The innovative and resourceful folks at cultural and historic sites throughout the area have developed ways to meet the challenge of engaging children and families, who are now spending all their time at home. Using 21st-century technology, they provide a threshold to eras of the past at sites ranging from Jamestown (the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607), to Yorktown (where Continental forces won the decisive battle in 1781, which successfully ended the Patriots’ war for independence), to George Washington’s boyhood years at Ferry Farm, to the home and studio where internationally acclaimed artist Gari Melchers resided in the early 1900s. The unique offerings on each of their websites open a gateway for fun-filled and educational interaction.
Jamestown Settlement and American Revolution Museum at Yorktown: Throughout the years, the Jamestown–Yorktown Foundation has developed a spectrum of online features to complement and enhance the on-site experience of its living history museums, which has recently been augmented and highlighted.
“When we had to close to the public, our education team had already started doing some distance-learning programs for teachers and students, so they had this technology available to try out in this way,” said media relations manager Tracy Perkins.
Some highlights of these offerings are interactive live webcasts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, featuring an historical expert presenting elements of history or exploring the three cultures represented at the sites—the English settlers, the Powhatan Indians and the people of west central Africa. During the webcast, the presenter responds to questions that kids ask in real time, and the videos are posted for viewing after the livestreaming. This week’s themes: “Choosing a Side and Taking a Stand” and “Long Journey,” exploring the experience of the first recorded west central Africans in Virginia.
For children, learning resources include blogs by the curators (one of which featured a timely topic—the Jamestown Census of 1620!) as well as interactive quizzes and games. In “Artifactually Yours,” viewers can choose among the options of answers indicating their personal response to a situation and learn what artifact connotes their personalities, while the “How Revolutionary Are You?” quiz matches players’ personalities with historical figures.
Additional interactive web features include a Legacy Wall, which presents a timeline of milestones in history, and the Liberty Tree, where visitors can post their thoughts on what liberty means to them. Their submissions can then be viewed among others’ that appear as lanterns on the branches of an elm tree that once served as a vetting board for the Colonists at Boston Commons.
Families are also invited to select videos from the website’s plentiful library that can be searched by topics and audience ages. In addition, the interactive offerings have been incorporated in lesson plans for teachers in a range of grade levels.
“We want people to know that history is fun and can be a very engaging experience online. We hope that our offerings will spark curiosity—and conversations,” said Perkins. “Our interpreters say they work for ‘light bulbs!’—the moments when a guest has a special realization or understanding of a topic. They get so inspired by children’s questions, and interest, and curiosity.”
George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore: For some time, the folks at Ferry Farm and Kenmore had been planning their 2020 unveiling of new offerings to engage a full range of age cohorts. Among the first of these are Wee Wednesdays and “travels” with Little George and Little Betty, which will be featured as interactive online activities that can be accessed both on their Lives & Legacies blog (livesandlegaciesblog.org) under Family Activities and Facebook page.
The newly launched Wee Wednesday featured a printable template of Washington’s home at Ferry Farm, which children can color, cut out and construct to 3-D version and, if they choose, mount in a diorama of their own creation. Families can then submit photos of their models, which will be posted to share with all. Future Wee Wednesdays may include LEGO® creations.
Another recent online offering is Trivia Tuesday, a game in which participants can submit their answer to a question and engage in a related activity. Among the first of the trivia topics was Washington’s favorite treat, which is mentioned in a letter his sister Betty Lewis had sent with a package of the treat when he was recovering from an illness at Mount Vernon.
“We posted an image of her letter, but blurred the word ‘honey’ so visitors could say what they thought it was. Their answers ranged from nuts to cheese puffs!” said communications manager Jessica Burger.
Perhaps the most fun-filled new activity of all is adventures with Little George and Little Betty, reminiscent of that little travelling explorer Flat Stanley” who once traveled the world in envelopes to distant sites. Little George was originally introduced on the Lives and Legacies blog, and Kenmore–Ferry Farm staff members photographed their ventures with him to destinations such as Pittsburgh and London.
“We are now inviting our guests to take him along on their day’s activities in quarantine,” said Burger. “We have photos of him working out with a relatively giant weight and perched on a book shelf. I will be posting a picture of him posing with a cherry pie, and I can imagine receiving photos of him at the dinner table in front of a giant plate or tucked in a shoe-box bed for the night!”
A printable Little George can be accessed at Kenmore’s Facebook page, and children are invited to make their own version as well as to create a cut-out of his sister, who is yet to make her début.
Gari Melchers Home and Studio: For years, a widely popular offering at Gari Melchers Home and Studio has been its monthly Preschool Palette classes. Designed for ages 2 through 5, the program features age-appropriate studio tours and activities, a walk through the site’s colorful gardens and a process art project in a classroom setting.
“My original goal was to fill a need I saw in the community. At the time, there weren’t a lot of art opportunities for preschool-aged children,” said education and communications manager Michelle Crow–Dolby, who created and launched the program more than 10 years ago.
Families can now duplicate this experience at home using Crow–Dolby’s lesson plans, including links to books, project descriptions and pictures, on the museum’s website and Facebook page. Most recent additions include themes of “Green,” “Mixing Colors” and “All About Rainbows.”
“Green” begins with a visual exploration of Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s book “Green,” with enchanting illustrations highlighting the many shades of green that can be found in nature. Next, become acquainted with several of Melchers’ paintings that use green in various ways. An outdoor scavenger hunt for different shapes of green leaves is followed by creating a sticky collage on contact paper.
“Our museum staff is working hard to embrace the worldwide #MuseumfromHome initiative by providing as many virtual experiences as possible during these unprecedented times,” explains Crow–Dolby. “I’ve been busy creating online activities based on paintings in our collection and hope to add even more in the coming weeks.”
Coloring pages, videos and even a soon-to-be-finished virtual gallery tour are also available. Go to GariMelchers.org and navigate to the newly launched Learn page under the Education tab.
Collette Caprara is a local writer and artist.