Educational, Budget-Friendly Virtual Vacations
Most parents would like to show their kids the wonders of the world, but budgets and time can be limited. In many families, Grandma assumes everyone will use summer vacations as a time for a family reunion and, to be honest, busy parents (and even kids) often need to recharge by doing nothing more challenging than lying on a beach or splashing in a hotel pool.
Still, it's a rare parent who doesn't fantasize about holding a child's hand while standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon or pointing out the marvels in a museum like the Smithsonian.
Happily, you can take these and other dream trips simply by visiting the right websites. Obviously, a virtual vacation isn't the same as the real thing, but if your goal is to awaken your kids to their natural and cultural heritage, these websites are a terrific start. Here are five virtual trips worth taking:
- Tour the Smithsonian Museum. If you've actually visited the Smithsonian, you know how overwhelming "America's attic" can be. The website can also be confounding if only because there are so many museums. Start with the Museum of Natural History where your tax dollars have been put to good use creating a virtual tour with a 360-degree environment that makes it feel like you are wandering around the museum (www.mnh.si.edu/panoramas).
When your child spots something intriguing, he or she can ask for a close-up of everything from dinosaurs and fossils to sea life and mammals, plants and insects to bones and gems. Younger children will also enjoy the Live Cams at the National Zoo (http://nationalzoo.si.edu) and older children can deepen their understanding of American history, culture and art through exhibits at the other Smithsonian museums (http://smithsonian.org/museums).
- Visit a national park. The National Park Service website (www.nature.nps.gov/views/index.cfm) is rich with visuals as well as information about the ecology and history of the parks. In addition to famous parks like the Grand Canyon and the Mall in Washington, D.C., you and your kids can hang out in more remote spots like the Badlands of South Dakota, Petroglyph Park in New Mexico or the Timpanogos Cave in Utah.
The pages on the site load quickly, in part because they don't include music or narration. Reading the short but intriguing captions is a good way to keep school skills sharp, and kids who become immersed in the site will be rewarded by the occasional game. This website is also an excellent way to plan a visit to a park — or to remember past trips.
- Explore the Earth. Planet in Action (www.planetinaction.com) enhances maps available at Google Earth to create vivid interactive tours of landmark sites. Check out the "Places" section of the website for tours of Mount St. Helens, Manhattan and Paris Disneyland. With a twitch of the mouse, you can zoom in for a closer look at points of interest. The site also includes flight simulation games for kids who find a simple tour "boooooring."
You can also go straight to the source by downloading Google Earth 5 (http://earth.google.com/intl/en), a richer version of GoogleMaps that allows investigation of almost any place on the planet, sometimes in three dimensions. Start by looking for familiar landmarks in your own community. Can you find your child's school, the playground, your own backyard? Then go wild and visit places that are totally beyond the family budget — Tokyo, a Caribbean island, the Serengeti. Magnify the map until little hot spots appear. Then click on them to learn more about local life.
- Take a moonwalk. If exploring Earth seems passé, try a virtual vacation that is literally out of this world. On the toolbar at the top of Google 5, there's a tiny image of Saturn. Clicking on it gives you the choice of studying the night sky, exploring Mars or traveling to the moon. On the moon, Apollo astronauts offer a personal tour, explaining the craft they used in their historic flight and pointing out their famous footprints.
These virtual tours offer so many options that younger children will enjoy them more in the company of an adult guide. If possible, hook a computer to a larger monitor or even the family television so several people can explore together. Kids older than 10 may prefer to investigate on their own. Point them toward one of these sites and suggest they give the rest of the family a tour of what they discover. Knowing that after dinner, in the company of your kids, you can share a virtual trip to a place you've always wanted to visit can become its own mini, but memorable, vacation.
Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.