Not long ago, I was sitting in the doctor’s office during a check-up for one of my kids, and the doctor reminded me sternly that two hours looking at a screen was the maximum allotment per day for a child his age. I looked up from my phone for just long enough to joke that for my kid two hours was his maximum time spent looking away from screens! Am I right?
I went in for a high-five, but the doctor left me hanging. Through her withering gaze, she reminded me that there’s no excuse for spending the summer inside looking at screens when we live in an area so full of opportunities for enrichment in the outdoors.
Kids find in screens a constant stream of entertainment, and adults also find connection, news, and companionship online, so it can be hard to break away from the phones and tablets, and go out bravely into a world where you can get sunburned and wet and bitten by mosquitoes.
But it’s so worth it to step outside the stagnation of the lighted rectangle! The passive mind has no need to generate ideas, but engaging with nature, history, and knowledge can spark all kinds of mental energy! Pack up your towel and your imaginations, and enjoy some of these places where our family has found joy and entertainment, even though they are all at least partially outside.
First, you’ll want to prepare for your adventures outdoors with a few necessities: bug spray, sunscreen, towels, water bottles, and a few healthy snacks like fresh fruit, nuts, and granola bars. To make things interesting, bring along these “challenge” items to encourage creativity and inspiration: pencil and paper for jotting down notes, sketches, ideas, and poems; a book to read while waiting or resting; a camera that’s not secretly a phone.
OK, got everything? Let’s go!
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
Yes, there are many indoor galleries and exhibits in this museum. But the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown also features wonderful outdoor exhibits, like the Moss family farm, where reenactors demonstrate period activities like gardening, cooking, and tobacco farming. Summer is the perfect time to go when visitors are welcome to try their hand at cooking over an open hearth and chasing ducks around. Another really excellent outdoor experience is the military camp, where you can visit the surgeon, peek in a sleeping tent, and get up close and personal with some muskets. When the kids get hot and crabby, take them into the air-conditioned museum to explore the galleries.
TIP: The Yorktown Trolley will pick you up in Yorktown and tote you out to the museum for free. Or you can park at the museum and ride the trolley into Yorktown to eat!
Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (until 6 p.m. June 15-Aug. 15) 888-593-4682 ($)
200 Water St., Route 1020, Yorktown
Noland Trail at the Mariners’ Museum and Park
The Mariners’ Museum and Park is another wonderful spot where you can cool off in the galleries, and then go outside to stomp around in the fresh air. The International Small Craft Center is great for kids who love the water. Here you can examine all kinds of boats, from primitive to prototypes. You can also look at artifacts from the USS Monitor, in various stages of rehabilitation. Don’t miss Noland Trail: five miles of well-maintained trails that wind through the woods around beautiful Lake Maury. Inviting picnic tables are the perfect spot to relax and eat some snacks after your hike. The Noland Trail involves some up-and-down terrain, so you will need proper shoes!
TIP: Now through Labor Day, admission to the Mariner’s Museum is only $1!
Open daily in summer 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 757-596-2222 ($)
100 Museum Dr. Newport News, VA
First Landing State Park
First Landing offers a variety of options for hiking and water play. My favorite plan is to park near the entrance by 64th and Atlantic Avenue and walk the Cape Henry Trail to the Narrows, where the kids can splash in the Lynnhaven River. It feels just about perfect to get sweaty and grimy walking past turtles and waterfowl on Lake Susan Constant and then fall into the water. Signs will tell you there is no swimming allowed, but your kids can still splash and play. On the north side of the park is the popular beach on the Chesapeake Bay that gives First Landing its name—The Virginia Company landed here first before heading up the river to Jamestown.
TIP: If you have two adults, send one hiking with the kids down the Cape Henry Trail while the other drives ahead with a cooler and beach toys!
Open every day, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. 757-412-2300 ($-parking fee)
2500 Shore Dr., Virginia Beach
The Adventure Park at Virginia Aquarium
I am not a person who normally enjoys going high up in the air because I understand how gravity works and the fragility of my limbs. However, my children love the Adventure Park at Virginia Aquarium, and since the climbing system means participants are always locked in, even a nervous person like me can cheer for the kids with confidence. Nothing gets a child hitting the “OFF” button on a gaming tablet like the word ZIPLINE, and there are climbing trails of different difficulty, rated like ski slopes. There’s even a labyrinth section for smaller kids to explore safely.
TIP: Dress your child in something colorful that you’ll be able to pick out among the treetops. If you’re going in a group or have several children, it’s worth the effort to put them all in hot pink or banana yellow.
Open every day in the summer, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. 757-385-4947 ($)
801 General Booth Blvd, Virginia Beach
Maybe you know the aquarium has seals and sea turtles and a bunch of sharks, but did you know that you can take off from the main building down a nature trail through the salt marsh to visit the Marsh Pavilion? That’s quality time outdoors and on the move, sandwiched by air conditioning while you marvel at creatures in tanks. While you’re on the nature trail, you’ll see turtles in Owls Creek, and you can also check out the oyster reef from one of the overlook points. And when you get to the Marsh Pavilion, you can visit the river otters!
TIP: The Virginia Aquarium runs boat trips for viewing dolphins and whales, but maybe their most interesting boating experience is a collection trip, where you’ll spend over an hour as a marine scientist, pulling creatures out of the ocean for study and then returning them to their habitat.
Open every day, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 757-385-3474 ($)
717 General Booth Blvd, Virginia Beach
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge & False Cape State Park
When I first moved to this area from Chicago, I spent a lot of time at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge because I was determined to see wild horses, and I finally did, near the parking lot of all places! For your best chance at seeing them, take the Blue Goose Tram about two miles into False Cape State Park. The tram tour includes a walking trip to the ghost town of Wash Woods, but there’s only one tram per day and it leaves at 9 a.m. Signing up for a fishing clinic is another option. These also start at 9 a.m. and finish around noon, so you could split your crew and then reconvene for swimming in Sandbridge after lunch.
TIP: Enjoy Friday evening tram tours through Aug. 23.
Visitor Center: Tues.-Fri. 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat. & Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. 757-301-7329
4005 Sandpiper Rd, Virginia Beach
Elizabeth River Trail & Plum Point Park
If you live in Norfolk, don’t worry. While Yorktown and Sandbridge are distant, you don’t have to travel far to commune with nature. The Elizabeth River Trail is a great place to ride your bike safely and experience the waterfront next door. For the full ten miles, pick up the trail in Lochhaven and ride all the way to Harbor Park. If you have little children, however, I recommend starting at Jeff Robertson Park in West Ghent. Leave your cooler in your car, mount up on your bikes and ride through Chelsea, finishing up at Plum Point Park, one of the most awesome parks in the area with a beautiful view of the water, lots of benches for watching ships and boats float by, and a bike loop for the kids to use while you relax. Ride back to your car and enjoy your cooler full of snacks and drinks while the trains roll by under the trees.
TIP: Be prepared to stop where the trail goes over the the Midtown Tunnel entrance. It’s not a screen, and it’s not nature either, but no child can resist watching the cars go in and out.
Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine, a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She lives in Norfolk with her husband and two children. Find out more at www.lydianetzer.com.