Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center

Space Shuttle EndeavourWe finally made it to the California Science Center to view Space Shuttle Endeavour, the youngest in the Space Shuttle fleet. The boys were sick when Nils signed autographs at the Science Center Halloween weekend, when the exhibit first opened. Nils flew one of the aircraft that chased Endeavour and the 747 on its trip to LAX in September. He carried a NASA flight photographer in his back seat.

On a rainy Saturday morning, the Science Center was crowded. Endeavour was doing its job of drawing people into the museum, which made me happy. We are frequent visitors, and I’ve never seen the place so packed.

To see Endeavour, you must obtain free, timed tickets. You can get these at the museum, though you risk them selling out, or you can print them at home or a $2 per ticket fee. When we arrived at 10 a.m., the only available tickets were for 3 p.m. Because the Science Center itself is free, it’s well worth it to print your tickets at home.

Your ticket admits you first to the “California Story” exhibit, which details the Shuttle’s birth in Palmdale, California. Viewers can touch the tires Endeavour used on its last flight. They can see a real space potty and kitchen and watch videos about how they work. These two topics are always a hit with kids, and astronauts will tell you they probably answer questions about eating and going to the potty in space most often.

There is also a mock-up of Rocketdyne’s operation support facility, which looks a lot like mission control. There you can watch and hear a launch on the screens.

For me, the time-lapse video showing Endeavour’s flight into Los Angeles and 48-hour trip through town to the museum was a highlight. The number of people who turned out for this historic event is overpowering. The video also highlights the contrast between this one-of-a-kind asset and the everyday of Los Angeles with views of Endeavour through a laundromat window, shots of it driving through streets lined with houses and , images outside a donut shop.

From the exhibit, you head to the Samuel Oschin Pavilion, a temporary home for Endeavour until a new building is built. Many years ago I saw Space Shuttle Atlantis in major modifications at Palmdale, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been so close. Visitors can almost touch the heat-resistant tiles. The Pavilion also is home to SPACEHAB, which the Shuttles carried to provide extra space to live and work, as well as a Space Shuttle main engine. There are video clips highlighting Endeavour’s missions. The outside wall provides details about each Space Shuttle mission.

You can stay in the exhibit as long as you like. If you can, go earlier in the day, because the line backs up and the exhibit gets crowded as the day moves on. And while you are there, don’t miss the EcoSystems exhibit and all the children’s discovery rooms.

Secret San Diego … with Kids part 1

USS Midway

San Diego Zoo? Check.

San Diego Air and Space Museum? Check.

Beach? Of course!

LEGOLand? Love it!

The San Diego area is a short drive away from us, so we visit at least once a year. On this visit, we decided to check out a couple of destinations off the beaten path. I’ll review them over the next couple few days.

First up, is the USS Midway. This was hands down my favorite part of the trip. I thought we would spend a couple of hours aboard this post-World War II aircraft carrier. Wrong! We stayed aboard for more than four hours. Our ticket included  an audio tour, and we followed the green, family-friendly path.  We had picked up a Junior Pilot Program worksheet, and the boys had to answer questions at several stops along the way to earn their Midway pilot’s wings.

We had a fascinating glimpse into life aboard this “city at sea.” We learned that water is so scarce aboard ship, that seaman take a two-minute “Navy shower.” We learned that just one link of the anchor chain weighs 130 pounds. And we learned that the it took 6 galleys (kitchens) and 10 tons of food daily to feed the 4,500-member crew.

The boys got to try their hand at tying knots. They tested out the bunks, called “racks.” They even had a visit to the ship’s jail, called the brig. They also “flew” a variety of aircraft that once called the Midway home.

Just a few thoughts for family visits. First, only the flight deck and stroller deck are stroller accessible. Below deck is a series of narrow passageways, stairs and “knee knockers” — raised thresholds. Our four-year-old did fine, but this may be tough for younger children. Children have to be five for the audio tour. Fortunately, the audio clips were short, so we were able to share with our four-year-old. Also, only older children are allowed on the bridge. Our four-year-old did not make the cut, but our six-year-old did. I am guessing most five-year-olds would probably be tall enough for the tour.

After our ramblings, we headed over to Seaport Village for an ice cream. It was just a short walk away, and a wonderful way to end a fun day.

