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Classroom meets historic site at Montpelier Mansion

A National Historic Landmark restored to its splendor in 1980, the original Montpelier Mansion now operates as a house museum run by Prince George's County Parks and Recreation for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. 

Part of a network of Laurel-based public educational resources, the mansion, in concert with the Friends of Montpelier volunteer organization, offers public tours, exhibits, festivals and tea.

But museum staff have also designed education-focused interactive history programs targeted to families with small children and parents who homeschool their children.

"We have so much here," said Ann Wagner, office manager. "And kids can touch things." 

According to Wagner, most groups of students that visit Montpelier Mansion are home schooled, although nearby Deerfield Run Elementary School brings walking groups on field trips.

One program is the Free First Fridays, held April through October, when admission to  Montpelier Mansion is free and includes special educational programs that are popular with homeschooling parents.

Wagner said they had hoped to draw more visitors from "the immediate neighborhood" when they launched the Free First Fridays program in 2013. While overall attendance of the program increased into the hundreds in 2014, many visitors are traveling from other areas such as Bowie, Glen Burnie and Pikesville.

Museums can be intimidating to families with small children, according to Edna Graham, a Montpelier Mansion historian and educator. She said that's why Montpelier Mansion staff started "doing family programs."

On Free First Friday in September, the day kicked off with storytime for preschoolers, followed by a guided tour through the flower and herb garden and a visit to the hands-on-history room (where kids can explore what school was like in the 18th and 19th centuries) and the dinosaur-themed activity room that complements Laurel's Dinosaur Park. 

The free Fridays also include tours of the historic mansion where George Washington and Abigail Adams stayed as guests, and in the afternoon, visitors can play authentic colonial tavern games in the East Wing. 

On Sept. 5, about 20 intrigued young children attended the Free First Friday storytime, "Pocket-full of Stories," gathering outdoors near the herb garden to step back 250 years.

Museum educator Holly Burnham read an alphabet book about farming, guided the small visitors through the herb garden and herded everyone indoors for more stories and games. Activities such as hands-on work with slates and chalk focused on a time when many children were taught at home by tutors or their mothers.  

Julianne DeMarco, a homeschooling parent from Pikesville, brought her daughter and came with a friend, who brought her three kids after picking up a Free First Fridays flier at the Patuxent Wildlife Visitor Center. 

DeMarco said her daughter, Therese DeMarco, 7, "thought the chamber pot was the funniest thing she'd ever seen," and that she most loved dressing up in colonial-style clothes for pretend tea parties with her friends. 

The DeMarcos documented their field trip to Montpelier Mansion as an interactive history program in Therese's portfolio. 

Co-organizer of the social group Mama Sisterhood of Prince George's County, Kendra McCarthy, of Bowie, found Free First Fridays posted on the Prince George's County Parks and Recreation website and reposted it at meetup.com. McCarthy attended Sept. 5 with her 20-month old daughter, Aliyana, and others from the group. 

She said they were very happy with the experience; McCarthy has posted the Oct. 3 free Friday (which Burnham and Graham said will have a winter harvest/nature theme) and plans to attend. 

Dedicated days

Burnham said Montpelier Mansion has participated in the Educators Open House at the Laurel Museum on Main Street, an event she said is "like a marketplace where museums can highlight the educational programs they offer to schools and home school groups." 

Like Montpelier Mansion, the Laurel Museum also serves educators and schools. Executive Director Lindsey Baker said that home school groups can assimilate into Laurel Museum's public and private school programs or arrange customized home school visits. The historic house has an interactive children's room, Diven's Den, on the lower level and the museum maintains an Educator's Corner on its website. 

Home school students can also sign up for educational programs offered by the National Wildlife Visitors Center at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge (registrations for age-specific public programs starting in late March are being accepted now at the visitor center's website).

Montpelier Mansion's first Home-School Day, titled "The Wisdom of Old Houses" and held in May, attracted about 10 kids and four adults, Burnham said. The site's Home School Day in September, "Metal Heads: The Iron Industry in Laurel, Before and After Emancipation," brought in 34 kids and 11 adults, Bernham said, and was so well received that Montpelier staff plan to offer at least two more home school days next year. 

Montpelier's "Blast in the Past," a popular hands-on-history playground for ages 4–10, provides a child-sized colonial town experience on the mansion grounds that can be reserved throughout the year for groups of at least 40, providing "a wonderful chance for young kids to explore a time period in a very engaging way," according to parent feedback. 

For more information on educational program at Laurel sites, go to history.pgparks.com, laurelhistoricalsociety.org or fws.gov.

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