While I actively support getting families outside just for the fun of it and to be in Nature, I am also an avid proponent of exploring with our eyes open for ALL the many stories that are there for the listening that tell the history of the rocks, rivers, and of course the biological communities including our fellow humans past and present. I believe in treating everything as a story: geology; ecology; natural history; human history; climate; and musical and folklore traditions. Each one of this disciplines can make us smarter about the place in which we live. One such thread of exploration that I find personally intriguing and which is of interest to children, is asking 'how did they do/make that back in those days?' and looking for sites with interpretive materials that help answer this type of question and challenge us to look further.
My wife and I just returned from a marvelous visit to the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA. It is without doubt one of the most wonderful, odd and valuable museums I have ever visited. Housed in a cast concrete castle/mansion built specifically to house Mr. Mercer's huge collection of tools, artifacts, and household items relating to the many trades and crafts of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, this museum includes everything from Cigar Store figures and cast iron stove backs to the tools of the clockmaker and tinsmith to a whale boat and a hearse on sleigh runners. You are never likely to find a more comprehensive collection of pre-industrial artifacts in the USA or one more oddly displayed (hung from the roof, hung from the walls, displayed in niches and small rooms). This museum is child friendly and a must see for anyone even remotely interested in the colorful past of the US and the trades who made it strong before the on set of the Industrial Revolution in the mid to late 1800's. Stop by the Bucks County Historical Society home page at http://www.mercermuseum.org/ to learn more.
Two other museums that will help flesh out the story of how people lived, worked, and created household items in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Mid-Atlantic region are the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV) in Winchester, VA and the Frontier Culture Museum, in Staunton, VA.
The MSV does a first class job of interpreting how the Shenandoah Valley was settled first by Native Americans about 15,000 years ago and how they were then displaced by the influx of European settlers starting in the 18th century. The MSV uses a wide variety of period artifacts and household items to describe what settlers brought with them, how they lived, and how the made their livelihoods. With many of the German settlers coming into the Valley from Pennsylvania, there is much commonality between the items displayed at the Mercer Museum and those displayed at the MSV. I have special salute to the MSV on my web site at http://bayhistory.net/site/node/37 and you can go to the MSV's home page at http://www.shenandoahmuseum.org/index.php. ;
To see costumed interpreters living, cooking, weaving, and working in actual period houses, barns and outbuildings moved to the US from Europe and using the tools, carts, wagons and household items displayed at the Mercer Museum and the MSV, go to the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA. This provides the hands-on, seeing things in use, experience that is a perfect compliment to the static displays at the other two museums and is a sure way to get all but the most stubborn of children happily engaged in learning about life styles before 1860 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Go the the museum's home page at http://www.frontiermuseum.org/ to learn more about what is available at this extraordinary outdoor, living history museum.
On the home front, I also want to put in a good word for Loudoun County's own Heritage Farm Museum (http://www.heritagefarmmuseum.org/) where families can learn about life in what used to be like in one of the richest agricultural counties in the US. With activities that will engage and amuse both small children and their parents/adults, this museum tells the stories of the families who lived and worked in this county where there used to be over 600 dairy farms (now there are McMansions everywhere and only one dairy farm left) and puts a personal face on the county's history which makes it both relevant and accessible to all who visit.
So these are my suggestions for getting out and learning not only about how our ancestors did things but how they changed (for better and worse) the places they lived and the long term consequences of these changes. Everything is a story if you are willing to listen and it the story gets you outside and off the couch, so much the better!!