LEGOLand: The Real Happiest Place on Earth

LEGOLand is the real “happiest place on Earth” for small children (mine are ages 3 and 5). There, I said it. I know sooooo many Disney annual pass holders who are going to give me a hard time when they read this post. But, here is why my family likes LEGOLand better than Disney, at least for young kids.

  1. Disney is dark. I have a sensitive 5-year-old, who won’t get on rides with dark themes and surprises. Disney is full of ominous, scary plot lines. Peter Pan, is literally a dark ride. Snow White? Witch? Forget it. And one of our worst-ever panic attacks occurred on Nemo (formerly 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) when the volcano erupted underwater. Disney has too many dramatic story lines for our taste. If you count the monorail, my kids will ride about 12 rides at Disneyland. By contrast, if your child is over 3 years old and 36-inches tall you’ll find plenty of age-appropriate rides at LEGOLand. From flying helicopters to driving Volvo race cars and fighting fires, I counted 21 rides we enjoyed during our most recent LEGOLand expedition.
  2. LEGOLand is more than just rides. It doesn’t take long for theme-park exhaustion to set in, especially if you are spending more than a day at the park. LEGOLand has far more free, non-ride fun in my opinion. Take a master building class or learn to build LEGO robots (for ages 9 and up). Tour a LEGO factory. Build and test your LEGO car on a timed race track. Go on a dig for dinosaur bones. Frolic in the Duplo Village play area (far better than those in Mickey’s Toon Town). Or bring your suit and experience some splashy fun at Pirate Shores, including the Soak-n-Sail pirate boat where kids can romp, play and get soaked. Really, there’s no need for a separate water park ticket with so much free water play available.
  3. Fewer lines. When we do Disney, we stay in the Disney hotel, get in the park at 8 a.m. and are done by noon when the park is overrun and the waits are too much for small children. And that last hour is spent on less popular attractions like the train, Small World, the carousel, etc. At LEGOLand, we get there by 9:30 when a few select rides open. That head start ensures we hit most of our favorite rides before lines peak in the early afternoon. But here’s the thing about LEGOLand: people start leaving at 3 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends. That means we spend a couple of hours playing in the water, at Duplo Village or building racecars, and we are back on the rides by mid-to-late afternoon. In my experience, lines at Disney never let up as the day progresses.
  4. Better weather. Carlsbad is near the ocean. It’s typically cooler, often a little overcast. I’ll take that any day over the blazing heat of Anaheim with nary a breeze in sight.
  5. The price is right. A one-day ticket to DisneyLand is $87 for an adult. If you want a resort hopper so you can go to California Adventure too, you’ll pay more. For LEGOLand it’s $75 for an adult one-day pass. And LEGOLand typically runs a buy one adult ticket, get a child’s ticket free promotion, so think of it as two family members for $75. I can buy a lot of LEGOs in The Big Shop with the money we save on entry fees. And LEGOs are toys I am more than happy to have around the house, even if I step on bricks left and right.

So, there’s my case for LEGOLand for little kids. Which theme park is you favorite: Disney, LEGOLand, Universal, something else? I’d love to know why. No matter where you travel this summer, have fun!

Earthwatch: Hands-on Learning in the Field

Stock photo. Unfortunately, I can’t get hubby’s pics off his phone.

Long story short: my husband recently returned from an archaeological dig in Tuscany where he discovered pottery and human remains at an Etruscan necropolis. While the thought of being married to Indiana Jones is appealing, hubby isn’t a whip-wielding academic. But through Earthwatch.org, he plays one on vacation.

Earthwatch.org pairs scientists from a number of disciplines with volunteer vacationers, who conduct science in the field. Study elephant behavior in Thailand. Protect sharks in Belize. Journey to China to help giant pandas. Oh, and here’s one of my favorites…study vineyard ecology and biodiversity in Bordeaux.

Even better, Earthwatch has special expeditions designed for families and teens. For family expeditions, children must be at least 10 years old and accompanied by adult family members. But children can work side-by-side with archaeologists to explore Roman England or with marine biologists to track marine mammals off the coast of California, for example. Yes, I am already counting how many years until we can do something like this for our family vacation.

Check out Earthwatch’s 40th anniversary video here to learn more about this fantastic organization.

Have you ever engaged travel experiences with your kids focused on hands-on learning? I’d love to hear about them!

