Before lights out, learning

Aboard a warship, in a museum, an island lighthouse, or at a zoo

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / May 30, 2010

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Beneath the watchful eyes of a life-size Tyrannosaurus rex, dozens of Girl Scouts climb into sleeping bags at Boston’s Museum of Science. They pull stuffed animals close and position pillows just right, but the unique surroundings make it difficult to settle down. The dinosaur-themed Colossal Fossil exhibit, along with 22 other exhibit areas, buzz with laughter and chatter. Minutes before midnight, some girls voice their nervous anticipation of lights out.

This is not your typical sleepover. And that is precisely the point for this and other attractions around the region offering overnight experiences.

For the girls, the night creates an unforgettable adventure. Throughout the evening, a near-constant chorus of curiosity echoes from exhibit to exhibit. “Let me see,’’ they say. “What’s that?’’ “Look at this.’’ “Oh, wow.’’

During a recent Museum of Science overnight, 575 Girl Scouts from across New England participated in hourlong workshops, learning about weather-predicting instruments or birds or mathematical patterns. Then, they chose among several hands-on activities: designing Rube Goldberg machines, setting up domino chains, deciphering optical illusions, attending live animal shows, or building simple circuits with batteries, bulbs, and small motors. The nighttime entertainment culminated with a lightning show in the Theater of Electricity.

“It’s not easy to spend a night away from home,’’ said troop leader Julie O’Neill of Amesbury, who helped chaperone 11 junior Scouts. “They get nervous and a little anxious about it, but the program keeps them so busy. There’s such an energy level to the night that they forget they’re far away from home.

“It gets them excited about doing science,’’ she said. “It pushes them to do something they wouldn’t normally do. They’re involved and engaged.’’

Long before the 2006 release of the movie “Night at the Museum,’’ various attractions opened their doors to the public for after-hours exploration. There are no promises of exhibits coming to life as they did in the movie, just the chance for children to experience life aboard a World War II Navy vessel, inside a historic lighthouse, on a 19th-century farm, as a medieval knight, or at local zoos. The overnights give visitors a behind-the-scenes look, a chance to feel special with insider access.

“The kids love what’s outside of the general zoo visitor experience,’’ said Jennifer Gresham, education director for Zoo New England. “They feel like, Oh, I had a special experience at the zoo that nobody else gets to have. When they wake up, they may look out and see a llama looking in the window at them. They could be eating breakfast next to the gorilla who’s eating breakfast.’’

Many New England overnight experiences are geared for groups: Scouts, youth sports teams, schoolchildren on class trips. But given the increasing popularity of such programs, most places also offer family sleepover options for children and their parents. Generally, sleepovers range from $40 to $55 per person, depending on the season, food, activities, and accommodations provided. Smaller, bed-and-breakfast-like accommodations are more expensive. Most places require a child be at least 6.

At the request of a Boy Scout troop leader, Battleship Cove in Fall River started its “Nautical Nights’’ program in 1972. The first overnight accommodated 60 people in the officers’ wardroom on the Battleship Massachusetts. Since then, more than 550,000 “campers’’ have sampled Navy life with the battleship restored to sleep 500 visitors and space for another 115 on the Destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Nautical Nights take place year round with family overnights scheduled once a month.

Kids stow their gear in the bunk area where the sailors’ racks consist of three- or four-tiered aluminum-framed canvas beds suspended from the ceiling. The overnight introduction to Battleship Cove includes meeting a veteran who describes his service time. Then, kids are free to explore the battleship, participate in Morse Code and knot-tying classes, and enjoy historical reenactments. Meals are served in a chow line, military style.

“Kids say to me it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever done, and some of them have been to Disney World and places like that,’’ said Russ Salvador, a teacher at Griswold Elementary School in Griswold, Conn. He has brought students to Battleship Cove for more than 12 years. “It’s an opportunity to see what history’s all about.’’

With a child’s imagination, these overnights may feel as close as possible to time travel. And living in yesteryear, even if only for one night, can be eye-opening.

The Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore, Maine, takes visitors back to farm life in 1870 with its live-in program. Over a weekend, visitors dress in period clothes and become part of a farm family responsible for cooking on a wood stove, tending to animals, planting fields, harvesting, and stocking the ice house. The experience depends on the season.

Norlands will resume its live-in program once the Farmer’s Cottage is rebuilt and ready to host guests again. Kathy Beauregard, executive director, expects that to be later this year or next spring.

