If you live near our nation's capital, you know how natural it is to introduce the concept of government to your child. Just driving by the Washington Monument can launch a thousand questions from the back seat. But even if your address is on the other side of the country, lessons in civics abound in your own hometown.
A family visit to a local municipal site offers you the chance to share some of the fascinating inner workings of these United States. You might want to start with the fire department, a guaranteed hit with kids of all ages. But there are many other, offbeat places to consider, such as animal shelters, emergency services, recycling centers, and even reservoirs. As you'll discover here, the trips are fun, inexpensive, easy to plan, and enhance summer learning.
The following steps will help you get the most out of your visit:
- Plan to Please. Expert field trip planner Shirley Minster says that "the first thing to consider is the age and interests of your child." Minster, a teacher who provides custom-designed programs for kids in kindergarten through high school, recommends consulting your child early to help her feel included and excited.
- Scout It Out. A scouting trip (just you), or a phone call, can gauge the age-appropriateness of a site you want to visit.
- Be in the Know. A few days before your visit, have your kids do some research to prepare. "Tour guides are very impressed when kids know the proper terminology. They will go further when they realize that kids have a real interest," Minster says.
- Get Ready to Roll. On the big day, review safety, manners, staying together, and type of voice (if you're inside, keep it quiet). If you find your child can't comply, Minster urges that you remove him at once.
- Ask Questions. With proper prep work, your kids should be able to take in a lot on their own, but you should encourage them to ask questions. Getting first-hand knowledge from a skilled worker, and observing how he does his job, can be inspiring to a child.
- Make a Memory. To make it a truly educational trip, Minster recommends that when you return home, ask your children, "What can we do to help cherish the memory?" Be sure to send a thank-you note to the people who took the time to teach. If your kids can't write yet, have them trace their hands, draw a picture, or send a photo.
Where to Go
- Police stations: A visit to your local law enforcement agency can show your child the many different roles police officers fill beyond keeping us safe on the street. Contact the public affairs office in your city's police department and ask whether your precinct offers guided tours. For instance, the Layton, Utah, police department offers weekly tours to see different areas of the department as well as the police motorcycles and vehicles.
- Fire stations: The guys in the big red suspenders are used to opening their doors to kids and their families. Some stations, like the six located in Carlsbad, California, have pre-scheduled tours, and many will accommodate family tours on very short notice too. It's also a great way to learn about fire prevention techniques.
- Parks and recreation: Most kids enjoy the benefits their local playgrounds offer, but few are exposed to what goes into designing and maintaining them. Call your local parks department and find out when the gardeners are on duty. Perhaps you can arrange to join them in planting bulbs, weeding, or even collecting the trash.
- Public works: Every town depends on its department of public works to provide basic maintenance services for sewers, trash collection, bridges, lighting, traffic engineering, street marking, and parking. The city of Palo Alto, California, regularly opens up its public works facility to children. At these "open houses," kids can climb on the garbage trucks and/or street cleaners, and even have a special sign made. Contact your local public works manager to find out what projects are underway and schedule a time to visit the work site.
- Town hall: The mayor, City Council members, and most of the city officials work here. A behind-the-scenes look can be your child's first introduction to how government operates. The city of Decatur, Georgia offers regular tours to help residents learn about the various boards and commissions. Visitors can even participate in a mock planning commission meeting.
- Transportation. Exploring your public transit system can be fun and empowering for kids and adults alike. Find out how far you can go. The Hedge family of Palo Alto was able to take a train to a bus to a ferry and discover the pleasures of nearby Sausalito, all by way of public transit.