Like most students, Aaron had his first Florida history lesson in a schoolhouse. Thing is, inside this particular schoolhouse, the teacher, a strict schoolmaster, sentenced unruly students to the dungeon. A dunce, complete with requisite conehead hat, sat in the corner.
Talk about your "old school!" Oldest school, actually: Did I mention, this all took place at America's Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse
, built circa 1763, in St. Augustine's Old City? My son, Aaron, a pre-schooler at the time, didn't have to learn about colonial education from a textbook. He saw it unfold before his eyes, via robotic figures, writing slates and a school bell he could ring. He wasn’t even aware he had learned anything until he received his parchment diploma at the school-themed gift shop next door.
St. Augustine, where history is never past tense, is like that. No dry dissertation here. History breathes and lessons entertain. Kids can ride a delightful miniature sightseeing train around this city right out of a time capsule. Sturdy stone and stucco buildings with peaked gables, balconies and Renaissance arches line cobbled streets, where Victorian ladies stroll in the company of corseted Spanish maidens, tricorn-hatted pirates and British soldiers. You’ll see them carrying on like that every day, as if they don’t realize the calendar reads 2011. For a real show, try to hit one of the city’s many historic festivals and re-enactments.
At Colonial Spanish Quarter
, on any given day, kids can watch a blacksmith hammering tools, a soldier's wife picking herbs or cooking stew, candlestick makers, fishing-net knotters and a variety of other re-enactors busy at their crafts. The yarn spinner might enlist your children to help with spooling, making them feel all the more part of the world of 1740.
After your visit, slip down a nearby alley to The Spanish Bakery
, where they can taste the past in cookies made from heirloom recipes of the era, in flavors of almond, lemon and cinnamon. For more live – and lively – re-enactments, head to the city's most enduring and imposing structure, Castillo de San Marcos
, a fort started in 1672 to keep out pirates and other marauders. On weekends and holidays, soldiers in 18th-century Spanish uniform fire ceremonial muskets or the fort’s impressive old cannons.
Another fun place for a history lesson, Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth
archeological park has as its centerpiece the original cross the famed conquistador’s men formed from stone in 1513 to claim "La Florida" for Spain. A Timucuan Indian burial mound and related exhibits step back to the civilization that predated the Spanish, plus there are animals, a planetarium and trails. You can even have a sip from the fountain of youth.
When Aaron was in pre-school, he was fascinated by cemeteries, so St. Augustine provided endless intrigue with its historic (and reportedly haunted) grave sites.
Children ages 7 and older (and at least 4 feet tall) can reach new heights of historic learnedness at the St. Augustine Lighthouse
, built in 1886 and 219 steps tall. Its museum tells the story of the tower – the town’s oldest brick structure – offshore shipwrecks and other local maritime lore. The park surrounding it makes a nice waterside spot for family picnics after a visit.
St. Augustine is known for its "oldest" superlatives, and even its zoo is historic. Opened in 1893 as the St. Augustine Alligator Farm
, the oldest of its kind, it has grown into a menagerie of crocodilians (containing the world's only collection of every species), plus monkeys, birds, snakes and more. The daily wildlife shows sneakily educate kids about 'gators and other reptiles.
It's difficult not to learn and be affected by history in St. Augustine, where the past enfolds you and sweeps you up into the foreign territory of time gone by. For families, it's more than just a travel destination, it's a travel dimension.