“It’s a very hands-on experience,’’ said Beauregard. “It’s quite a step back in time. People really get an understanding of the interdependence between family members in terms of the work.’’

Fast forward a few decades to the Rose Island Lighthouse in Narragansett Bay where accommodations and amenities date to 1912. The lighthouse foundation describes an overnight as a “soft adventure.’’ Dave McCurdy, the foundation’s executive director, calls it “kind of like a bed-and-breakfast without the breakfast.’’ (And no showers for guests spending one night.)

With food packed in coolers, visitors take a lobster-boat shuttle to Rose Island. Accommodations for one-night stays consist of two first-floor bedrooms and an upstairs bunk room for children. Guests change the sheets and tidy up before they leave. In addition to overnights, visitors can make weeklong reservations and serve as temporary keepers in charge of monitoring the lighthouse’s power and water supplies.

Families can explore the beach and nearby island Army barracks built as a result of British occupation during the Revolutionary War. They can swim off the docks, fish, kayak, watch ships sail by, and follow baby seagulls. The lighthouse also offers plenty of unstructured educational opportunities for children. Overnight visitors must pump water to wash up and fill the downstairs toilet. They can join the temporary keepers for testing the water supply and taking weather and generator power-level readings.

“Kids come to the lighthouse so used to video games and TV,’’ said McCurdy. “They end up on the beach all day and they create their own fun. There’s a lot to do.’’

Some places — the Museum of Science and its science lessons, Battleship Cove and its naval history lessons — make use of plentiful teaching resources and mix in fun activities. At Washburn Norlands Living History Center and Rose Island Lighthouse, pressing apples into cider on the farm and pumping water at the lighthouse become teachable moments.

During “OverKnights’’ at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, lessons in knighthood are applied in a shield-making workshop and scavenger hunt, or as it might be called in medieval times, a “quest.’’ To reinforce lessons learned about different animal habitats, Zoo New England takes a similar approach with its “Snorin’ Roarin’ Sleepovers’’ at Stone Zoo and Franklin Park Zoo. Activities give kids a better appreciation for the various animals and where they live.

Zoo sleepovers focus on certain habitats such as Yukon Creek, Sierra Madre, Tropical Forest, or African Savannah. For Yukon Creek, educators may talk about predator-prey relationships and show eagle feathers, owl feathers, and different kinds of skulls. After a tour of the Yukon Creek area at Stone Zoo, where bald eagles, porcupines, grey foxes, and reindeer play, the kids engage in a related craft activity. They might learn about the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest, then make their own. Or, for the warthog in the Tropical Forest at Franklin Park Zoo, the kids might make treat bags filled with sweet potatoes, carrots, and lettuce.

“We started the sleepovers because people want different experiences at the zoo, something they can’t get during the day,’’ said Gresham. “A lot of animals are active first thing in the morning or later in the evening. We wanted to give kids and adults the opportunity to see that.’’

Madeline Gravelle, 10, of Amesbury, a Girl Scout and veteran of Museum of Science sleepovers, summed up the overnight experience best.

“We explored different things,’’ she said. “It was kind of like opening up new doors. And that was really fun.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at

If You Go

Museum of Science

1 Science Park


Grades 1-7. Groups of 10 or more welcome with one chaperone required for every five children. Next scheduled overnight with availability is June 4; $45 a person.

Battleship Cove

5 Water St., Fall River


Minimum age 6. Individual families welcome with one chaperone required for every five children. Next scheduled family overnight is June 18; $40-$55 a person.

Washburn-Norlands Living History Center

290 Norlands Road

Livermore, Maine


Recommended for families with children 7 and older. Next scheduled overnight is either this fall or next spring.

Rose Island Lighthouse

Newport, R.I.


Minimum age 5. Summer weekends book quickly, but some weekdays remain available. Open year round. Reservations can be made a year in advance, $185-$195 per room, $30 per child ($15 with his/her own sleeping bag).

Franklin Park Zoo

1 Franklin Park Road


Stone Zoo

149 Pond St., Stoneham


Minimum age 6. One chaperone required for every four children. Next available family overnight is July 17 at Franklin Park Zoo; Aug. 7 at Stone Zoo. $50 per person.

Higgins Armory Museum

100 Barber Ave., Worcester


Grades 1-6. Families welcome on designated overnights. Next family overnight is Nov. 19, $45-$50 a person depending on dinner option.