What do you know about Thomas Jefferson?
"He wrote the Declaration of Independence!" one boy answered.
"He was the third president!" answered another.
"He was a nice man," said 5-year-old Hannah, who added that, "I really don't know anything about Jefferson."
Forty minutes later, Hannah and the kids, after a special family tour of Monticello, Jefferson's mountaintop home and estate, they knew a lot more. (Monticello is spread over 5,000 acres in Charlottesville, Va., which is about two hours south of Washington, D.C. (a perfect add-on for a spring break trip!)
I wish some other historic sites would take a page from Monticello in how to engage kids. Before you visit, there are new online tools, including a virtual tour of the house, complete with 3-D models and details on who lived there and special family-friendly tours.
It is only fitting that the home of our third president and the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence is so kid friendly. Jefferson was very fond of his 12 grandchildren, many of whom lived here with him after his retirement.
"This is a house full of kids," explained the family guide, gesturing toward the South Square Room where Jefferson's daughters and grandkids might have had their lessons. The parlor is where Jefferson's family gathered to play games and musical instruments.
He had two surviving daughters with his wife Martha Jefferson and is believed to have fathered six children, four of whom survived to adulthood, with his slave Sally Hemings, who was also his wife's half-sister.
Confusing? Absolutely! But so was Jefferson's conviction of liberty from Britain for the colonists, but not for slaves. Think of the interesting conversations you will have with your kids as you visit Mulberry Row, the principal plantation street that was home to 100 slaves, including children (by age 10 they were working full time, the boys making nails from sun up to sun down; the girls might have been weaving cloth. "I didn't think I would like that," said 10-year-old Andrew Carrier.
The Mountaintop Project was begun last year to tell the stories of the people, both enslaved and free, who lived and worked here. Monticello is the only U.S. presidential and private home in the country recognized as a World Heritage site. Archaeologists have spent 50 years studying the landscape of slavery here, making this the best preserved and best studied plantation in North America.
The youngest visitors especially love the recreation of the slave quarters, said Rachel Baum, manager of children's programs at the Visitors Center. They "cook" with plastic vegetables and over a glowing "fire." Jefferson was such a foodie that he had his slave James Heming trained in Paris when Jefferson was serving there. Later, we see the kitchens and smoke rooms underneath the house. At Monticello, kids are invited to take "Travelin' TJ" -- a picture they can color in -- on their next adventure. Take a photo with Travelin' TJ and send it to education(at)monticello.org or tag it "Monticello for Teachers" on Facebook or on Twitter (hashtag)TJMonticello. (To see where else Travelin' TJ has been, visit him online at Monticello.org/travelintj.)
The kids visiting don't hesitate to design their own Monticello in the Griffin Discovery Room at the Monticello Visitor Center. They make a beeline for the table of blocks where they can build their own dream house -- just as Thomas Jefferson did -- and then lie down on a replica of his alcove bed (it seems so small!), try a polygraph machine, which Jefferson invented to make a duplicate of whatever letter he was writing (when you realize he wrote 19,000 letters in his lifetime, it's easy to see why he needed it.) Kids love the cipher wheel, another Jefferson invention for decoding secret messages.
At the Mountaintop Activity Center, kids try writing with a quill pen, play a colonial game, use an Orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system and look through the camera obscura, an optical device used in Jefferson's time to make silhouettes which, we learn, were very popular. This invention led to photography and the camera.
Check out the huge garden. Jefferson famously planted vegetables and fruits from around the world -- he grew 30 different kinds of peas. There are special garden tours and tours of the slave quarters, as well as special seasonal offerings.
"Do you collect anything?" our guide asks the kids on our tour -- Jefferson collected numerous things, everything from Mastodon bones to Native American feathers. She handed out something for each of the kids to hold:
-- A plush buffalo, as we look at a gorgeous painting on a buffalo skin.
-- An octagon mirror -- Jefferson loved octagons and made his retreat Poplar Forest an octagon. There is also an octagon room at Monticello.
-- The $2 bill -- the same painting depicted on it is hanging on Jefferson's wall.
It's amazing how such little touches can turn what might be a boring tour of an old house into an interactive, fun family experience.
We look at some tiny books and learn that after the British burned the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold the government his library to pay down his personal debts. His books became the basis for today's Library of Congress.
We look around Jefferson's study and bedchamber where he worked and where he died on July 4, 1826 -- exactly 50 years after Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and the same day his fellow founding father John Adams died in Quincy, Massachusetts. A pair of Jefferson's riding boots sit in the corner.
I'm impressed that the kids stay interested throughout the tour. "Very unusual," said Allison Gallup, here with her son and 5-year-old daughter.
"Super well done," agreed Chris Ryan, here with his wife and three sons from northern Virginia.
Who says history can't be fun? Thanks, Tom.
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.