The Family that Learns Together
Learning at the Outer Banks, under the guise of a family vacation, is a homeschool tradition that goes back to when my parents homeschooled my brother, sisters and I in elementary school.
In the weeks leading up to our beach trip my mom would cook so she wouldn’t have to worry about meals when we arrived. My siblings and I, on the other hand, would pack and re-arrange stuffed animals, pull out our beach gear, and stay as close underfoot as we possibly could just brimming over with excitement.
Typically my grandmother would come with us and all seven of us would cram in a Dodge Caravan to toodle 7 hours down the road and into neighboring North Carolina.
Specifically, we headed to Nags Head in the Outer Banks.
Geography of the Outer Banks
Before I get into the amazing places to visit and experience, let me briefly explain how the Outer Banks is set up. It’s not just one beach, but rather it refers to several beaches connected on the barrier islands of North Carolina.
If you look closely at a map of the United States, you will notice a set of islands that form an outline of the coastline of mainland North Carolina. These barrier islands are connected by a road.
The northern beaches that are most popular tend to be Corolla, Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head. We tend to visit Kitty Hawk and Nags Head the most.
However, you’ll notice in my list below that we ventured south towards Hatteras and Ocracoke; and one of these years we’ll go further north to see the ponies and lighthouse in Corolla.
Roanoke Island is also in this sliver of beach living and is rich in early English colonial history.
Learning at the Beach
We never officially did or did not do school when we were at the beach with my family, but somehow my mom always snuck in some educational sort of adventure. Most years it was a trip to the aquarium.
In any case, one year we painted dead fish. Yep, you read that right. Talk about the original STEAM project. It’s not one that I’d recommend, and I couldn’t tell you the context or the objective of the event. I can say that my grandmother has yet to forgive my mom for that one.
One year we did a non-aquarium experience and went on a crab boat. My middle sister befriended the captain so she could steer and later made the front page of the local newspaper. She was also pinched by a crab, and I think she remembers that the most.
Mom never made it a big deal. We just always did something with a slight tilt toward an educational experience.
Fast-forward thirty years and our family is building beach memories on the coast of the Carolinas. Sometimes we go just the four of us and sometimes we coordinate epic adventures with family.
Learning at the Outer Banks, North Carolina
We didn’t do a lot of official homeschooling on our recent trip (though we did do some!), but we went on several excursions that were fun (and educational – shhh!).
The beach in general is a great place to build a week of learning. But, I think the opportunities for learning at the Outer Banks takes it to the next level.
So in between ocean swimming, sand-castle-building, and go-cart racing, stop by some of these places for a little extra perspective and maybe a bit of sneaky learning. I’ve included commentary next to the spots that we personally visited.
I’ve also included several ideas that I’ve not yet visited but that I have on my must-do list for our next visit! Have an adventure and let me know how it goes!
- Downtown Books (Roanoke Island) – This is a small book-nook on Roanoke Island. An enjoyable stop for those bookishly-inclined but not spacious for sitting and relaxing. It has a good selection of small gift ideas, too.
- Island Bookstore – This independent bookstore is full of puzzles, local guides, a well-stocked selection of books, and gifts and décor for all bookish persuasions. Check out their Harry Potter display! (Island Bookstore has three locations – we visited the one in Kitty Hawk – see their website for details about the other two.)
Even if you aren’t trying to sneak in some educational material on your vacation, you can’t escape learning at the Outer Banks’ lighthouses. The rangers and experiences are very well designed, and it is a unique perspective at each one.
Bodie Island Lighthouse was a surprising visit. It’s located in marshy lands and not too far from where we were staying in Nags Head. We had a really good visit and the lighthouse is an interesting study.
To preserve the structure visitors may only go one-at-a-time up the stairs. There are landing places where you can stop and let someone pass. We had to walk up and then call “clear” or “next” so someone else could begin climbing.
214 steps later and we had climbed 156 feet up for a spectacular view.
The rangers were enthusiastic about the lighthouse and informative beyond what we could think to ask. Did you know that Bodie Lighthouse is set back far enough from the lighthouse living quarters that if it were to fall it would not reach the house?
That may not sound incredible because it seemed like an obvious consideration to make, but when you’re at the top of the lighthouse looking down at the keeper’s house you seriously doubt that information. We argued about it all the way back to the car.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has the distinction of being the tallest brick lighthouse in the nation. 257 steps later and you’ll believe it, but the view is spectacular and totally worth it! The Cape Hatteras lighthouse black-and-white swirly pattern is iconic for North Carolina lighthouses. Plus, we all enjoyed the exhibits the rangers had set up along the path and in the museum.
Ocracoke was not open when we visited. Our trip was scheduled about a week or so after Hurricane Dorian blew through. This lighthouse and much of the southern section of the Outer Banks were still recovering. It’s on my list to see!
Ocracoke is only accessible by ferry so check the operating times and plan accordingly if you go to visit this island.
Currituck Lighthouse is near the tip of the northern beaches, and we’ve not yet visited in that direction. Another one on my list!
