Cultural appreciation made easy

Kids: History and the arts can be enjoyable and interesting at Harford's many facilities aimed at children.

October 27, 2002|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As any adult knows, introducing children to cultural activities can be a challenge.

Most traditional museums aren't designed with kids in mind, inclined, as little ones are, to touch things and wander around. And taking them to a concert or the ballet in Baltimore or Washington can be prohibitively expensive and often boring for kids.

So how can adults foster a cultural and historical appreciation in ways that children enjoy?

Harford County offers some choices.

With its long and rich history, natural beauty, and fine cultural and educational institutions, including the Phoenix Festival Theatre, the Susquehanna Symphony and at least a dozen small museums, families have a wealth of options that expose kids to culture -- and still let them have fun.

"This is a family-oriented community," says Diane Molner, director of Discover Harford, the county's quasi-public tourism organization. "We cater to families ... and fortunately we have so much to offer them when it comes to history and culture."

A quick look at some of the local cultural institutions proves her point: Dozens of continuing or special cultural activities are aimed at children, and they cover a variety of interests.

Walking tours by A Tours of Havre de Grace highlight African-American history in the county, visiting former stops on the Underground Railroad. For those interested in maritime trade and history, the Martha Lewis, an authentic skipjack, is moored in Havre de Grace, welcoming visitors for educational cruises on the Chesapeake Bay and encouraging children to try their hands at the oyster tongs.

Steppingstone Museum in Havre de Grace, set in the midst of rolling meadows that invite exploration, teaches children about farm life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The museum is open every weekend, with artisans on hand to demonstrate crafts of the times and explain what it took to run a farm -- including children's labor.

"Kids learn about the roles and responsibilities of children at that time. They see that children had to work in the fields, or cook or chop wood. It gives them a sense of how fortunate they are today and how hard life was back then," says Linda Noll, Steppingstone's executive director.

To make the experience even more accessible, Steppingstone holds annual events, such as the Fall Harvest Festival, where children can participate in apple butter churning, pottery making, woodworking and other "chores."

At nearby Rock Run, a historic mill in Susquehanna State Park, weekend visitors during warm weather months can watch cornmeal being ground as it was hundreds of years ago and can take the end product home with them.

Situated on the banks of the Susquehanna, the mill is the perfect starting point for a hike on one of the many park trails, including a beautiful greenway path along the river. Visitors often spot osprey or bald eagles and occasionally find arrowheads and other vestiges of the Susquehannock Indians, who lived in the area for centuries, well before Europeans such as Capt. John Smith sailed up the Susquehanna in the 1600s.

In the western end of the county, in the middle of Gunpowder State Park, visitors can tour Jerusalem Mill, a small Colonial village dating to 1772. Every Sunday, the mill offers blacksmithing demonstrations, museum tours and the opportunity to walk around an open-air village that is being restored.

Knowledgeable volunteers from the Friends of Jerusalem Mill explain the mill's history and plans for the restoration of several outbuildings. Also in the park is Jericho Bridge, one of five covered bridges in Maryland. The half-mile walk from Jerusalem Mill to the bridge is one of many trails in Gunpowder State Park that are suited for children.

During Jerusalem Mill's annual Colonial Craft Days, gun-smithing, leather-working and cooking demonstrations are given. Cooking is done over an open fire -- last year, venison was the featured delicacy.

"The activities [for children] that we offer here are enjoyable enough that the educational part is subliminal," Chris Scovill, Jerusalem Mill's curator, says. "They're learning but still leave saying it was an interesting experience."

At Havre de Grace's Decoy Museum and neighboring Maritime Museum, the staffs are also attuned to the interests of children, playing host to hands-on activities and events for kids. This year for the first time, the Decoy Museum is hiring a full-time educator.

"Kids are our future. We have to get them interested in museums and culture so they'll appreciate and support cultural organizations when they're adults," Executive Director Debra Tence says. She notes that the museum's programming is increasingly geared toward children and families, building on popular activities such as decoy carving in summer classes for children 12 and older.

Music and other arts in Harford County are also diverse, affordable and accessible to children.

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