If the world is truly the homeschoolers classroom, then Tampa Bay is our premier learning lab, covering everything from history to art, social studies, science and more. With gas still really high, there's no better time than now to make the most of resources close to home.
Get a handful of families together, and you can usually get group rates to many bay area attractions. And some places, like MOSI, the Florida Aquarium and Lowry Park Zoo, offer reciprocal admission during certain times of the year. If you're part of a local homeschool group, make sure you get a membership card for educator's discounts, too. Check Web sites for hours, current costs and special events and programs.
Tops on my list of great homeschool field trips:
Museum of Science and Industry, www.mosi.org
MOSI's made for homeschoolers! On Monday (8/11), they're even hosting a free open house for homeschoolers from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It includes a self-guided tour through 400 exhibits; a look at its Homeschool Education programs; discount admission to IMAX Dome Theatre or Dinosaurs! The Exhibition; and a 20-percent discount on MOSI memberships, with on-site registration.
MOSI offers special classes and programs for homeschoolers throughout the year, including middle and high school science, elementary school science adventure days and technology programs for all ages. Classes can be pretty pricey, though, so an annual membership is probably the best way to go.
Brooker Creek Preserve, www.friendsofbrookercreekpreserve.org
This underused homeschool resource has a year's worth of ecology studies, with a good measure of history and fine arts thrown in. Go on a hike and you've covered PE too. In addition to a great hands-on Exhibit Hall with interpretive displays about Florida ecosystems, the center offers a variety of programs each month. Most activities and programs are good for all ages. Registration is usually required, but most programs are free or under $5 for special programs.
Bring the bug spray and sunscreen in the summer, and don't forget the nature notebooks and your camera so you can document your great learning experiences for your portfolio.
Lowry Park Zoo, www.lowryparkzoo.com
As our only dedicated zoological garden, Lowry Park Zoo features more than 2,000 animals from Florida and around the world. The Florida Environmental Education Center (Zoo School) serves more than 147,000 children annually, including homeschoolers, for whom there are dedicated programs. Get an annual pass and you're good to go on science, biology, ecology, geography, environmental education and social studies.
Great Explorations, www.greatexplorations.org, and Sunken Gardens, www.stpete.org/sunken/
St. Petersburg homeschoolers have got it made with this educational duo. Great Explorations, with the Sunken Gardens botanical experience next door, is one of the best deals in town. At just $8 admission for each attraction, with reasonably priced annual memberships available, you've practically got your own private school.
Great Ex exhibits include a life-size treehouse, a firehouse complete with gear, a child-sized supermarket, and a hands-on veterinary office — no live animals, but tools of the trade like microscopes and prepared slides and lots of interpretive info. Great Ex also has a Tampa Bay Estuary Program for kids up to age 17.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium, www.cmaquarium.org/cms/
At just $11 for adults and $7.50 for kids, CMA provides a lot of educational bang for your hard-earned bucks. If seeing Winter the dolphin with her prosthetic tail isn't enough, consider any of the various other hands-on options including behind the scenes tours, Sea Life boating safaris and weekend kayak paddles in this small and personal aquarium. The Aquarium also offers camps and special private events.
Fort De Soto Park, www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_Ft_Desoto.htm
This real, honest-to-goodness fort has it all: cannons, old ammunitions and communications rooms to explore, seven miles of waterfront and miles of trails. The park makes (home) education a day at the beach. Kids and adults will enjoy learning about the history of the fort, which was constructed for the Spanish-American War, but never saw any action. A barrier-free interpretive nature trail clues you in on a variety of ecosystem and natural history features, and canoeing, kayaking and beach combing can round out any field trip.
Florida Aquarium, www.flaquarium.org/
The Florida Aquarium is popular enough to provide suggested visiting hours on its Web site. But that's a real bonus for homeschoolers, because we can visit the 200,000 square feet of marine biology and oceanography facility after noon on weekdays. Besides all the great regular exhibits, like the giant coral reef tank, the Bays and Beaches exhibit and the Florida Wetlands section, kids can enjoy the "Explore a Shore" outdoor aquatic discovery zone and behind the scenes tours.
Ringling Museum of Fine Art, www.ringling.org/
Few places make home educators feel as welcome and accepted as this museum. Fill out the online form on the Education page (www.ringling.org/educational_programs.asp) and your admission is free, which more than makes up for the cost of gas getting there.
Ringling is simply and quite literally a treasure trove of magnificent art, displaying European, American and Asian works in its permanent collection galleries, and one of the finest 17th century collections of Old Master paintings in the country. Besides great art, there's the Circus Museum and the Ringling family's historic Ca d'Zan mansion.
Dunedin Fine Art Center, www.dfac.org/
With exhibitions, lectures, studio classes and workshops, the Dunedin Fine Art Center provides artistic experiences across all ages, at all levels of interest and ability.
Of particular interest to homeschoolers is the David L. Mason Children's Art Museum at the center, which provides hands-on activities to help with understanding the exhibits in the galleries. Starting each September, the center offers special $3 tours for schoolchildren that include a look at the science, history, social influence and impact of art, as well as principles and elements of design, and creative problem solving.
Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center, www.pinellascounty.org/eNVIRONMENT/pagesHTML/se10.html
Weedon Island is the place to learn about the natural, cultural and archaeological history of our neck of the woods. In the exhibit hall, you can enjoy an informative film, and view displays about artifacts found on the island, as well as rotating art exhibits. Outside, there are 4.5 miles of nature trails, a 45-foot observation tower, guided hikes and guided canoe trips. Weedon's "Virtual Tour" (www.weedonislandcenter.org/) Web site is an educational gem, too, providing a nicely interactive and in-depth look at the archaeology and cultural history of the island.
Terri Willingham is a freelance writer and runs a Tampa-based homeschool group, LIFE Inc.