When I was little, "science" meant memorizing the lifecycle of a frog and different types of rocks. No actual frogs or rocks were involved in the process. It was deadly dull.
But the upstate of South Carolina is full of places that will turn that notion of science on its head, places that really make science all about exploration and fun. In fact, these places are so much fun for children and adults alike that your kids probably won't even be aware that they're learning anything. It's the perfect weekend getaway if you have adventurous children, and it's a great way to slip in a little learning while having fun. So get ready to get your learning on!
For this trip, we based ourselves in Greenville, which has a beautiful, walkable downtown filled with restaurants and hotels. The Embassy Suites, just a few minutes from downtown, is a great choice for families with its spacious, multi-room suites. If you'd rather stay right on vibrant and exciting Main Street, try the Westin Poinsett or the Hyatt Regency.
Several of the places on this itinerary are just a short drive apart, so be sure to check what's in season when you visit. If you're lucky, you'll get to stop at a farmers market or roadside stand and enjoy a peach just plucked from the tree.
Friday Afternoon's Lesson: Physics at the Children's Museum of the Upstate, Greenville
The Children's Museum of the Upstate in downtown Greenville is a treasure. And, even the Smithsonian agreed with this assessment; it's the only children's museum in the country that's been named a Smithsonian affiliate. It's also the perfect place for you and your budding scientists to begin your exploration. When physics means racing cars in the Start Your Engines exhibit or standing in a wind tunnel in 321 Blastoff!, you know you're in for a fun and joyful afternoon. The scientific exploration continues throughout the museum, with simple machines, fluid dynamics and sound waves. But these aren't exhibits that make you stand and read. These are exhibits that let you play. My favorite thing about this museum is that even though it's meant for children, the exhibits are so fun, so interactive and so engaging that the place really is as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. And not just in a "finding joy watching your children" sort of way. Both parents and kids get to play here. My husband and son could have spent hours in the garage exhibit alone, banging on drums and playing with the theremin, a kooky and rare instrument that makes sound as you wave your hands around it. My daughter and I were entranced trying to see how many balls we could get to float and bob above a blast of air. You could easily spend the whole day, so get here as soon as you arrive in town!
Since you'll be just a stone's throw from Greenville's Main Street, try one of its dozens of restaurants for dinner. Trio Brick Oven Café, which offers pastas, pizzas and a family-friendly atmosphere, is a great choice.
Friday Night's Lesson: Astronomy at the Starry Nights Program, Roper Mountain Science Center, Greenville
After I got the tickets to the planetarium show, Starry Nights, at the Roper Mountain Science Center, I turned around from the counter to tell my children and husband to get ready to go into the theater. They were gone. I found them, along with a dozen other grown men, drawn by the force of a large display case filled with an enormous collection of Star Wars toys from the 1970s.
Other cases in the lobby held toy collections from other decades - from stuffed ET dolls to a UFO created from tin foil and colanders that was made following directions from a women's magazine in the 1950s. The kids were already hooked. Once in the theater, a presentation on stars and constellations that are visible now, a movie on black holes, and the grand finale - the "Mars Rollercoaster" - had everyone in the planetarium laughing and awestruck. We then headed outside, where smaller telescopes were set up outside the observatory. That night, Jupiter and its moons were the stars of the sky. Inside the observatory, the star was the towering, historic telescope itself.
Saturday Morning's Lesson: Electricity World of Energy, Seneca
How about a lovely morning at the local nuclear power plant? I know, I know, there's a Homer Simpson joke in there somewhere, but at the World of Energy exhibit at the Oconee Nuclear Station in Seneca, there's some serious learning going on. And, at least for my family, some serious disco dancing, too. The hour's drive out to World of Energy is beautiful on its own, and brings you to a lovely part of South Carolina and a beautiful lake.
The exhibit, which is on the grounds of the power plant, takes you through the history of how electricity has been generated and an explanation of what happens at nuclear power plants. It seemed that much of the material was too advanced for my nine- and seven-year-olds, but the kids loved it anyway. Why? Because whoever designed the exhibit included loads of things kids love - like black lights that made us all glow and strobe light displays that show how nuclear fission works, accompanied by music - and disco dancing. And when my seven-year-old said, while jumping in the hotel pool later that night, "Look! I'm an exploding atom!" I realized they had learned more than I would have imagined.
Outside, a butterfly garden and nature trails let you get a good look at the three towering nuclear reactors, as well as blue, sparkling Lake Keowee. No matter where you come down on nuclear energy, the plant offers up pretty fascinating stuff, all in a beautiful setting.
Saturday Afternoon's Lesson: Geology at the Bob Campbell Geology Museum, Clemson
After just a short drive through the green countryside, you'll find this gem of a little museum on the campus of Clemson University. The Bob Campbell Geology Museum has an amazing collection of more than 10,000 rocks, gems, meteorites, diodes and fossils. The Fluorescent Mineral Room literally glows, with rocks that light up from within. These were the rocks that were missing from my grade school science class!
If your kids are old enough to appreciate delicious local cuisine or you get the chance to enjoy an adults-only night out, try Stella's Southern Bistro in Simpsonville. Serving up staples of the American South, Stella's was named an OpenTable.com Diner's Choice winner in 2011.
Sunday Morning's Lesson: Engineering and Ecology, Liberty Bridge at Falls Park
Head down Main Street in Greenville to see some engineering in action in one of the most beautiful urban parks in America. Falls Park, right in the middle of downtown, is a lush green oasis of grass, flowers, swings and stone paths, with a cascading waterfall right in the center. And floating above that waterfall is Liberty Bridge. This amazing structure is a curving, cantilevered suspension bridge that is the only one of its kind in the United States. It really seems to defy gravity. In fact, the first time we saw it, my son refused to walk over it until he'd sent his sister over to see if it would collapse (that's brotherly love for you). A walk across it gives you a mesmerizing view of the river and falls, and it bounces. It's just as much fun to examine the bridge from the park below, where the grass is likely to be filled with other families and kids. While my son found two boys to throw a football with, my daughter, husband and I had fun scampering along the rocks and wading in the cold water, watching all the little plants and bugs and fish that live along the bank.
When you've worked up an appetite, there are plenty of places on Main Street to go for brunch. A great choice with gorgeous views of the waterfall is Passerelle Bistro.
Sunday Afternoon's Lesson: A Little Bit of Everything
Our last stop for the weekend was one of the kids' favorites, the Spartanburg Science Center. It's a tiny museum tucked away on the back of the second floor of the Chapman Cultural Center in Spartanburg, about a half hour away. It's only three rooms, but they certainly pack a lot in that little space.
The exhibits in the main room were all wonderfully interactive. My son almost ran from display to display to try everything out. When your oh-so-very-cool fourth grader starts shouting, "Mom! Mom! Come look!" and pulls you by the hand in public, you know he's really into it. Sand pendulum, two-way mirrors, electrical generator powered by bicycle - he loved it all.
My daughter, on the other hand, didn't move from one spot the entire time we were there. She was amazed by the harmonograph, a giant swinging platform that lets you create beautiful drawing using gravity and momentum. I think she would have sat there watching the images appear until all the magic markers dried up. The fact that she couldn't even be swayed by the live turtles and snakes in the next room, or by a big stuffed Kodiak bear in the other, tells you how much my animal lover was enthralled.
Alas, it was time to head home, time to get ready for the school week. Little did my kids know that the whole weekend had been a sneaky one, full of science when they thought they were just having fun.