slavery and his impact on the modern presidency. It is organized in chronological order and is very easy to follow. There is a special place within the Education Center for children 3-8 years old called the “Hand-On History Center”. It has manipulative exhibits and special programs for young children and their parents.   There is a Museum in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. I did not make it into the museum but it is advertised to cover in-depth various aspects of Washington’s life. It was created at the same time as the Education Center and I look forward to visiting it in my next visit.

Another very worthwhile part of the tour for young children is the Pioneer Farm.   George Washington was a strong believer in the power of America to produce food here and for the world. He was a very progressive farmer and the Pioneer Farm recreates his farming practices and often has seasonal demonstrations of farm life.   When I visited they were demonstrating Wheat Treading, separating wheat kernels from the straw, in the innovative 12-sided barn that Washington designed. If it looks like the hike to the farm would be too far you can take a shuttle that runs regularly from the Mansion/Education area to the farm.

Pick up a list of “Today at Mount Vernon” at the Orientation Center next to the Museum. It shows all the live demonstrations and tours for the day, some of these have an additional cost but most are free. These include a “National Treasures Tour” showing places at Mt. Vernon highlighted in the recent movie. You can meet a live “Martha Washington” who brings the nation’s first lady to life. There are also garden tours, cruises, demonstrations and much more.

Beyond all the history, the grounds and gardens are a natural feast of relaxing landscapes with plenty of places to explore and spend an enjoyable day. This is a delightful break from city life.

All in all, Mount Vernon has much to offer over and over, and from season to season for people of all ages and is well worth visiting and revisiting.

Jim Chandler, Science and Environment Educator, Bryant Pond, Maine

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Seton Hall

I have been very lucky to have support and mentoring from a number of amazing people over the years.  One of them is Claudia Ocello, who I would consider my “museum mentor” (I hope she is ok with that!). She runs Museum Partners Consulting LLC and has been my go-to for questions about everything from museum education to running a small business.

She also gave me my first opportunity to present, like a real grown-up professional, to her museum studies students at Seton Hall University. I look forward every year to going up there and talking with them about how to structure a museum visit for early childhood classes.

This year, we had an interesting challenge. We met at the Pierro Gallery in South Orange to use the show “Thou Art Mom.”  Not only did I go through my usual talking points of taking the height of objects into consideration…but we also discussed in depth how to approach nudity in the art and other tricky concepts that young children never fail to notice.

My biggest piece of advice was to always take a walk through the gallery and have some short answers prepared for any “tricky” things that you notice. Also, embrace “I don’t know, I’ll find out” since they will invariably find something you didn’t notice in advance!

If you want some other tips for “sticky situations” you can re-read my “Miss Manners” post from summer camp!

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MidSept 005 NJMeekins 056 Ideaventions92714 009 Ideaventions92714 011

You know you haven’t been dividing your time equally when Facebook sends you an email reminding you to update.  Whoops! I find that is what happens when I take on a new project. I have to do so much front-end work getting things set up that my other projects have to tick along with the minimum for a little while.

What is this new project, you ask? Well! I am now teaching early childhood science classes at Ideaventions, a science center focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for kids from preschool through high school! I’m really excited to have a steady opportunity to try out hands-on science learning with kids.

Although it seems like yet another left turn, I really think it dovetails nicely with my work in bringing together museums and young children. In each class we are using objects and experiments to help learn concepts, which is a great method for museums to use. Also, getting regular interaction with young children will keep me current on how they think and interact.

So, stay tuned for things I’m coming up with from this new (personal) experiment!

Oh! I am also helping run their social media outreach…so please head over and check out our Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

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Homemade Lightbox

Lightbox 002When I was teaching, the light box was one of the kid’s favorite tools. It was, essentially, a flat white surface with a lightbulb under it that glowed through. When you put objects on top you could manipulate and mix colors and shadows and it inspired them to use familiar toys in new ways. After the shadow fun we had the other day, I thought this would be a fun tool to add to the mix.

Of course like any awesome tool, it has a steep price tag, and purchasing a light box will run you around $200. That is where Pinterest comes in. I took inspiration from a few different images and put together this $20 version. It is not as big, but it works well for our purposes!

You can use almost anything with these tables. If you have blocks that are translucent they work great. I picked up some large mosaic stones and “seasonal tabletop decorations” from our local craft store (pictured below) that have been fun to use. Artist can also use it for tracing and scientists for exploring the inside of objects. You are only limited by your creativity!

So, on to the specifics!

You will need:

* 1 translucent tub and top (size of your choice, we went with 15qt)

* 2 strands of Christmas lights (make SURE you have “cool touch” ones)

* Dark paper (I used black construction paper)

* Light paper (tracing paper is best, even computer paper is a little too thick)

* Clear tape


IMPORTANT NOTES: Obviously any time you are using wires around kids, you need to be careful. This tool should be used with an adult nearby. Also, keep an eye on the heat level from the lights. With ours, it doesn’t get dangerously hot in the box but I wouldn’t leave it running for hours.

