My husband, Brian, and I like supplementing our kids’ classroom time with learning vacations. We discovered a new favorite destination for “studying” after visiting Sevierville, TN.
Word of the day: “edu-tainment”
Combine music, science, and art classes with P.E. and you still don’t come close to capturing the learning potential at WonderWorks. This amusement park of sorts (it’s housed in an “upside-down laboratory”) was our first stop in Sevier County. Excited, we got there as soon as it opened.
Exhibit after exhibit caught our eyes and competed for our attention. Nine-year-old Allie was first in line for the earthquake simulator while her 11-year-old brother, James, jumped at the chance to lie down on a bed of nails. It was hard to believe we were in the middle of Eastern Tennessee when we were surrounded by so many extraordinary experiences: from trying on an astronaut suit to walking through an inversion tunnel and even experimenting with 3D facial recognition.
WonderWorks taught the kids how things like hurricanes and gears work, and got them excited about the future, especially space exploration. But there was also plenty of exhilarating fun to be had in the present. Between the 360° bikes, the glow-in-the-dark ropes course and the laser tag arena, we easily surpassed our laugh quota for the day.
A classroom without walls
“Yesterday was so much fun, but how amazing is this fresh air?” Brian asked the next morning. After a hearty breakfast of waffles, we had left our hotel in downtown Sevierville and headed to its beautiful backyard, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Like WonderWorks, it’s a popular Sevierville-area attraction.
“Allie, ready to be a Junior Ranger?” James asked. The kids had learned about the centennial of the National Park Service in school and were intent on earning their Junior Ranger badges in this 100th year so they could brag to their peers.
Junior Ranger checklists in hand, we set off on a family-friendly hike that took us through plenty of flora and fauna for the kids to identify. After speaking with a park ranger they met along the trail, the kids informed us the wildflowers here bloom year-round but peak in these spring months. “So do the waterfalls,” said Brian. He was the unofficial family photographer, and it wasn’t far into our hike before he had set up his tripod and posed us next to a waterfall—thus checking next year’s Christmas card photo off his to-do list.
The theme of the day must have been forests because later that afternoon we found ourselves in another Sevierville-area forest. Except this one was much different from the ecosystem we had encountered in the Smokies.
“Look, it’s a parrot!” cried Allie loudly enough that the equally curious bird in the cage turned its head and stared at us. “Technically, it’s a Blue and Gold Macaw,” I corrected her. I’m no wildlife biologist, but I do know my birds and was just as excited as the kids to be here at Rainforest Adventures. This intimate discovery zoo is focused on conservation and home to an impressive collection of exotic amphibians, reptiles, and my personal favorite, mammals.
“If I make honor roll again, can I have a pet Kinkajou instead of a puppy?” James inquired while admiring the agility of the monkey-like African animal. I laughed and reminded him that he had just learned about conservation and keeping wild animals wild while at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “I was kidding!” He half-heartedly insisted before following his father to the Red-Footed Tortoise exhibit.
A Red-Footed Tortoise in Eastern Tennessee? Why not? After all, we had seen far stranger things at WonderWorks.
History lesson from someone who lived it
“Hey mom, what’s a veteran?” Allie asked Brian and me the next day. We were ending our family vacation at the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, and without too much effort, we had grown the kids’ vocabulary by leaps and bounds in the past few days. “I think you should ask him,” I answered, gesturing toward a museum employee who, wearing a hat decorated with service ribbons, looked like he had been in the Air Force.
Within 10 minutes, we were getting a private tour of the massive hangar from said Air Force veteran. Enthusiastically, he walked us through the historical significance of the retired fighter planes and the restored artifacts on display. My history buff husband looked like he had won the lottery. His eagerness to learn more was reflected in the eyes of our children who seemed to soak up many of the old timer’s flight stories and airplane facts with the same insatiable hunger.
The drive home from Sevierville offered plenty of time to reflect on our trip. Brian and I both knew we would have plenty of family dinner conversation topics for the coming weeks. Shortly after we had settled back into our normal routine—the kids at school, and Brian and me at our offices—I came across a quote that pretty much summed up our educational experiences in Sevierville.
“What we learn with pleasure we never forget.” – Alfred Mercier
Bring your family to edutainment in Sevierville.