Gentle Giant: Santa Barbara Zoo’s Giraffes

We went to Santa Barbara this weekend so my Dad and I could run the Chardonnay 5K at Leadbetter Beach, his first race. (Note: We crossed the finish line together at 30:12.) I paid for Dad’s entry fee as part of his Christmas present, and we both have been training for the last three months. It has been fun to talk training schedules and race pace in anticipation of our big event. For me, running with my dad was the highlight of our three-day weekend.

Meanwhile, for the boys the high point of our trip was a toss up. They enjoyed eating ice cream at Stearns Wharf (go figure) and feeding a very hungry Masai giraffe named Michael at the Santa Barbara Zoo. At the zoo, we paid an extra $6 per child, and each boy got a handful of romaine lettuce and a chance to stand nose to nose with a giant. Each time the boys offered Michael a leaf, he stretched out his long, purple tongue, wrapping it around the leaf the way a boa coils around its prey. This is the same motion he would use in the wild to strip leaves off the branches of his favorite acacia trees. We learned some other fun facts about giraffes:

  • The purple color of a giraffe’s tongue protects it from sunburn.
  • The giraffe’s calloused tongue and sticky saliva protect the animal from the sharp thorns of the acacia tree.
  • A giraffe has to eat up to 75 pounds of leaves each day and spends much of its time eating.

For those planning a trip to Santa Barbara with children, we also recommend:

Art Detectives on the Loose

Though I’ve lived in the Los Angeles area for almost 13 years, I’ve only been to the Getty Villa three times. I visited once in 1996 before the museum closed for a nearly 10-year renovation. I went back in 2007 with my almost-one-year-old. In fact, I have fond memories of Cooper “army crawling” on the tile around the fountain in the Outer Peristyle garden.

Then, I didn’t go back for almost five years. It probably had something to do with nap schedules, diaper changes and worries about the boys jostling ancient Greco-Roman pottery. But honestly, the biggest reason I didn’t go back was because I’d rather see a Rembrandt than a Roman drinking vessel.

I know my lack of enthusiasm is a direct result of my limited knowledge. I never studied the Greco-Roman world, and I know little about the culture and art work. One vase looked similar to all the others –until my most recent trip. The Getty has done a tremendous job of making ancient Greece and Rome accessible to children and parents as well.

Getty staff have developed three different sets of “Art Detective” cards. The front of each card directs you to a specific gallery, shows you a picture of an artwork and poses a question. For example, in Gallery 207, we were to find a statue of  a girl and figure out, “Why does this girl have a slot above her dress?” Once we found the piece, we flipped over the card to discover that coin banks were popular with Romans. The metal statue was an ancient piggy bank. Having additional information about the pieces on display made exploring the collection fascinating.

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In the Family Forum, the boys could dress up like ancient Greeks and Romans. (Note: It was hard to pull them away from the foam swords and shields.) A tactile display revealed how clay pottery was made. A collection of vessels explained the various shapes and functions of the pottery we would find in the collection. For example, drinking cups are wide, flat bowls with two handles. The boys could doodle on pottery using dry erase markers or decorate paper vases with rubbings. The Family Forum brought the collection to life through hands-on learning.

While at the Getty, we made our own perfume the ancient way during a “Spicy Scents” demonstration. We started with a base of olive oil. Then we crushed myrrh, rose, cinnamon, anise, coriander and other spices with a mortar and pestle. We mixed these with the oil to create our own ancient perfume. We learned that long ago, people would use these perfumes to beautify, worship gods, heal, work magic and show off wealth.

Finally, the Mummy of Herakleides was Finley’s favorite. We watched the mummification process video repeatedly. It showed how the Romans in Egypt removed the organs leaving the heart and lungs, salted the body for forty days, covered it in plant resin and honey and wrapped it. Finally, a they placed a portrait on top.

I would recommend the Getty Villa for anyone over the age of 3. While the Getty Center may be more well known, the Villa is original Getty museum. J. Paul Getty built the Roman-inspired villa in 1968  to display his art growing art collection. Aside from his priceless collection, visitors can enjoy the beautiful gardens with views of the Pacific Ocean.

What do paleontologists do all day?

At the La Brea Tar Pits

Imagine a dig that discovered an 80%-complete skeleton of a Columbian mammoth, the Ice Age giant. Now picture that dig taking place right in the middle of Los Angeles’s Hancock Park, home to the La Brea Tar Pits.

