If you are new to planning outings with your family, or just need some ideas about where to go next, here are some suggestions.
Every state has a state park. These can be anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours away. Either way, chances are a state park is a good day trip. Call ahead or visit on-line to see if any activities are offered. Many parks have a ranger program all year long, or at least a movie about the area or people that once lived there. Trails, natural history, beautiful views and a safe environment make state parks a great pick for a day or weekend trip.
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts is a favorite stop for us-look around and see if you have one in a near-by city that has a viewing area. Kids are fascinated by the process and you can talk about economics, machinery, safety, health, cooking, yeast (chemistry), production, or just about how cool it is to see the doughnuts get flipped in the oil. Kids will get a free sprinkle doughnut and usually a paper hat.
The library-it is not just for books anymore! Many large cities have plays and puppet shows free to the public at the library. Call and arrange a tour for your family at the big downtown branch-even if it IS an hour away. You can join for around $25 a year and take part in all the free stuff they offer-classes, clubs, story times, summer reading programs and SO much more. You can use the on-line reservation system to ensure the books you want will be there if the drive is too far for casual use. Movies, computer games, DVD's, music, more reference than you can ever use plus thousands of children's books and dozens of activities a year make the library a wonderful way to spend a day.
Local art museums/galleries
Even a small towns is likely to have an art gallery. Look for one at the community college or community center. Art museums are usually better in larger towns, but can be quite nice in small towns, too. Check to see if they are offering classes and be sure to get information about a featured artist during your visit. Even if you only recognize one or two paintings, it will pique your child's interest in art if they recognize a piece of art or a particular style. Art study can be quite informal in young children and can be as simple as discussing what you see in a picture and trying to figure out if the artist used straight lines more or curved lines more or if the art looks realistic or imagined. An older child may want to try to copy a painting or learn more about the artist's life. I have found the more casual, open-ended and fun art study (or anything for that matter) is, the more kids will learn.
The zoo. Ah-what can be more of a family stand-by than the zoo? Aromatic animals, rickety train rides, and lots of walking in the heat. Go in the off-season and get the place to yourself, plus the advantage of seeing the animals up and moving instead of sacked out in the farthest corner. Concessions are usually closed, which is a budget bonus. Sure, the train will probably be closed and the sea lions won't perform at 11 and 1, but you won't get jostled and overheated either. Join your local zoo for free visits all year long and adopt an animal. This is a GREAT way to get younger kids interested in a particular country or animal and it is fun to go visit 'your' tiger or elephant or raccoon all year long.