Editor’s Note: During this period of social distancing, Student Group Tour magazine will continue to provide ideas for planning educational travel. While many attractions may not be open right now, we encourage educators and tour planners to gather ideas and formulate itineraries for the future.
Whether it’s riding in a restored Model T, practicing military drills with the Continental Army or preparing food using an ancient cooking technique, there’s no shortage of hands-on activities at historic and cultural sites throughout the country.
These sites welcome student groups to put away the textbooks and learn by doing. Hands-on and immersive experiences help students better understand the past, which in turn helps them better understand the world today. The following attractions are just a few that bring history to life in tactile and tangible ways.
Polynesian Cultural Center
The rich heritage of the Pacific Islands comes alive at Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC), a world of discovery that shares thousands of years’ worth of culture in one place. A daylong visit to PCC offers students immersive experiences and hands-on activities as they explore the center’s six island villages. In each village, students meet the people, taste the food, sing and dance while learning about each distinct culture.
“There’s so much to do at the PCC and possibilities are endless,” said Tua Sanerivi, Hawaii sales manager for the Polynesian Cultural Center, who also is responsible for school groups. “With PCC home to six island villages representing Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji and Aotearoa (and exhibits for Rapa Nui and Marquesas) there’s no shortage of hands-on and immersive activities to partake. For example, at the Tongan village, guests can play the shuffleboard game called lafo. Or learn the art of the Tahitian spear throw in Tahiti.”
Each island village shares its unique music, dance, traditions and aspects of daily life like games, crafts, cooking and ceremonies. At the Island of Aotearoa, guests learn the techniques for handling and throwing a Maori fighting lance (taiaha). In the Samoan village, they can prepare and cook food in an underground umu — and try the food afterward, too.
PCC also offers luaus, an evening show, a canoe pageant and an interactive cinematic experience called Hawaiian Journey.
Polynesian Cultural Center
Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford
There’s no better place to learn the history of American ingenuity and innovation than at Greenfield Village, one of the venues that make up The Henry Ford — a National Historic Landmark. Students are immersed in three centuries of American perseverance throughout the living history village’s seven districts. The past comes alive at working farms, Thomas Edison’s lab, the Wright brothers’ workshop, an 1800s train depot and steam-powered rail line, and a replica of Henry Ford’s workshop.
“At The Henry Ford, students can experience primary and secondary source artifacts from over 300 years of American innovation, ingenuity and resourcefulness that connect to educational content standards through a hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to learning,” said Phil Grumm, senior manager of learning services and on-site programs at The Henry Ford. “Students leave inspired to unleash their own innovative potential.”
Students can watch dramatic, live presentations, like a lively suffragist rally with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in attendance; or listen to Wilbur and Orville Wright recount their first airplane flight. Demonstrations include Edison’s phonograph and a replica of Henry Ford’s very first internal combustion engine.
In Henry Ford’s Model T District, students trace the life of Ford, one of America’s greatest industrialists and innovators, from childhood through the founding of his Ford Motor Company. The district includes the home where he was born and a replica of the factory where he built his first automobiles. Students even have the opportunity to test ride a restored Model T.
Student field trip options are plentiful and can include the other venues at The Henry Ford — Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Ford Rouge Factory Tour.
The Henry Ford
At Colonial Williamsburg, students step into a 301-acre living, breathing 18th-century town filled with historic structures and stories of the past. School visits include customized, guided tours of Virginia’s colonial capital city and interactive activities.
“We hope students walk away with the understanding that the events that happened here in Williamsburg laid the foundation for American democracy,” said Nathan Ryalls, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s manager of guest experience and design. “We want them to connect to the past, so that the past is not an obscure thing, it’s not something that just lives in a textbook. e past is exciting and learning about history can be fun.”
The Historic Area is made up of 18th-century trade shops, government buildings and homes.
“The trade shops are a highlight for school groups because they actually see things being made,” Ryalls said. “Our historic trade interpreters are not just representing the trade, they’re actually practitioners of the trade.”
Other student options revolve around themes, like women in 18th-century Williamsburg. Interactive experiences include drilling exercises with the militia, dancing, playing games and performing domestic chores — like retrieving water from the town’s working wells. Evening programs also are available, such as Cry Witch, where students act as the jury during a witch trial and vote for conviction or freedom.
To build on what students learn in the Historic Area, they can visit the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
“What we offer at the art museums supplements and complements what is done in the Historic Area,” said Trish Balderson, Museums of Colonial Williamsburg’s manager of museum education. For example, students can see a life-size portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale and the wax seal Washington used during the Revolutionary War on his letters and documents.
Another way to get hands-on with history at Colonial Williamsburg is with the Archaeology Department. Archaeological research has been ongoing there since the 1920s.
During the summer, children can participate in an hour-long Archaeology at Custis Square program.
“They’ll get the opportunity to actually screen for artifacts and will be the first person to actually see some of these things coming out of the ground,” said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s director of archaeology.
In addition, a pilot program for middle and high schoolers, The Public Archaeology Institute, is a weeklong opportunity to work with archaeologists in the field. At the end of the experience, students present their findings in the form of a tour.
“They’ll get the full range of what we do as archaeologists,” Gary said.
Colonial Williamsburg staff members are already working on plans to commemorate big milestones in 2026 — the 100th anniversary of Colonial Williamsburg and the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.