Virtual family daytrips that will help parents stay sane this summer

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Familiar summer destinations like museums, national parks and major cities may not be easy to travel to this summer amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As states report new surges in Covid-19 cases, pause reopening measures and even reinstitute business restrictions, families may be more hesitant to venture far from home. 

Luckily, a summer stuck at home doesn’t necessarily mean months of boredom. There are a host of virtual tours, field trips and activities designed to provide enrichment and entertainment that families can easily access online.

Live historical tours

After the pandemic caused schools across the country to resort to remote learning, The Constitutional Walking Tour had to find a different way to host field trips in Philadelphia. The tour operator began offering live tours conducted over Zoom so students could still see famous historical sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. 

“We found the kids and teachers were so responsive to us — they were hungry for content,” said Jonathan Bari, the tour company’s president.

Through this virtual option, the company was able to provide work opportunities to its 27 guides and adhere to social-distancing measures, according to Bari. He said students were able to easily ask the guide questions and even schools in distant parts of the country, such as California, had a chance to take the tours and “visit” Philadelphia.

Close-up shot of the Liberty Bell with Independence Hall in the background at dusk.

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The virtual school tours initially cost $99, but the price has since been raised to $125. Bari plans to continue offering them in the fall. Normally, in-person group tours cost $11 a student for groups of 25 or more.

The Constitutional Walking Tour also rebooted its live tours on July 1 and will launch an app costing $17.99 that travelers can use to conduct their own self-guided, socially-distanced visit to Philadelphia. However, Bari said the company still plans to have the virtual tour available this summer for families who may not be able to travel just yet and is working on a price for this offering. 

“I think it’s a fantastic option for kids and parents and families alike who just want to do something a little bit different given the circumstances,” Bari said. 

Museum visits

Families can also access famous art online. Though the Art Institute of Chicago is temporarily closed, it offers a host of ways that families can virtually visit the museum. To make this even easier, it introduced a new section on its website on how to access its artwork through the internet. 

“We’ve doubled down on digital engagement since our closure in March,” said Michael Neault, the museum’s executive creative director of experience design.

Just after closing, the museum released a free digital platform that provides tours of artwork using 360-degree technology, that allows art enthusiasts to explore objects like an Egyptian mummy mask, a West African headdress and a Viking sword. The project had been in the works prior to the pandemic, but Neault said it is now more relevant than ever. 

“Without being able to see the art in person, this is a great way to engage students at home,” Neault said.

In the days leading up to the Art Institute’s closure, the museum’s filmmaker scrambled to capture footage of its galleries, according to Neault. This footage became the basis of a free video series on the museum’s most iconic works called “The Essentials Tour,” which is now posted on the museum’s YouTube channel. 

“The videos are short doses of art history and it’s like getting a 101 lesson in just a couple minutes,” Neault said.

The museum also posted a free video tour of its new El Greco exhibit using footage gathered the day before the Art Institute closed and is planning a new video series that features staff discussing their favorite artworks. The museum even shipped microphones to employees so they could safely record their interviews at home. 

“With limited access to the galleries and staff, we’ve had to be really creative and resourceful with creating content,” Neault said. 

For younger art enthusiasts, the museum offers a JourneyMaker feature that allows kids to personalize their virtual tour and select art they’re interested in viewing. The Art Institute also offers other free downloadable activities inspired by its artwork such as coloring pages, crossword puzzles and creative writing prompts. 

In addition to these options, the museum offers more than 54,000 artworks in a public domain format that’s both downloadable and free, according to Neault. Along with viewing images and descriptions of famous works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and other artists, parents and teachers can implement the art in activities and lesson plans.

“You could even have kids download artworks and curate their own exhibition at home,” Neault said. 

Seeing national parks online

Though U.S. National Parks might be this summer’s go-to vacation spots, some families may still have concerns over traveling far to visit one. The National Park Foundation, the National Park Service’s official charity, has worked to promote digital offerings for parks during the pandemic. 

“People were and still are itching to get out into the parks, whether it be local, state or national or other open spaces, just because we have this major connection as human beings to the outdoors,” said NPF President and CEO Will Shafroth. 

Within the park system’s host of virtual options, NPF has highlighted free video tours of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and Channel Islands National Park in California that were produced before the pandemic. Shaforth also mentioned the availability of free live video feeds on the web, such as the bear cams from Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, which allow people to view wildlife in real time.

Double catch by two brown bears of Katmai National Park fishing for salmon at Brooks falls.

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In addition to parks, there are also online resources related to historic sites within the National Park system. A video tour is available of the Alexander Hamilton Grange National Memorial, which is located in New York City and is still temporarily closed to help curb the spread of Covid-19. Interest may grow in the founding father’s home after the arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on Disney+ on July 3. 

For young parkgoers, there’s also the National Park Service Junior Ranger program, which has options to explore national parks online and provides activities that children can complete at home. 

However, even though interest has surged in these online offerings, Shafroth said that an in-person trip to a national park could still be possible this summer. If a family is hesitant about traveling long distances to reach iconic destinations like Yellowstone National Park, they might be able to find another option nearby.

ber, there are 419 national parks,” Shafroth said. “So there are many that are probably a lot closer to where most people live than they realize.” 

Online enrichment

Both during the school year and summer, Discovery Education offers a whole range of virtual enrichment options that have garnered even greater interest during the pandemic.

Among the education company’s most popular opportunities are virtual field trips to places like the National Basketball Association headquarters and the Canadian tundra for the annual polar bear migration. After watching the pre-recorded videos, students can complete learning activities associated with the virtual trip. 

“These are opportunities to really take kids beyond the walls of wherever they are, meet people and have experiences they might not otherwise have,” said Stephen Wakefield, the company’s vice president of public affairs.

Discovery Education has offered virtual field trips for almost 15 years along with other digital offerings, and works with around half of the U.S.’s school districts, according to Lance Rougeux, vice president of learning communities at the company and a former public school teacher. However, he said the virtual field trips have had particular importance during the pandemic.

“During the school year, the teachers use them to get outside of the classroom walls but now it’s like getting outside the apartment,” Rougeux said. 

The company has expanded its digital offerings since the pandemic began, and recently launched its Summer of Learning initiative, which contains resources like audiobooks, podcasts and activities that students can use to stay engaged in their education during their time off from school.

Though many of Discovery Education’s offerings are behind a paywall and geared for students to access through school, the company has also made some of its learning activities available online for anyone to use. The Daily DE is an educational resource designed for parents, and contains six weeks’ worth of lesson plans that they can use for students grades K through 12. The plans include virtual field trips, science experiments, writing prompts as well as other learning activities.

The activities are designed to help children stay connected to learning during an uncertain time. 

“It’s a simple, easy, engaging way to keep students’ minds active during what’s really a weird summer for all of us,” said Wakefield. 

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