In Minibury’s “Our Favorite Things” column, Faith Gong – Addison County resident, mother of four daughters, wife of one assistant professor, wrangler of 11 chickens, 6 ducks, and a dog, writer of the “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent and The Pickle Patch blog – shares some of her family’s favorite things. The goal is to highlight items or activities that are simple, inexpensive, local, and promote creativity. Faith receives no kickbacks, compensation, or thanks for any items mentioned here!
As I write this, there is exactly one week until students in the Addison Central School District begin the 2017-18 school year. In other words: CONGRATULATIONS! Assuming you’re still standing, you’re almost there; you’re just about to cross the “I survived summer” finish line!
I admit that this post is on the late side. After all, with a mere handful of days left, who needs advice on surviving summer anymore?
On the other hand, the last week of summer is often particularly challenging for families. Most camps are over, and the list of “summer things we still have to do” is bumping up against the back-to-school preparation list. Add to this a whole lot of transition-related emotion, lack-of-schedule exhaustion, and siblings who are getting on each other’s last nerves — and we could all use some survival tips!
This summer, I started a new tradition with my daughters: I scheduled one day for each of them, and planned a day trip for the two of us to take together. I tried to match these trips with each daughter’s current interests. It was a wonderful chance to get to spend one-on-one time with my children, and a reminder of how many fun places there are to explore within two hours of Middlebury.
So, if you’re looking to get out of town for a few hours over the next week, here are some of our new favorite places (and none of these is summer-specific — any one would make a fantastic school-year getaway):
- The Schuyler Mansion (Albany, NY. Driving time: 2.5 hours. Hour-long tour: $5 for me; children under 12 are free.)
This year, my eldest daughter discovered the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which only fed her pre-existing love of American history. Tickets to see Hamilton cost hundreds of dollars, and a trip to the historic Hamilton family home, The Grange, requires a drive to Manhattan. But it turns out that a Hamilton-related gem is available closer at hand: The Schuyler Mansion in Albany, which was the childhood home of Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (and her many fascinating siblings.) Early American luminaries including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, and Aaron Burr were guests at the house.
Once a grand estate surrounded by acres of farmland, the Schuyler Mansion is now just a big house in the middle of a city (and in a dodgy part of Albany, at that.) We went on a weekday, and were given a near-private tour of the house with another mother-child pair. The basic house tour was fascinating; other tours geared towards specific Schuyler family topics are available on certain days (check the website.)
Although the tour was only an hour, my daughter and I spent most of the day at the Schuyler Mansion. We browsed through the exhibit at the visitor’s center, and ate the lunch we’d packed in the garden surrounding the house. If you have a child who’s Hamilton- or history-obsessed, I’d strongly recommend paying a visit to the Schuyler Mansion.
2. The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium (St. Johnsbury, VT. Driving time: 2 hours. Admission: $9 adults, $7 children aged 5-17, children under 5 free. 30-minute planetarium shows $5/person)
Like many of you, I first heard of the Fairbanks Museum because the VPR “Eye on the Sky” forecast is broadcast from its premises. It turned out to the the perfect day trip for my daughter who loves animals and nature.
The Fairbanks Museum was the brainchild of Franklin Fairbanks, who inherited a large fortune from his family’s scale-manufacturing business. It’s an old-school natural history museum, filled with taxidermy (my daughter was bothered by this for about two seconds, until the woman at the front desk reassured her that many of the animals were found dead of natural causes), fossils, rocks and minerals, and random collections of artifacts from around the world. My daughter’s favorite display, which she returned to again and again to admire and photograph, were the stuffed Alaskan and Polar bears, which towered over us on their hind legs with teeth and claws bared. When we visited, there was also a hands-on engineering display, an active beehive, live “creepy crawly” insects, and a butterfly tent out back. (Also out back: a nice, grassy lawn with picnic tables where we ate the lunch we’d packed.)
The museum’s planetarium shows are definitely worth the additional cost. My daughter and I both learned a great deal about our night sky from the presentation, which was delivered by a knowledgable and hilarious narrator.
3. Petra Cliffs (South Burlington, VT. Driving time: 1 hour. Admission: Junior climbing & bouldering day pass for ages 12 and under, $13 plus $4 harness rental.)
My six-year-old daughter has always climbed everything — the higher the better. So for her “Mommy date” we decided to check out the Petra Cliffs indoor climbing center.
Petra Cliffs offers a large variety of programs for all ages. We opted for a junior day pass, which entitled my daughter to try bouldering (climbing on a climbing wall without a harness) and five autobelay walls (ascending a steeper, higher wall wearing a harness clipped to a rope that will automatically lower the climber to the ground when they let go of the wall.) For an additional fee, I could’ve been trained to belay her myself (to stand on the ground attached to the other end of her rope, in order to catch and lower her) which would’ve opened up more climbing walls, but between bouldering and the autobelays, my daughter was set for a good part of the day.
She loved it, and there’s nothing quite like seeing your six-year-old confidently scale a wall 20 feet above your head! We took a brief break for lunch (at Great Harvest Bread Company on Pine Street — one of our family’s favorites), and then my daughter asked to go right back to Petra Cliffs for more climbing.
4. Vermont Teddy Bear (Shelburne, VT. Driving time: 45 minutes. Free, aside from bear clothing!)
Earlier in the summer, a friend clued me in to the Vermont Cub Project: The Vermont Teddy Bear Company has decided that every four-year-old Vermonter should have their own teddy bear. For FREE. If you live in Vermont and have a four-year-old, all you have to do is sign up at this link. Then, visit their Shelburne store and your child can pick out any teddy bear with a value of $39.99, and it’s theirs to keep!
My friend and I took our four-year-olds to the Shelburne store one afternoon. After picking out the empty hides of their future teddy bears, a “bear technician” led them through the steps of: pumping the bear full of stuffing (after kissing, wishing on, and inserting a little red felt heart), naming their bear, and filling out a “bear”th certificate.
Here’s where they get you: The bear is free, but should you want to personalize your bear with any of the abundant accessories and outfits surrounding you in the Shelburne store, that’ll cost extra. (And your four-year-old will almost certainly want to personalize their bear. And you’ll feel inclined to give in because, hey, free bear!) It’s possible to find cute bear apparel for under $20, so it’s still a good deal. The entire experience was very sweet for our four-year-olds.
So, I’ll leave you here on the threshold of fall. I hope that your families have not only survived this summer, but that you’ve thrived. I hope that you’re sorry to see summer end, but looking forward to all of the joys that fall brings (fall is our entire family’s favorite season!) And I hope that some of these day trips will help your own family create special memories, whatever the season.