Education on Vacation

Where fun and learning collide in Los Angeles, California

What do you think of when you hear, “Spring Break?” If you’re a parent of young kids, your thoughts may be less along the lines of drinking and college parties, and more about bored kids at home playing video games while you figure out the logistics of what to do with them while you work. This time around, I decided to also take a break for a family vacation—with a twist.

We opted for the Los Angeles area to visit family, but also because these are my childhood stomping grounds. We’d go armed with a (flexible) itinerary filled with stops I remember visiting when I was around my kids’ ages. My children would have so much fun learning they wouldn’t know they were doing it—which is the very best way to learn. Insert sinister cackle here.

The drive out from Arizona was uneventful except for one thing—the wildflowers. We could see bursts of color going west from Indio all along the mountains. I tried to get a photo of it from one of our regular rest areas, but really couldn’t capture the majesty. I admired the flowers as they tapered off and the scenery of the concrete jungle took their place. My cue that we had arrived.

History is the pits

La Brea Tar Pits and Museum has been the field trip for SoCal kiddos for decades. It’s a rite of passage. Even my mom and aunts and uncles remember going when they were kids—but as far as I know, none of them has returned as an adult. Call me a trendsetter, but I break the cycle. And I’d initiate my AZ kids into the rite of passage in the process.

La Brea Tar Pits was a total nostalgia trip for me. I remembered the poor mastodon statues struggling to get out of the lake pits in front of the museum, the first displays in the lobby, and beyond—it was an exciting tour down memory lane. Being that it has been a quarter of a century, though, there were still a lot of things that I didn’t remember.

One was an interactive area where my kids fought with mastodon heads to see who would win in a fight with tusks. Actually, there were several interactive areas throughout the building. There’s even a section where you can see scientists doing their day-to-day cleaning fragments of bone to later analyze and scan, and another that covers an entire wall and goes through the birth of the universe up to today. I also hadn’t recalled the extent of displays of ancient creatures—it was vast.

Additionally I discovered the atrium—a place field trip groups don’t go. This beautiful atrium is in the middle of the museum, and proved to be a very peaceful sanctuary. We rested our legs and listened to the sound of the waterfall in the center of the atrium before we concluded our first stop.

Take a hike

L.A. isn’t called a “concrete jungle” for nothing. So, what to do when you need to get away from the city and enjoy a slice of nature, even if it’s only on your lunch break? Hopkins Wilderness Park in Redondo Beach has the answer.

This gorgeous little pocket of green served as an escape where I could earn badges when I was a Brownie in Girl Scouts. Seeing as though my daughter is now a Brownie herself, I thought it only fitting to bring her and her brother there to experience a little outdoor fun.

Hopkins sits on six acres, and feels even larger due to intertwining trails throughout the park. The scene is full of trees, bushes, logs, and accompanying wildlife. There’s a pond with colorful fish, ducks, and red-eared sliders (which, as I proudly taught the kiddos, is a type of turtle), barbecue areas for a day-camping experience, and an amphitheater for small performances. My kids loved climbing trees, running the paths, and traversing rocks.

Too school for cool

I put the California Science Center on our list, though it wasn’t a part of my childhood. It just looked too awesome to pass up.

In contrast, my son wasn’t enthused by the idea. He lamented about how he would rather go to the ice rink. Quote: “It’s just going to be, like, a spaceship and some rocks to look at or something.”

I was right. There was SO MUCH TO DO. Almost everything we saw inside was interactive in some way. Hands-on flight, hands-on architecture, hands-on nano-technology, hands-on biology, hands-on space—and so much more.

My son completely changed his tune once he saw all the things at the science center. As soon as he realized just how interactive everything in there was, he was totally into it—no more Mr. Cool. Oh, and that aforementioned spaceship? Don’t miss it—it’s Endeavor, a retired space shuttle that inspires imaginations to run rampant. And that’s the real magic of the California Science Center—making learning fun. Bonus fun for parents: admission to the permanent exhibits is free, and pricing for special exhibits and IMAX shows is very affordable. That’s my jam!

Physics on ice

This last location wasn’t so much about educating the kids as it was reliving an experience of my own. For my 10th birthday, my parents threw me a birthday party at the Promenade Ice Chalet with lunch at Ruby’s Diner. It was a purely fun thing to do after the kids endured what came to be called “Mom’s Museum Madness” (there were two; I’d hardly call it madness!).

Because we went early in the day, in the middle of the week, we lucked out and got the rink all to ourselves. It took about a year for my desert-born children to come off the wall and wander into the middle of the rink (maybe I’m exaggerating the time a bit). After a while, they gained their footing and started goofing off with a little more confidence in their strides. Unfortunately hunger struck both kids the very moment I started talking about physics. Oh, well. For lunch, we went to Ruby’s—an eatery with a view of the ice rink.

The food smelled delicious, and although I was tempted to try an Impossible Burger—a good vegetarian option—I went with a bacon burger. The kids and I relived our adventurous week, sharing fries and favorite moments.

It felt like the perfect wrap to our getaway. Though, there was one more thing on my wish list we didn’t get to—something that wasn’t here when I was a kid (but is way older than I am): the USS Iowa. A history lesson for another visit.

As for my takeaways?

  1. Learning happens naturally through experience.
  2. There’s no need to break the bank to show the kids a good time—even in Southern California.
  3. I’m the Ms. Frizzle of moms, and can find learning in anything.

Next Up: Anaheim for Families.