Top 5 things to do with kids in Colonial Williamsburg

We didn’t arrive in Colonial Williamsburg in the handsome carriage picture above, but thanks to the generosity of Acura rolled into town in a stylish and thoroughly modern MDX. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t immerse ourselves in the colonial experience! In fact, we spent one full and two half days visiting and could easily have filled up several more (in fact, another visit is definitely in my family’s future). Colonial Williamsburg is an educational, fun, and fascinating place to visit with school-aged children. Although we didn’t get to see everything Colonial Williamsburg has to offer, we did cover a lot of territory. Here are our highlights, including the five favorite things chosen by Teddy and Tommy, my six- and nine-year-old sons.

Slave quarters at Great Hopes Plantation Please click on the photos in this post to see and scroll through full-sized versions with captions.

1. Visit the Great Hopes Plantation. It can be easy to miss this important exhibit, since it lies outside the main town that most people arrive in Williamsburg expecting to see (it’s also off the shuttle route). But if you walk from the Visitor Center into town you pass right by the entrance. As the interpreters here and elsewhere point out, the plantation represents what life was like for 98 percent of the population of Virginia in the 18th century (as the woman talking to us as we entered the plantation explained, the houses we toured in town were more like the equivalent of where “Bill Gates would live” than what most people ever experienced). Slavery is addressed in a sensitive and realistic way as it is throughout the sites in Colonial Williamsburg, with an emphasis on humanity and day-to-day life and an acknowledgement that slave labor is what made colonial life (and probably the American Revolution) economically viable.

The interpreters here did a phenomenal job of helping the boys understand what life on the plantation was like. They got to sit on the hard bed in a one-room shack that probably housed seven to twelve people – and then wondered that most of the people had to sleep on the even harder dirt floor. They took their turn grinding corn into flour by hand. They handled the precious gourds that were shaped into tools and bowls. They saw how much work the slaves had to do to have enough to eat – and were told that they had to tend their garden or make their tools only after they had finished their other work in the fields for the day. They looked at tobacco drying in the barn and hams being smoked in an open-air shack. They saw the kitchen and asked what plantation dwellers ate for dessert. (The answer? Probably pie, although no one is totally sure since this was not a population that recorded recipes.) They saw that the slave garden grew plants like okra and sweet potatoes while the plantation owner’s garden was full of herbs. And they learned that even though life on the plantation was unquestionably much harder than city life, the slaves there tended to escape much less often thanks to their lack of education and finer clothing that might enable them to pass for freed blacks.

Gourds in the slave quarters at Great Hopes Plantation Tobacco drying at Great Hopes Plantation Grinding corn at Great Hopes Plantation Kitchen at the Great Hopes Plantation We probably spent close to an hour roaming this small space, and it captured the boys’ imagination in a way that nothing else at Colonial Williamsburg did.

Teddy in costume at Colonial Williamsburg 2. Rent a costume. All of the interpreters at Williamsburg are in costume, and kids who like to play dress up can join in the fun as well. Daily costume rentals for children are available at the Visitor Center and at the small open-air market in the middle of town. Teddy was thrilled to wear his loose shirt and canvas bag and to carry a wooden rifle (hats are available for purchase).

Children who rent costumes are given a letter of introduction, inviting them to do various things around town. These include visiting the post office, learning the proper form of greeting (a “courtesy” for boys and a curtsey for girls),

Exchanging courtesies in Colonial Williamsburg planting turnip seeds in the colonial garden,

Planting turnips in the colonial garden at Williamsburg and in the case of boys, mustering at the magazine with the indomitable Sargeant Dawson whose barked orders and mock exasperation made for high comedy.

Mustering the troops at Colonial Williamsburg Presenting arms in Colonial Williamsburg Can you just hear him shouting “preeee-sent!”?

Idea board in the Kid's Corner at Colonial Williamsburg 3. Play some games at the Kids’ Corner. We took a break from the houses and museums at this small cabin where kids can play with colonial games and toys, write on slates, and explore exhibits designed to help them understand the objects and history they are looking at in all the other sites.

Exhibit about colonial life in the Kid's Corner, Williamsburg Playing games in the Kid's Corner at Colonial Williamsburg This is also a great place to get some ideas about what to do with kids as daily events are posted – the interpreters are more than happy to answer questions or offer suggestions.

Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg 4. Check out the Governor’s Palace. It’s hard to believe that this building is actually a 1930 recreation of the original, which burned to the ground in 1781. Built on the original foundation, it is a grand and impressive representation of the British monarchy’s wealth and might, and even if it failed to cow the colonists, it makes for a fun tour. The interpreter here pretends to be one of the maids working there on the day of a large ball hosted by Lord Dunmore, the last British governor. Tommy’s favorite was the bright blue ball room, although I think Teddy liked the entrance hall with its impressive display of weaponry.

Entrance Hall in the Governor's Palace at Colonial Williamsburg Kitchen at the Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg Hedge maze in Colonial Williamsburg The palace grounds include a working kitchen, an impressive stable, and a small hedge maze, which the boys really enjoyed.

Walking in the mud at the Colonial Williamsburg brickyard 5. Make bricks. Did you know that making bricks by hand involves stomping around in a big patch of muddy clay? Neither did I, but I can tell you that the boys loved helping to make the material smooth enough for use.

Washing up in the brickyard at Colonial Williamsburg

Once they had rinsed off their feet in a big barrel of water (word to the wise, they weren’t exactly clean when they were done) we moved on to seeing how the bricks were formed in molds. The boys then got to help carry the molds over to the drying area and turn the perfectly formed bricks out to sit in the sun, a task that would actually have been performed by children in the 18th century.

Molding bricks in Colonial Williamsburg Tommy carrying bricks in Colonial Williamsburg The bricks turned out perfectly! In the process, we learned a great deal about how bricks are made and fired, including the fact that variations in color are due to the bricks’ placement in the oven (those at the bottom nearer to the heat are darker; up near the top they are lighter and less durable, more suited for use indoors than out).

And brickmaking isn’t the only trade that kids can see in action at Colonial Williamsburg. Tommy watched in fascination while the blacksmith made nails and Teddy was offered a job at the wigmaker’s shop after he asked the mistress there questions about all of her tools. A scribe shows children how to use a quill pen at the post office and the cobbler hangs the shoes he makes in his window. There are gardeners, gunsmiths, cooks, printers, carpenters, barrelmakers, and bookmakers all demonstrating what they do and offering children the chance to ask questions and often to touch tools or help out. At the cabinetmaker’s shop, Tommy sat for 15 minutes and played his Bach recital pieces on an actual harpsichord that was built there.

Playing the harpsichord in Colonial Williamsburg Talk about hands-on history!

Williamsburg is a great weekend road trip from any number of Mid-Atlantic locations including Philadelphia; Washington, DC; and Raleigh. We drove there from Northern Delaware in just over five hours in the happy comfort of an MDX loaned to us for the trip by Acura, big believers in family road trips. They also covered all the expenses of our visit. I’ll be posting about Williamsburg all week – and as usual, you can count on me to express my own opinions or let you know if I got something for free.

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  1. says

    Such a great weekend full of learning and fun! We have been to Williamsburg several times but my kids were much younger so we didn’t do a lot of the hands-on activities. I am looking forward to taking them back there now that they are a little bit older!

  2. says

    We did #3 and #4 (mainly b/c it was air-conditioned!), but not the others, b/c it was SO hot the day we went! We hope to go again next month and fill in the blanks. We also enjoyed watching the Revolutionary City performances. Did you end up going on the ghost tour? How was it?

  3. says

    Traci – it does get hot there (although I think this weekend was less punishing than it can be in the mid-summer months). We missed the performances because of how our days played out, but I definitely want to go back and see them. We did go on the ghost tour – and it was fun – I’ll be writing more about that later.

  4. Sarah Wixted says

    If you visit during public school holidays like Thanksgiving weekend, Winter (Christmast) and Spring (Easter) breaks, and especially durring the summer months make sure you stop by the Benjamin Powell House.
    The Powell House is slightly off the beaten path locted behind the Capitol building, but it is just across the street from the Capitol bus stop.
    There children, as well as adults, truly experience “hands on history.” Our staff of interpreters are specially trained to lead school groups and work with children. At the Powell House you will experience a day in the life of a colonial family. Chores must be done, dinner cooked, and lessons studied all in a colonial manner. The activities at the Powell House change as the day goes on, keeping up with the daily schedule of a colonial family. Make sure you stop by for a truely unforgetable experience.

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