1. Line the bottomHomemadeLightbox 006 of the tub with tracing paper. This will help disperse the light more evenly. Cover the sides of the tub and the inside of the lid with dark paper

2. Nest your Christmas lights into the box. With the lid I have, I could run the cord out with the top clamped on. If that isn’t possible you could get battery operated lights or (if you are ambitious) drill a small hole in the box

HomemadeLightbox 0073. Put the lid on and flip your box over! I used the bottom because it was flatter then the top and putting the wider top on bottom gave it more stability.

4. Test out the lights. Depending on the size of your box you may need to add another string or manipulate the lights to be closer or farther away from the tracing paper.


That’s it! You can add objects, change the lights and use it for anything you can come up with. Enjoy!




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Shadow Exploration

Shadow exploration for toddlersSpend a little time on Pinterest and you’ll probably start to think that learning for kids happens best during carefully curated play experiences.

Spend any time with a toddler and you’ll soon discover that the most amazing learning occurs when neither of you were expecting it to happen!

The other night, we were watching “Sid the Science Kid” explore shadows. Since it was getting dark I pointed to the wall and told my son “See, there is YOUR shadow.” He was intrigued, he moved around to make his shadow move and then asked me to try and make MORE shadows.

I went and got a flashlight out of the drawer and showed him how to create shadows with it. After shining it in his eyes (we all saw that coming) he clamped his hand down over it. The light coming through his skin inspired a new exploration of what light looked like going THROUGH objects. We tried everything from the plastic Easter eggs in his play kitchen (creating different colors) to the blanket on the couch (it didn’t shine through at all)

By the time he was done experimenting, 30min had passed, the show was forgotten and we had explored light, shadow, translucent, opaque, and transparent. All of this was guided by him, using minimal resources (and only what I had handy) and only a few prompts from me.

Since then he has shown me shadows when we are outside, I even caught him “playing” with his shadow in the kitchen, and the flashlight comes out every now and then for more experiments. Ongoing science investigation thanks to a TV show, a flashlight and a little time to explore.

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“Reading” Wordless Books

Wordless BooksHave you ever tried to read a wordless book with your child? Even for someone who is an enthusiastic and confident reader, I get a little stuck with those. Without words to guide you, it is easy to feel a little lost on what you should “say.”

In the library today, my toddler picked out “Trainstop” by Barbara Lehman. Page by page we worked our way through. He is at the point where he likes to read a book multiple times, that really worked in our favor here.

* 1st time: I described what we were looking at

* 2nd time: I gave liberal prompts “What is she doing here?” “How do you think she feels?”

* 3rd time: On each page I just asked “What is happening now?”

* 4th time: I sat back while he narrated whatever it was he noticed or was interested in

In each “reading” his autonomy and confidence grew. He mostly pointed out things on each page he liked, but he also parroted back some of the narration that I had provided initially. This worked well with my 2yr old, but it could easily be adapted to older kids as well. They would just grow more detailed narratives as they felt more comfortable!

You could also incorporate the basics of “Visual Thinking Strategies” (VTS) a method developed to “support student growth by facilitating discussions of carefully selected works of visual art.” In VTS teachers ask:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

This can be a good guide for asking questions about what you are looking at in the book. For even more tips you should definitely turn to the internet! Reading Rockets has some tips for sharing wordless books and PBS shares some tips and also favorite books on their blog.

For more books, ask your favorite librarian (or check out the internet). I like the books by Barbara Lehman (check out “Museum Trip) and also Tomie dePaola’s “Pancakes” is a favorite at our house!

Good luck and happy reading!

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Quick Guide to the American History Museum…with Kids

Visiting the National Museum of American History with KidsFor most families, even those with museum fever, the sheer logistics of a trip can be hard to overcome. I’ve been keeping a running list on Your Family Adventures in Washington, D.C. of stroller access and good places to feed/change your little one. This week, I took it one step farther on “O Say Can You See?” the blog for the National Museum of American History.

In this post, you can get some useful tips for visiting the museum with kids, including bathrooms that are less likely to have lines! Hopefully you find it useful.

Strollers, security, and snacks: A parent’s guide to visiting the museum with kids

By Sarah Erdman 

As a mom, I know the National Museum of American History is a great place to visit with kids. There is so much to see and do… which sometimes can be part of the problem. When you are visiting with young children on a busy day, it can be hard for all of you to handle. Here is my quick list of the places and resources around the museum that might make your visit a bit easier.

Nursing/bottle feeding: You are welcome to nurse and feed your baby anywhere in the museum that you are comfortable. Most of the hallways, and some of the exhibitions, have benches for you to use. If you would like a little more privacy, the family restrooms also have a bench available. In our food exhibition, there are benches where you can also watch clips of Julia Child’s cooking shows, though the space can get a little busy…continue reading here

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