A Homeschooler’s Guide to Charlottesville: Monticello

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Welcome to my new series, “A Homeschooler’s Guide to Charlottesville!” We have been homeschooling in the Charlottesville area for nine years now, so I have collected a great list of field trips and activities that I would like to share with you. Each post will explore a different homeschooling treasure in the Charlottesville and Central Virginia area. These posts are meant to be used both by local families and by homeschooling families visiting Charlottesville. At the end, I will accumulate all of the posts in an e-book that I will offer for sale on Amazon (for those of you who like to have all of the information in one easy-to-use resource). Charlottesville is exploding with history, art, music, food, nature and sports, and is an amazing place to live and visit, especially for homeschoolers.

I would like to start the series off with an obvious favorite, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. If you are thinking, “Been there, done that,” I urge you to think again. There is a lot more to Monticello than the house tour. You could spend a week just doing the free and low-cost activities in and around Monticello without ever purchasing a house pass.

Visitor Center

Your first stop when arriving at Monticello is the Visitor Center. Sometimes I bring my kids just to the Visitor Center for the afternoon because most of the activities there are FREE! There is a kids’ hands-on activity room, the Griffin Discovery Room, on the bottom level that is free to visit. The kids can spend hours here exploring with reproductions of the house and plantation. They can write with Jefferson’s polygraph machine, try on period clothing, create secret codes with a wheel cipher, play 18th-century games, learn how to weave and more.

The Visitor Center also has free exhibitions related to Thomas Jefferson and Monticello. As of the fall of 2018, these exhibitions include a wall of 21 LCD screens illustrating the development of Jefferson’s ideas of liberty; Jefferson’s use of Monticello as a laboratory to investigate ways to make life more efficient and convenient; and the architecture of Monticello.

Don’t forget to check out the free 15-minute introductory movie, Thomas Jefferson’s World, about his ideas and his accomplishments and the role that Monticello played in the developments of these.

You can also purchase great homeschooler-friendly merchandise at the huge gift shop, which has tons of books, plants grown by the Monticello nursery, seeds from the same types of plants that TJ grew, and more. This is one of my favorite places to buy gifts from friends and family. The Visitor Center also has a nice cafe with decent food, including made-to-order items. The cafe also often has fruits and vegetables picked straight from the Monticello gardens. Sometimes my kids and I will walk the Kemper Park trail, end at the Visitor Center, have a snack at the cafe and then head back down the trail (see more below about the trails). There is also a place to get snacks and drinks on the actual grounds of Monticello.

House Tour

Enjoying historic games on the grounds in front of the house

If you have not done the house tour, I recommend it. The house tour is not just about looking at old furniture. You can also see Jefferson’s collection from Lewis and Clark’s expedition and several of his inventions. But if you are visiting with children, try the 40-minute family friendly tour. It is designed for kids ages 5-11 and includes hands-on opportunities. If you do the regular house tour, they may ask you to leave if your kids get too out of control so this is a better option for active kids. You need to buy timed tickets so definitely purchase in advance if you are on a tight schedule or going on a busy day.

Gardens and Grounds Tours

Catching tadpoles in the fish pond.

For those of you who have no interest in house tours (my kids fall into that group) or have done it before, you can explore the beautiful flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens and wander through the fantastic arboretum on Monticello’s grounds. The best time to visit the grounds is late spring through fall, but winter also gives you amazing views of the surrounding area. Gardens and grounds tours are offered just about every hour from April through October.  They last about 45 minutes and no reservations are required. This tour is included in the cost of your pass.

In addition to the gardens, you can see the slave quarters, the fish pond where fish were kept fresh before cooking, ongoing archaeological digs, and the Monticello Graveyard where TJ himself is buried.

Slavery and Hemings Family Tours

Also included in the cost of your Monticello pass is the Slavery Tour. This 45-minute outdoor tour looks into the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked at Monticello. You can download the Slavery at Monticello app to use while you walk along Mulberry Row and explore the recreated buildings.

If you have teenagers, consider the Hemings Family Tour. This 1 hour, 45 minute small group tour explores Monticello through stories about the Hemings family, one of the best documented enslaved families in the United States.

