Every teacher knows that making students get up and walk about outside is a good way to get and hold their attention. Here are some great places in Connecticut where it is not just the teacher but the outdoor classroom itself that does the teaching.
Gillette Castle State Park
William Gillette was one of the most famous and lauded actors of the Gilded Age, and other than the stage he loved two things: castles and the great outdoors. In the days before World War I, Gillette brought those two together when he commissioned the design for what has since become known as Gillette Castle. This mighty flagstone faux-fortress is a wonderful and educational place to visit, its 24 rooms filled with art treasures and furniture of the period. Even more educational and majestic however, is the view from its grounds and battlements.
Gillette Castle is built on the southernmost of the Seven Sisters Hills, and the view is simply breathtaking. The grounds are designed for a leisurely walk, with many paths, bridges and trestles, all of which are now part of Gillette Castle State Park.
Hartford’s Bushnell Park has often been compared to New York’s Central Park – and with good reason; actually, with more than one good reason. Both have grand open fields, majestic stands of trees, man-made water areas and even a carousel. Both date from the same era. Hartford’s great park was designed by Jacob Weidenmann, who was not only a contemporary but also a friend of Frederick Law Olmstead – the Hartford native who was too busy to do a part for his hometown because he was working on an even bigger one for New York.
Unlike Olmstead, who was a landscape architect, Weidenmann was also a botanist. That is why there are more than 150 different species of trees, bushes and shrubs in Bushnell Park. Its 50 acres are a giant outdoor classroom for botany teachers and their students. There are also many varieties of flowers and types of ground cover – most of which were added during the park’s updating and redesign, which was done by a firm that included Olmstead’s son.
Bushnell Park also offers a bit of history, with its giant arch dedicated to those soldiers and sailors from Connecticut who fought in the Civil War. The gold-domed state capital abuts and looks over the park from the high ground, and inside are guides who will take visitors on a tour.
Ghosts of New Haven
New Haven Green is more than just the heart and lungs of the Elm City – it is also where history began and was made in Connecticut. When super storm Sandy uprooted the great elm on the green, several graves were exposed, and according to the city’s ghost hunters, these are but some of the many spooks and spectres who continue to inhabit and haunt the green and the buildings, parks, graveyards and alleyways nearby. Those ghosts include Jimi Hendrix and Cornelius Vanderbilt, to name a few.
Ghosts of New Haven is a company that hosts tours of the green and other supposedly haunted sites – including the nearby New Haven Public Library and Sherman’s Alley behind the Union League Café. That famous, old restaurant also has a history, as it was originally the home of Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first mayor of the City of New Haven.
Sunset Meadow Vineyards
Too many people drink wine without really knowing anything about how it is made or how to serve it properly. Sunset Meadow Vineyards in Goshen is one of more than two dozen vineyards along the Connecticut Wine Trail where wine lovers can savor and learn about wine.
Located in the shadow of Mount Tom, Sunset Meadow is a lovely place to visit just to enjoy nature or a picnic, but it is also one of the best and friendliest places in the state to see how wine is made. Visitors can follow the process from vine and grape to barrel and bottle and then, best of all, taste the wine that has just about reached its time. The vineyard shop also sells the final product – along with the proper cheeses and other delights to prepare a picnic on the premises.
Hammonasset Beach State Park
The Connecticut shoreline is an education in itself, but as access to so much of it is now private, there are fewer and fewer places people can go to experience and learn about that fabulous ecosystem. Fortunately, Hammonasset Beach State Park is available for fun, frolic and education year-round. Much can be learned just by walking the beach and examining the dunes, or pitching a tent in the campgrounds or having a picnic in the sand.
For those seeking a more formal educational opportunity, there is also the Meigs Point Nature Center to visit. It is a hands-on learning center where kids of all ages can learn about and appreciate the fragile yet fantastic ecosystem that is the Connecticut shoreline, a place that for many species, life is indeed a beach.
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Mark G. McLaughlin is a professional and prolific writer with a proven publishing record in a wide variety of fields. An historian, novelist, freelance journalist, ghost-writer, book reviewer, magazine editor, web and magazine columnist, Mark has more than 30 years of experience. His work can be found at Examiner.com.