Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Starting the Funschooling Year at the Academy of Sciences

Just one of the many wonderful things I love about homeschooling is the flexibility. While schools around us were starting up in August, we decided to hang on to summer and start our homeschool year in September. That just felt more like fall to us. We were thrilled that the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco offered a homeschool family day at the start of the month which was the perfect kick off for us. I love visiting popular museums on homeschooling days for a number of reasons, mainly that the adult to child ratio is nice and high. The crowds are usually smaller, the pace is slower, and no one is blowing whistles and trying to herd large groups of excited children on school field trips from place to place. Plus, they usually offer a smoking deal on admission, in this case, it was about $5 each instead of about $25.

I hadn't been to the Academy before, but I have been hearing all about it since it reopened after a huge remodel. Well, it was amazing! Having listened to the tips from friends who had been in recent months, we knew to try to hit the rain forest exhibit early before the lines got too long. It was an impressive three story walk through with birds, butterflies and plants that reminded us of visits to family members in Costa Rica. Next was a show at the planetarium. We took my mother in law, who had grown up in the bay area, with us on this trip, and she had fond memories of taking her own young boys to shows at this planetarium many years ago.

The kids and I had scoped the Academy out online before we went so we could know which exhibits we were most interested in. I've been having my kids do a bit of pre-travel research for most of our adventures this year, and it's the best idea ever. It's really paid off in a number of ways. First, they are more excited about the trip, and second, they make sure they don't miss what they really want to see. In most larger cities and museums, it's pretty easy to just keep turning corners to the next exciting thing, and end up missing an entire section. In places we aren't likely to be back to for a while, we don't want to be disappointed to find out that we walked right past something we aren't going to see next time. When we got home, I asked a friends' child, who had gone to the Academy a few months before us, how she liked the penguins, and she replied, "There were penguins?" Yes, there were adorable live penguins, and they even had a wetsuit made for an old one who had trouble keeping himself warm. They were one of our favorite exhibits, and we spent some time watching them playfully hamming it up for the camera. We were so glad we didn't miss them.

With my Girl Child's awesome planning skills, I think we managed to catch about everything though. The Extreme Mammals exhibit was a fun look at the wide variety of fellow mammals there have been in the world from the largest to the smallest ever. The African dioramas were so incredibly life like. Of course, that is probably because they used to be alive, but unlike the obvious stuffed road kill samples you see in some smaller natural history museums, these were pretty darn good examples of taxidermy, and the backgrounds were great too. None of us had realized that zebras were so large, and there were a few animals we had never seen at all before, like this super long necked animal, whose name I don't remember, but who looked a bit like a deer with a half giraffe neck.

Another thing I'm glad we made sure to see is the living roof. I guess the Academy is one of the greenest museums out there, and all sorts of cool technology and design went into making them so. The roof is covered with native plants, sky lights and solar panels, all of which contribute to the museums goal of self sufficiency energy wise. My kids love the idea of burying our own house under a hill of dirt with little pop up windows in the ceiling. It would be fun, but isn't on the remodel schedule for this year anyway. I'll have to keep it in mind for a far in the future big building project. This living roof though, offered wonderful views of the city on an unusually clear San Francisco day.

The albino alligator would have been hard to miss, as he was a pretty popular exhibit. He didn't interact playfully with guests, like the penguins. In fact, he was so still that my Boy Child thought he was stuffed like the animals in the dioramas, but then he moved a finger and blinked, confirming he was still alive. He wasn't exactly cute like the penguins either. His pink eyes and long claws were kind of freaky, but boy was his hide fancy. I know it's a terrible thought, and I would never actually purchase an item like this, but I couldn't help but thinking he would make a gorgeous a handbag and boots. Of course, I would be appalled if I actually saw a purse made of real albino alligator, but I could see the inspiration for something similar in pleather. This poor guy is probably lucky to be housed here because I don't think he'd last long in the wild.

The aquariums were great, with both fresh and salt water tanks of all sizes. Some of our favorites were the beautiful jelly fish and the bizarre gator gar fish. I had ever heard of them prior to our happening to catch a documentary about them the night before. Girl Child gladly informed us that she remembered from her research that we could see live specimens on our field trip the next morning. They looked much more docile and peaceful in real life than they did in the movie, which dramatically played up their razor sharp teeth.

All around, it was a great field trip, and a day packed with the wonders of science and natural history. It was also a great way to kick off to our funschool year. I can't wait to see what other  fun learning adventures await us. Any exciting field trips you all are planning or have taken so far this year?