by Karen Koch

I chuckled while watching Pixar’s Wall-E with my kids the other day when the captain and other characters said incredulously, “I didn’t know we had a pool” and “We have a jogging track?” Apparently they had lived on the spaceship Axiom so long they had ceased to see what was literally before their eyes.

Sometimes the best surprises are in our own backyards. Summer is a great time to “discover” your hometown or surrounding areas for gems you may not have had time to explore during highly scheduled school weeks. In times of economic downturn this can make for less expensive field trips, as well, a “stay-cation” of sorts.

During the school year, I tend to drive in “ruts” to piano lessons, church, 4-H activities, AWANA, guitar lessons, and my husband’s workplace. Summer, with its change of pace, frees us to wander down some different paths and explore other trails.

Hometown Website

Start with your hometown or county websites, if they have one, your local Visitor’s Bureau, and the public library. Visitor Bureau staff and librarians are great resources. Even a history book of your hometown or county can yield some interesting information including historic walking tours or little-known sites of interest.

A small sampling of our small town’s website yielded possibilities of a riverboat cruise through the marsh, a free monthly blacksmithing demonstration, numerous orchards, an iris farm that give tours (albeit in spring, so we’ll have to go next year), farmer’s markets, and a free factory tour at Jelly Belly.

Our local theater is also hosting several free showings of Romeo and Juliet on the waterfront in August. My oldest is scheduled to read it next year, so I’m having him read it early before we attend the show.

Even a small town (our population is 25,000) has interesting and unusual sites. We visited a local marsh animal rescue center open house we saw in a flier at the library. We saw a few birds of prey and a fox being nurtured back to health.

Don’t Forget the Yellow Pages and Newspaper

After seeing what your hometown’s or county’s website offers, peruse your local Yellow Pages with your family. Most phone directories have maps and sections on area attractions. Start with parks, theaters, museums, tourism and such. You can get the kids in on the brainstorming as well, depending on their interests. Many towns have magazines or free fliers that list local events. It won’t hurt any that the kids are learning research skills and categorizing while they search. Your hometown’s newspaper, if you subscribe, is a great resource and may have an online presence as well.

Many museums are low cost or provide free days on occasion. Check your phone book or the Internet for museums available in your area. We visited the free Travis Air Museum and Western Railway Museum near Rio Vista (fee applies). We hope to visit the de Young Museum, in San Francisco this summer to view impressionist pieces from Paris’ Musée d’Orsay.

Tour des Libraries

I love libraries, so the kids and I hope to do a Tour des Libraries around our county this summer. Each has its own summer programs and events, often free, including our home library, where all four kids are signed up for the summer reading program. Used book stores are also treasure troves. Let every child explore and pick out a low-cost book.

For no-cost field trips, visit all the public parks in your town or try out biking paths. Your own backyard could become a campsite or garden spot as well. Let the kids set up camp or pick out plants at the local nursery to place in your garden. (A good nursery is a great field trip in its own right). My 7-year-old daughter cares well for “her” plants.

We Have Hiking Trails?

For more outdoorsy adventures, check out hiking trails in your county or nearby areas. We lived in Napa for five years before we discovered most of the local hiking spots, including one with an archery range. Throw in some horticulture or animal lessons (without the kids knowing it), and bring a picnic lunch. One local hiking spot in our county offers occasional Native American culture informational hikes as well.

The Christian Home Educators Association (CHEA) offers a guide to field trips Fun and Educational Places To Go With Kids, by Susan Peterson (primarily Southern California).

Discover or re-discover your home turf this summer. You may be pleasantly surprised.