Festivals and Homeschool Days

Grinding corn during homeschool day.

Monticello offers annual Homeschool Days every September, and I urge you to visit during one of these events. In addition to the regular tours and activities, Monticello offers indoor and outdoor hands-on activities as well as special kid-friendly house tours. Some of the past special activities include African American storytelling and songs, spinning demonstrations, historic games, cooking demonstrations, basket making, and exploring some of Jefferson’s gadgets. Prices are discounted during homeschool days.

Tasting tomatoes and watermelons at the Heritage Harvest Festival.

Another must-see festival is Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival. We try to attend every year. My kids’ favorite parts are the fruit and vegetable tastings and chef demos. You can taste a huge number of different varieties of tomatoes and melons grown right in the Monticello garden. You can also see chocolate being made and get a sample of Heritage chocolate. You can sample local wine, kombucha, candy, jams and spreads, and a lot more. Vendors also sell handmade items ranging from hammocks to jewelry. There are activities for kids similar to ones offered during the Homeschool Days, including old-time music, weaving, a petting zoo and open-fire cooking.

The petting zoo at the Heritage Harvest Festival.

The British Invasion, 1781, is another fun event with a historical reenactment of Jack Jouett’s all-night ride to warn Thomas Jefferson of a British cavalry’s plans to ride to Monticello and capture him. This event is complete with hands-on training activities for the kids.

Calendar of Events

Monticello offers a Calendar of Events throughout the year with activities that range from botanical watercolor classes to apple tastings to interactive archaeological digs. If you are visiting our area, definitely check the Monticello calendar for activities that might appeal to you or your homeschooler.

Saunders-Monticello Trail

The big tree at the Saunders-Monticello trail.

Monticello has a extensive network of trails in the nearby Kemper Park (and they are free to use). You can stick to the main trail and follow it all the way to the Visitor’s Center. This trail has a nice assortment of native and non-native trees and plants and many of them are labeled. Or you can take one of the trails that branch off the main trail. You can head through the forest and up the mountain or take one of the meadow trails. You will pass small and large ponds, creeks, small waterfalls, and an outdoor theater. We like to visit throughout the year and look for different edibles, including wineberries, blackberries, paw paws, autumn olive, and persimmon. We always visit the huge hollowed-out tree trunk near the parking lots so the kids can crawl through and around it. This tree was originally on the Monticello grounds near the house but fell down years ago.

Some of the wildlife found at Saunders-Monticello trail.
Enjoying wineberries packed on the trail. There are also a ton of paw paws and persimmons.

Michie Tavern

Although not part of Monticello, a fun place to have lunch is Michie Tavern. A replica of a tavern from the 1800s, Michie Tavern offers costumed servers, steel plates and cups and a buffet-style lunch complete with fried chicken, black-eyed peas and biscuits. If you are local, definitely check the website for coupons (and print them out!) before coming for lunch. The food is delicious but pricey (it is free for children under six).

You can also take a self-guided tour of the oldest section of Michie Tavern, including an 18th-century treasure hunt for the kids. Old Michie’s Tavern was established in 1784 and served as the social center of its community. It’s original location was about 17 miles but the tavern was moved in 1927 to its present location.

Carter Mountain Orchard

I plan to talk about orchards and pick-your-own farms in another post, but I wanted to mention Carter Mountain Orchard because it is so close to Monticello. Carter Mountain Orchard is a picturesque orchard located on the side of a mountain. It has amazing views, pick-your-own apples and peaches, hay rides, a cider brewery, and a big farm store. The downside to Carter Mountain is that it can get very crowded on weekends and festival days. I recommend visiting while school is in session but later in the day so you don’t run into field trips. The orchard also offers scheduled activities for kids, especially during the summer.

Books

Whenever I take the kids on a trip, I like to do some preparation in the form of reading books. I have a 6-year-old and a 12-year-old so I try to include a combination of picture books for the younger child and historical fiction for the older. Here are some of my favorites:

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything

Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library

Who Was Thomas Jefferson?

Thomas Jefferson and the Mammoth Hunt: The True Story of the Quest for America’s Biggest Bones

As you can see, there is no shortage of fun stuff to do in and around Monticello. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below. Thanks!

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