America’s historic and natural landmarks may not be as ancient as those found in other parts of the world, but their more recent origins add a tangible quality that may inspire a child’s learning. Whether seeing firsthand the documents our nation was built on, or gazing in awe at the beauty found in our national parks, visits to these places are an opportunity for memorable family bonding and can bring history to life for a powerful learning experience. This series includes tips and educational resources for visiting some of the most amazing landmarks our country has to offer with your kids. Some may be in your back yard, while others require a longer trip, but all are well worth a visit.
One of the joys of living in Charlottesville, Virginia is being immersed in Thomas Jefferson’s enduring legacy. Considered one of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as our nation’s third president, and created the University of Virginia. He was a giant among men whose diverse knowledge and talents encompassed politics, law, philosophy, science, history, horticulture, international relations, viticulture, and more. Jefferson spoke several languages, and his clever ingenuity led him to become an accomplished inventor. Jefferson’s ideals left a lasting imprint on our country and a huge footprint in Albemarle County, where he was born and raised.
Some scholars claim that Jefferson’s greatest contributions were in architecture, and once you have visited his home, Monticello, you never forget it. Monticello, or little mountain in Italian, is referred to as his “autobiographical masterpiece.” Jefferson spent 40 years developing and refining this beautiful dwelling. The stately plantation home with 43 rooms is a living showcase where many of his inventions are on display. Among my favorites are his macaroni machine, a polygraph to copy handwritten letters, mechanical “dumbwaiters” for moving wine up from cellars to the main floor, an adjustable book stand that revolves, and the Great Clock that tells the time and day of the week.
No reference to Jefferson’s accomplishments would be complete without describing his efforts dedicated to farming. Believe it or not, he grew more than 330 different types of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit, including apples, peaches, and grapes. The colorful landscape around his home is alive and well today, and research continues so that we can learn more about Jefferson’s botanic laboratory.
No matter how many times I’ve taken family and friends to Monticello in any season, each visit is delightful and enlightening. Jefferson achieved his dream, designing and building an exquisite architectural gem for all ages and for all time.
Activities to include in a visit to Monticello
- Plan your visit in advance to take advantage of the learning opportunities.
- Begin at the visitor center to see an introductory film and view the exhibits.
- This site offers helpful tips for visiting Monticello with children and what to do before and after.
- Experience first-hand the amazing gardens near the house and on the plantation.
- Stroll through Mulberry Row to learn more about how slaves lived at this time.
Educational resources and activities
- Take a virtual visit to see interior and exterior views of Jefferson’s house and gardens.
- Discover how Jefferson spent his waking hours on a typical day at the plantation.
- Don’t miss the impressive gardens, where Jefferson experimented with ornamental and edible plants.
- Experience an interactive map, 3D displays of the home, and more.
- Find out about what slaves did and what their lives were like at Monticello.
Related children’s books
- Thomas Jefferson: A Day at Monticello by Elizabeth Chew (2014). For grades 3–6.
- Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman (2014). For grades K–3.
- Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography by James Cross Giblin; illustrated by Michael Dooling (1994). For grades 3–5.
- Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? by Jean Fritz; pictures by Tomie dePaola (1977). For grades 4–6.
Before your visit, discuss the following:
- Have you ever dreamed of designing and building your own house? Where would you build it? What would it look like?
- For your dream home, what building materials would you use? Explain why you would choose those materials.
- Why do you think Jefferson built his home on a mountaintop?
- What would you want visitors to remember most about your home? Which features would you want to stand out?
After your visit, ask these questions to your young learners for further discussion:
- What part of Jefferson’s home made the biggest impression on you? Why?
- Do you think this home would have the same appeal without the plantation gardens? Why or why not?
- Why preserve the homes of our country’s leaders? What do we gain by visiting these homes?
- If you could write a note to Thomas Jefferson after visiting Monticello, what would you say to him?
- The first dome ever placed on an American house is at Monticello. The glass in the dome was imported from Austria.
- The Monticello entrance hall contains many Native American artifacts and maps collected during the Lewis and Clark expedition across the country in 1804–1805. This is one of our first museums.
- The plantation surrounding Monticello covers more than 5,000 acres of land.
- Jefferson’s gardens include agricultural traditions from England, France, Spain, the Mediterranean, West Africa, and the Caribbean.
- Jefferson was a champion of liberty, but he owned 130 slaves.
- Monticello is the only American home included on the United Nations World Heritage List.
Cool sites nearby
- The University of Virginia is a world class university in a beautiful setting. The UVA rotunda is a marvelous example of fine architecture.
- Ashlawn-Highland, home of James Monroe who was the fifth president of the United States, is just minutes away from Monticello. You can enjoy a virtual tour of the home and grounds.
- To sample food of the 18th century or take a walk on a wooded footpath to Monticello, stop at historic Michie Tavern.
After experiencing Monticello, you may want to visit Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. Commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and our nation’s first president, Washington was a native son of Virginia who inherited the family estate in Alexandria, Virginia. Washington’s father built a small farmhouse there in 1735, but George Washington expanded this modest home into an impressive 21-room mansion over the next 45 years.
The Mount Vernon plantation covers more than 3,000 acres and includes Pioneer Farm, an area dedicated to research about farming. Be sure to visit the 16-sided barn on the site and check out live demonstrations of 18th century agricultural practices. Washington planned the beautiful gardens around Mount Vernon, drawing upon British landscape design and a “naturalistic” approach. One special feature of the house is the two-story piazza facing the water, offering a panoramic view of the Potomac River.
If you are too far away to visit, take advantage of a virtual tour to appreciate the timeless majesty of Washington’s residence. Mount Vernon is a tribute to his wide-ranging interests, multi-faceted talents, and inspirational leadership.