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Taking the Kids

Living History Lesson in Williamsburg

June 16, 1996|EILEEN OGINTZ

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — We bumped into George Washington in the hallway at the Capitol. He was taking a quiet break from the card playing, dancing and social intrigue at the ball. He couldn't have been nicer.

He missed Martha and the rest of his family at Mount Vernon, he confided to my 10-year-old daughter, Reggie. "Do you know that's a nine-day trip from here?" She was amazed, whispering that it had taken us just a few hours to drive that same 140-mile stretch.

But we're back in the 18th century now, I reminded her, even before the American Revolution, when Virginia was a wealthy colony and George Washington a wealthy farmer and representative to the House of Burgesses of the Colonial legislature.

No highways or cars here. No blue jeans, television or computers. Though a thoroughly modern kid who surfs the Web with the best of them, Reggie loved the concept. "Like a time machine," she decided as we mingled with the ball-goers.

I think she also loved the fact that we'd made this a rare mother-daughter getaway, leaving her annoying older brother and equally bothersome younger sister behind with Dad. We'd come to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, about a three-hour drive south of Washington, with a friend of mine and her daughter. We wandered the picturesque streets together, stopping to watch the wig maker comb tresses and the silversmith hammer metal.

At least a third of Williamsburg's nearly 1 million visitors each year are families with children. Judging by the masses of school groups and parents we saw from as far away as California and Texas, it's clear parents and teachers alike are seeking experiences that will encourage the kids to focus on the past . . . for a few hours, anyway.

It's not a bad idea. A federal Department of Education report documented what too many teachers know: Our kids are woefully ignorant of American history. Two-thirds of 12th-graders didn't even demonstrate basic knowledge of the subject, according to the 1994 U.S. History Report Card, released late last year.

Reggie's understanding of history improved on this trip as she witnessed how children her age lived in what was the capital of England's richest and most populous colony. That task was made easier by a new tour program, Felicity in Williamsburg: An American Girls Tour. It is aimed at girls Reggie's age and developed in partnership with the Wisconsin-based Pleasant Co., a historical doll manufacturer and book publisher founded by a former teacher.

Anyone raising a preteen girl has probably heard of the American Girl dolls that represent different eras of American history and are accompanied by a series of historically detailed story books about their fictional lives.

The tour is not cheap. It costs $25 on top of admission to Williamsburg. That's $33 per adult and $19 for children 6-12. Younger children are free. The tour is offered daily through the summer and on weekends thereafter. Packages are available that include accommodations and some meals. Call (800) HISTORY.

Throughout the day, we talked a lot about whether we would have been Loyalists, siding with England and King George III, or the Patriots agitating for independence. Patriots, we decided. Even drinking tea in those days was a political statement. The Patriots refused to drink or sell tea as a protest against English taxes.

That didn't stop us from going to a tea party and a dancing lesson given by the very proper Miss Manderly, however, just as girls would have in 1774.

We practiced our courtesies and stitched a pin cushion. Try making 20 stitches to the inch. I couldn't do it. But Reggie came close. And on Mother's Day she handed me a neatly stitched cushion filled with sachet bought in Williamsburg.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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