Jockey Ridge State Park is amazing.
The dune was going to be developed but a local woman recognized its significance and rallied for its preservation. It’s a great story!
As the tallest sand dune on the Atlantic Coast, Jockey Ridge State Park offers an unparalleled view of the sunset. Since no one in our family was old enough or willing to try hang-gliding or any of the other daytime attractions, we came twice to enjoy the sunset. It was worth it both times!
The dune is not accessible on your own for those with impaired mobility, but Jockey Ridge does have an all-terrain vehicle that they schedule to take to the top of the dune for those who would like to go. You must make a reservation for this 24-hours in advance.
For everyone else, be prepared to trek up some sand. The hike is not for the hurried. Pace yourself. It’s not impossible, but the sand requires double the effort in some places. Bring a kite if you have one. Roll down the dunes (so much fun).
But definitely stay for the sunsets!
Seeing the wild horses of Corolla (they live a bit north of Corolla and south of Virginia) is another adventure high on my list – but not yet accomplished! These are believed to be feral Spanish mustangs from an ancient shipwreck that have lived on the coast for hundreds of years.
The shoreline is only accessible by 4WD. Some tours are offered but visitors to the area may spot the horses from time to time without a tour in quiet areas. Do not touch or feed the horses – they are wild animals. Pictures are permitted so long as you remain at least 50 feet away.
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island was our aquarium stop for this trip and we loved our visit. The jellyfish exhibit was my favorite – the design they used for the tanks made it seem a bit like you’re walking among jellyfish. So cool. This aquarium is well-planned and a modest size – not overwhelming but took us a little over an hour to move through it.
But before we headed to the aquarium on Roanoke Island, we headed to Jennette’s Pier. It falls under the aquarium rubric, but the real draw for this one is fishing!
If you are looking for a place to walk a pier or to learn how to fish, then Jeannette’s Pier is the place to go. Just be aware that the aquarium part is not their main draw.
Last but not least….uh…the ocean & beach. I hope this is obvious. Spend time at the beach. Observe the gulls and crabs and movement of the water. Consider the tides. Breathe in the night air and admire the clear stars. Watch for dolphins on the horizon.
From colonial history, to pirate history, to aviation history, learning at the Outer Banks has a surprising array of options when it comes to considering the past.
Wright Brothers Memorial is impressive.
I recommend starting at the monument itself. There is no shade, and it gets hot! Hot! Hot!
Get to the park early (check their website for seasonal hours), pay your entrance fee, and make a left. The monument towers above everything else and there is parking around the bottom.
If you’re there early enough, drive around the bottom and look for a parking spot near the fantastic sculpture that re-creates an iconic photo of the first flight. Stand next to the men in their positions, lay on the plane the way that Orville situated himself, and imagine yourself part of the historic moment.
The hike to the top of the memorial is steep, but the path is paved and wide. Take your time on the way up. It’s a great view at the top and a massive structure. (Take a picture under the side that says “Genius.”)
Now, get back in your car and drive to the other parking lot and the building. The exhibits inside the (air-conditioned) building are interactive and explore different angles of the building, thinking, and inventing process.
Our girls completed their Junior Ranger book and received their badge while touring this site. The book takes a bit of time, so if you’re energy is running low it’d be best to have a quick snack and drink outside if you have them, but it encourages thoughtful engagement with the activities.
I also highly recommend the tour. The extra details about the momentous event were well worth standing in the sun for a bit. But remember, there isn’t any shade so bring a hat and sunscreen!
Our favorite part was running between the markers that showed just how far the first few flights went – quite a spread!
If you make it to Ocracoke Island to see the Ocracoke Lighthouse (see above), take some time to stop by Teach’s Hole – named for the infamous pirate Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard. Explore pirate history and learn about Blackbeard’s history with the Outer Banks. Arrr!
The Lost Colony is one of the top attractions in the Outer Banks. Watch performers tell the story of the English colony that mysteriously disappeared. This is another must-do on my list for when we visit the Outer Banks again. The Lost Colony was first performed in 1937 and as such it is the longest-running symphonic drama. Drama, performance, music, and history in an epic display of creative storytelling. I can’t wait to see it for myself!
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum – I really, really, really wanted to go to this one, but our time ran out. It’s located close to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse so you could make a full day out of visiting both. Graveyard of the Atlantic is a look at the shipwrecks and nautical history of the Outer Banks area. They have several exhibits and regular programming so check out their calendar of events. This is on my must-do list for whenever we go back.
Last Advice for Learning at the Outer Banks: Relax!
There really aren’t a shortage of options for learning at the Outer Banks. The visits and excursions have always been fantastic.
Don’t plan on doing everything on the list in one week or you’d never get a chance to enjoy the ocean. But definitely add a few in here and there – particularly if you have a rainy day – you won’t regret it!
Proof that you can learn intentionally without sucking the fun out of a beach vacation! Good luck and happy travels!
If learning at the Outer Banks isn’t your thing, maybe check out these sites in Boston for a different kind of fun (and educational) experience.