In 2006 workers excavating a new parking garage at the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art discovered a Columbian mammoth skull. Work halted immediately and paleontologists from The Page Museum a few yards away were called in to box up the  fossils until they could be explored. Now young and old alike can watch paleontologists and volunteers as they work seven days a week on “Project 23” as it’s known. Yesterday, when our family visited, workers had opened boxes 1 and 14. Recent discoveries included jaw fragments of a baby bison, bones from a juvenile mastodon, sloth and turtle fossils. A paleontologist patiently answered our question about her work, her tools, etc.

Project 23 is taking place right in the middle of Hancock Park, just behind the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While you are there check out Pit 91. Though digging at Pit 91 has halted while Project 23 is ongoing, you’ll find exhibits detailing findings from the pit as well as tools and techniques that paleontologists use there.

Access to Project 23, Pit 91  and the famous La Brea Tar Pits is absolutely free! You can park for $9 in The Page Museum lot or use metered parking on Wilshire (I believe there is a two hour maximum). If you want to see complete skeletons after they’ve been cleaned and reconstructed, you can pay admission to The Page Museum. It’s kind of pricey. However, if you complete the children’s worksheet available at the desk near the gift shop, you can get a gift from the store. We got a “Dino Picture Projector.” The best part of the museum is the “fishbowl” laboratory where you can see paleontologists and volunteers hard at work sorting microfossils, cleaning fossils, etc.

If you’ve never been to Hancock Park, bring a picnic lunch and check out the digs. The La Brea Tar Pits and surrounding sites are by far some of the best free entertainment in Los Angeles.

Field Trip Ideas: National Parks

Inside a Coastal Redwood

The National Parks are some of our greatest national treasures. From Ellis Island to Yosemite these places of natural beauty and historic significance hold a special place in our hearts. Our family recently visited Muir Woods National Monument, a beautiful coastal redwood forest named for conservationist John Muir featuring trees two hundred feet high. It was a magical experience for our two children.

The walk to Cathedral Grove, with some of the most magnificent trees, is only a mile round trip, and the paths are stroller friendly. We transformed our visit into a learning experience by requesting a Junior Ranger Activity Book at the entry gate.  The Park Service has these guides for many (and I mean many) of their parks. The Muir Woods Book encouraged us to listen to the sounds of the forest and observe our surroundings to appreciate their beauty. We learned about tree rings, how redwoods reproduce (via burls and cones), how these trees drink 500 gallons of water a day, and how tannins in the trees’ bark protects them from fires, insects and rot.  The book also helped us identify plants and animals of Muir Woods.

At the end of the trip, we answered a few short question. I emailed them to Muir Woods, though you could leave them with a Park Ranger or mail them in, and we are now expecting a Junior Ranger Certificate. A Junior Ranger sticker badge was included with the book, which Cooper proudly wore on his shirt.

The National Park Service has a number of other resources for teachers and children:

  • WebRangers contains more than 50 games that help children learn about the National Parks.
  • Online Park Fun helps you explore the parks  in person or online.
  • Many of the parks also have curricular resources for teachers planning field trips. These are perfect for serious homeschoolers.

Traveling with Curious Kids

Road trip

This time of year many of us travel by planes, trains and automobiles to be with family. Let’s face it, traveling with small children can be tough. When you have small babies, they require so much equipment: strollers, car seats, pack n plays, bottles, etc. Toddlers and preschoolers are tough to keep occupied on long road trips or plane rides. To make travel a little bit easier, here are a few travel trips I’ve collected over the years in no particular order.

