Best American Landmarks to Visit with Kids: Jamestown & Williamsburg, Virginia

America’s historic 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.

Virginia is known for its rich history and its citizens’ participation in many pivotal moments in the story of the formation of the United States of America. One of the most well-known historic areas in Virginia is the Historic Triangle surrounding Williamsburg, Virginia, which includes the English settlement at Jamestown, the colonial capital of America at Williamsburg, and the battlefield at Yorktown. All three of these historical sites contain buildings from the time period, as well as extensive museums containing artifacts found by archaeologists at each location. More than 400 years of history can be found in Williamsburg museums and landmarks.

The most popular, and most advertised, of the three locations is the colonial city of Williamsburg. Founded in 1632 by English colonists, Williamsburg served as the capital of Virginia for the early British colony, and it would remain the capital until 1780. Many of the landmarks and buildings from the late 17th century are still in use today and can be toured. Like many of the sites in the Historic Triangle, Williamsburg is filled with costumed interpreters dressed as people from that time period would have dressed. Interacting with these historical guides is a great way for kids to actively learn about life in the early days of American history.

Like Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown is what is known as a “living museum,” where interpreters are dressed in clothes from the period, and visitors walking through the outdoor museum feel like they’re stepping back in time. Jamestown was founded by English colonists in 1607, the same colonists that would later found the city of Williamsburg. It was also the first permanent English settlement in the New World. There are full-scale recreations of the early defensive fort at Jamestown, three sailing ships, and a Powhatan Native American village. It’s a very hands-on experience with many of the interpreters offering activities in which children may participate.

Yorktown Battlefield is the final landmark in the Historic Triangle. Yorktown is the battlefield where American soldiers, under the command of George Washington, finally forced the surrender of the British on October 19, 1781, thus ending the Revolutionary War. Visitors are able to walk the battlefield themselves, with many historic markers explaining what happened on the very ground they’re standing. There is a museum and a few guides like the previous locations, but much of the emphasis is on the battleground itself. If you’re looking for a place to get out into nature to wind down a busy trip, this is the perfect spot.

Locations to visit:

The Governor’s Palace, residence of the English governor of Virginia.

The Capitol Building, the seat of government power in Williamsburg.

The Ships at Jamestown, the three vessels that carried English settlers across the Atlantic Ocean to Virginia on a grueling five-month voyage.

James Fort, the outpost and military fort founded by the early English settlers.

Powhatan Indian Village, a recreation of what an Indian settlement would have looked like within Powhatan Confederacy.

Continental Army Encampment at Yorktown, a recreation of a soldier’s camp during the Revolutionary War.

Activities for Kids

The museum at Jamestown offers printable guides for children to use as they tour the museum. It asks them to seek out and find some of the more interesting exhibits and answer questions about each one. Designed like a treasure map, it encourages kids to follow in the footsteps of the early settlers.

Colonial Williamsburg offers an interactive website where kids can participate in activities, learn about life in colonial times, and study many of the famous people who visited the city. The activities are geared to all age groups, and are also a great way for kids to learn about Williamsburg prior to a visit or to review what they learned while there.

Related Children’s Books

George Washington’s Rules to Live By – written by George Washington himself and passed down over the years, this book contains guides on things like citizenship and integrity explained through fun cartoons.

Hogsheads to Blockheads: The Kids’ Guide to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area – a great guide for kids to use to help their parents plan their visit. It includes all of the great activities and exhibits made just for kids.

Captain John Smith’s Big and Beautiful Bay – this book tells the story of the first voyage to America, and the trials early settlers faced in founding the colony at Jamestown.

My America: Our Strange New Land – a novel told from the perspective of a young girl as her family settles in early America.

Discussion Questions:

Before the visit:

  • Have you learned anything in school about Colonial Williamsburg or Jamestown?
  • Why might the English want to create a colony in America?
  • How did the American Revolution start?

After the visit:

  •  What was the best thing you got to do or see in the museums?
  • How do you think our life now compares to life back then?
  • What did you learn about the early colonists?
  • What can you take back and apply to school/homework?
  • What’s something that you want to learn more about?

Educational Sites Nearby:

Nauticus – A science museum related to ships and boats of all kinds located in Norfolk, Virginia. If your child is particularly curious about the ships at Jamestown, Nauticus is a great way to learn about more types of maritime vessels.

The Virginia Living Museum – Located in Newport News, Virginia, the Living Museum offers exhibits on wildlife from Virginia and beyond. The museum offers tours, during which kids can get up close and personal with animals, and learn about their habitat and lifestyle. Great for kids who are into science, biology, or nature.

The Virginia Air and Space Center – This museum in Hampton, Virginia, offers a look at the 100-year history of flight and spaceflight in Virginia. Kids can walk up and touch aircraft and rockets from around the world.

The Virginia Aquarium – The Virginia Aquarium offers indoor and outdoor tours of its many exhibits. It also offers lots of hands-on science activities for kids to learn more about wildlife in the oceans and the Chesapeake Bay. The aquarium is located in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Fun Fact: The Wren Building at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, built in 1695, is the oldest college building in America. Sorry, Harvard!

Image Source – Joe Ross / CC by 2.0

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