I'm typing this on my laptop, inside an air-conditioned house on a 95-degree day. I just zapped a Lean Cuisine meal in the microwave steps from the couch where I've carved out a pseudo-office. I have to tell myself to get up every 30 minutes -- if only to take a few more steps to the water cooler or bathroom -- so that I won't die of inactivity.
Unfortunately, as I write, this scene is probably being repeated in many homes and offices. And not just with writers and office workers, but with kids who park themselves in front of the computer to play video games for hours without coming up for air -- not to mention for a good leg stretch.
But, last year, as I drove across the country on its longest contiguous highway, US Route 6, I came across what I (and a number of other publications) consider the best attractions where kids (and our inner children), can get dirty, run around, commune with nature, find out where our food comes from, understand other cultures and discover old silver mines -- in effect, get off their butts, get healthy, have a great time and shhhh -- don't tell them -- but learn something.
From Cape Cod, Mass. to Long Beach, Calif., here are the coolest five living history museums and parks in the country;
Heritage Museums and Gardens, Sandwich, Mass.
It might be overlooked by the hordes of Cape Cod tourists flocking to the seashore, but the impressive 100-acre rhododendron-packed Heritage Gardens is one of the top attractions in the country for budding horticulturists. Kids love Hidden Hollow -- an outdoor interactive science center carved within a natural indentation in the earth -- where they can play with water (read: lots of mud!), test their balance on tree-stump steps, dig in the dirt, grow stuff and do it all without realizing they are learning to be stewards of the land. After playing in Hidden Hollow, hike up the hill to the roundhouse that contains a 1908 hand-carved carousel. You can ride it to exhaustion as all spins are free with admission. Who needs the beach when you've got infinite turns on the merry-go-round?
Lake Metropark Farmpark, Kirtwood, Ohio
Situated on the grounds of a former Arabian Horse Farm, Lake Metropark Farmpark was conceived to cure Nature Deficit Disorder. Kids these days, especially city kids, but more and more elsewhere, have no idea where our food comes from. "The grocery store?" is a common guess. At Farmpark, you can milk a cow, make hand-churned ice-cream, plant a garden, see hydroponic vegetables grow, watch animal babies being born and witness up-close and personal sheep shearing in this terrific agricultural center destined to delight kids of all ages. The Garden Center is stocked with child-sized rakes and hoes. The "People Mover" that brings visitors from one section of the farm to another is a horse-drawn wagon, and you won't see much in the way of electronics in this fun and captivating place. It's difficult to keep your eyes on your iPhone, anyway, when momma sow is trying to manipulate her nine really cute piglets into place. That's a much better show.
Amish Acres, Nappanee, Ind.
Who knew the Amish sect in Indiana loved nearly-neon shades of green and blue and used these vivid colors on their walls at home over 125 years ago? I do, now, after taking the two-hour Guided House and Farm Tour, complete with a buggy ride around all 80 acres of this marvelous complex. What I first thought would be hokey and touristy turned into an entertaining and dignified look at another culture, one I once believed to be severe and austere. But that bright blue door made me rethink everything. After touring the farm, stay for a "Threshers Dinner" in the barn-sized restaurant; you'll be stuffed to the gills with local specialties served by amiable Amish wait-staff. For an extra treat, and highly recommended, stay for a production at the formidable Round Barn Theater: Its stage is named after a Jewish playwright from New York (go figure), Joseph Stein, whose musical comedy about a culture clash between the Amish and New Yorkers, "Plain and Fancy," has been playing here for over 25 years.
Living History Farms, Urbandale, Ill.
Created to "tell the story of how Iowans transformed the fertile prairies of the Midwest into the most productive farmland in the world," this highly interactive, docent-heavy, re-creation of slice of Plains life circa 1875, along with three eras in 300 years of Iowa farm history, is a real revelation. I spent about two hours on this 500-acre complex and wish it could have been much longer in order to interact with farmwives, printers, shopkeepers, an attorney, blacksmiths, field workers and a slew of other knowledgeable interpreters who play their parts to perfection. Each docent knew how to engage his or her audience, no matter what age, and I saw many kids, mouths agape, at some enlightening show and tells, not a touch-screen or keyboard in sight.
Tonopah Historic Mining Park, Tonopah, Nev.
Tonopah was once the "Queen of the Silver Mining Camps," so what better way to soak up local history than to wander around in one? In the spring of 1900, Jim Butler was camping around Tonopah Springs when his burro wandered off. While looking for it, he discovered what appeared to be silver ore and the rest is history. From 1900 to 1912, mines here produced roughly $2 billion worth of silver (adjusting for inflation). Take a self-guided walking tour of the Tonopah Historic Mining Park; on 100 hillside acres, it's a leg-stretching, lung-expanding way to delve into this town's past. Wind whistles through the remains of old mineshafts, head frames (the structures that held electric hoists) and miner's shacks. You might just hear the spirits of the dead whispering around the ruins. It's spooky, interesting and very informative with great explanatory signage.
You can read my recommendations in my mile-by-mile travel guide, Stay On Route 6, available through Amazon, in print and on Kindle.
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