  • I live and die by lists. I have lists of what to pack in the suitcase and the carry on bag. It makes it so much easier when I don’t have to try to remember everything each time. Over the years, I’ve modified the lists as the boys have outgrown the Baby Bjorns, sippy cups, and bibs and have required toys and books. You can find packing lists online, for example, FamilyFun has a weekend getaway list….here.
  • I keep a box of travel toys stashed where the boys can’t play with them, so they are new and exciting when I pull them out. Generally it includes some favorite McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, Hot Wheels cars, die-cast airplanes, felt books and a few LEGOs (I like the DK Brickmaster kits, which boxed in an 8 1/2 x 11 format and are perfect for travel). I also pack small puzzles, magazines that include activities (like Highlights or Wild Animal Baby), sticker books, and Color Wonder coloring pads (so they can’t write on the airplane seats or hotel room furniture), as well as a few favorite books and toys.
  • I keep a copy of the packing list in my suitcase, along with a nightlight, flashlight, clothespin (for keeping curtains closed) and a pack of outlet covers. When I pull my suitcase out, I’m ready to go.
  • If you are traveling with a lap baby, always bring your car seat with you to the gate. If there is an extra seat, flight attendants are often willing to accommodate you, and you won’t have to hold the baby the whole flight. Plus, you’d hate to check your car seat and have the airline lose it in route.
  • If you have room, bring a change of clothes for the kids, toothbrushes, and a clean shirt and underwear for yourself, in your carry on bag. I have at least two friends who have had toddlers throw up on them during a flight, so the extra shirt is a must. Plus, if you get bumped from a flight and have to stay in a hotel, it’s nice to have something clean to put on in the morning.
  • We always try to book two adjoining hotel rooms or a suite. Sometimes, this is cost prohibitive, but when possible, it pays dividends in extra sleep. It also ensures that no adult (me) has to hunker down in the bathroom or near the nightlight to read a book after the kiddos are in bed.
  • One of the hardest parts of staying in a hotel room is trying to keep the kids entertained first thing in the morning, since we have early risers and a lot of attractions don’t open until 10 a.m. We try to choose hotels that include a breakfast, so one adult can take the children down to eat while the other gets a few extra minutes of sleep. It’s also helpful to locate a nearby park to burn off some energy if the children are getting antsy in the hotel room.
  • If we are going on a road trip, we try to pick a hotel with a mini fridge (or kitchenette) and pack some food. Eating out can get really expensive, and let’s just say sitting down in a restaurant is not always a fun experience with a cranky toddler. Sometimes it’s easier to eat out for lunch and enjoy a PB&J in the hotel room. I pack things like instant oatmeal; bagels and cream cheese; juice boxes and milk; fruit like apples, bananas, oranges; coffee; bread; peanut butter and jelly; Goldfish crackers; cereal bars; granola bars; dried fruit; yogurt tubes. I also pack a thermal lunch bag, sturdy plastic knife; ziplock bags; a travel bottle of dish detergent and a couple of plastic plates for eating in the hotel room.
  • Since our three-year-old still naps, we try to plan our longest drives around nap time, so he can do some sleeping in a car. So, for example, we might plan a side trip that’s an hour or 90 minutes away for first thing in the morning. Then we eat lunch there and drive back to the city at nap time, hoping for a nap in the car.
  • Give the kids a camera and let them snap some shots of things they find interesting on your travels.
  • Don’t forget to learn a few good road trip games.
  • Also, scavenger hunts can make sightseeing more fun and educational.
  • Have fun and enjoy the holiday season!
     

Road Trip Games

Road trip

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we live in the middle of nowhere, but within an hour and a half of everything. Thus, every trip to the zoo, aquarium or museum starts with a healthy dose of “car time.” Though we have a DVD player in the car, I try to reserve it for long road tips of three hours or more. I prefer the kids look at their surroundings and engage with what they see.

We’ve become experts at “I Spy,” which we even play on short trips to school. Here’s how you play: One player picks an object outside the car and says “I spy something…” and fills in the color of the object they’ve selected. For example, “I spy something red,” a player might say. Then everyone guesses until they guess the correct answer: a fire truck, for example. A fun variant includes using shapes instead of colors. For example, a player might say, “I spy something rectangular.” Everyone guesses until they guess the one-way sign, which was the right answer.

Grandmommy, a frequent visitor, taught us the “Alphabet Game.” Starting with the letter A, players have to find each letter of the alphabet, in order, on signs, license plates etc. outside the car. The first player to get all the way to Z wins. This game is perfect for reinforcing letter recognition for preschoolers, though they will likely need some help at first.

The “License Plate Game” is another classic that works well for long trips on the interstate. Players have to find a license plate with the name of each state. The first player to spot all 50 (or the continental 48) wins. You can also have the whole car work together as a team. You need to create list of the states for players to check off. I found a downloadable sheet on Mom’s Minivan…….here.

Finally, growing up I always enjoyed following our route on the AAA Triptik during our many cross country trips. The Triptik was a booklet of maps showing the route. I always wanted to be the designated Triptik holder; I felt great satisfaction each time I could turn the page, knowing we were making good progress. You can now create and print out your own Triptik online by clicking……here. Assemble your Triptik, staple it, and hand it to your elementary schooler. It might be a solution to the “Are we there yet?” problem. If you don’t have a Triptik, you could also highlight your route on a map. Show your children how to look for towns and other landmarks to mark your progress.

Happy traveling this holiday season.