The coronavirus pandemic has made everything just a little bit harder, including keeping the kids entertained. Although a day at the beach is always a great way to burn off youthful energy, sometimes you just want to do something different. We’ve got five alternatives that the whole family can enjoy.

1. Make your own family scavenger hunt with historical significance

Creating a scavenger hunt is a great way to get the family out to learn fun facts about Outer Banks history. There are a lot of well-known historical tidbits about our barrier island, like being first in flight, and being home to the Lost Colony, but the Outer Banks is rich with many little known relics and memorabilia that your children, and you, will find fascinating.

Local writer Hannah Bunn West gives a couple of examples, with a little history from her forthcoming book due out in 2021 from Arcadia Publishing and The History Press:

Where can you find the original cookhouse building from the Pea Island Lifesaving Station?

Answer: At the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum located in Collins Park in Manteo

Moved to its current location in 2006, the Cookhouse Museum commemorates the remarkable service of the all-Black lifesaving crew of the Pea Island station under the leadership of Keeper Richard Etheridge. A life-sized bronze statue of Etheridge presides over the park. He was a former slave who served in the Union during the Civil War and was the first African-American Keeper in the history of the U.S. Lifesaving Service.

Where can you find the brick foundation of a home from a real Outer Banks ghost town?

Answer: On the Roanoke Trail in Nags Head Woods

Nature has reclaimed the area, now a preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy, but it was once home to a thriving local community as far back as the mid-1800s. Recognizable Outer Banks family names like Tillett, Twiford and Midgette lived in the woods and farmed, fished and raised livestock. They also catered to tourists to make a living, cleaning the cottages of “The Unpainted Aristocracy” along Cottage Row and selling soft crabs and produce door-to-door. The last home remaining in the woods was lost to a fire around 1950, but you can still see its brick foundations in the underbrush along the Roanoke Trail.

2. Visit the Little Red Mailbox, where you can leave a note of special meaning or hope

The Little Red Mailbox

Check out the original Little Red Mailbox at the Glenmere Avenue beach access in Kill Devil Hills.

When Sue Goodrich, 60, of Nags Head, lost her mother in 2014, she would go to sit on the beach, look out at the ocean, and say, “Oh, mother!” One day, she says, she heard her mother’s voice respond, “If you ever feel sad, Sue, help somebody else out.” Shortly after, she met a photographer friend, Roy Edmond, at Starbucks. He showed her a photo of the Glenmere beach access, and said, “I took this picture, but it’s missing something.” This was her nudge. She called the town of Kill Devil Hills with the proposal for the Little Red Mailbox. She thought town officials would think she was a crazy dreamer. But to her surprise, they embraced it immediately. Now, people of all ages come from far and wide to leave their messages of hope and read the messages others have left. As the journals fill up, they are taken to the town of Kill Devil Hills, every page scanned, and posted onto the town Facebook page for Mailbox Monday, and then kept in the town archives.

Children love it, too. A couple of years ago, an English teacher from Loudoun County, Virginia, was inspired to keep a journal in her classroom. Each child wrote a note of hope, and she hand delivered them to Goodrich and the town mayor at the time, Sheila Davies. “Even in times of diversity and challenge, kids always have a message of hope,” says Goodrich. Now, there are mailboxes in 19 towns. “It’s been a nice, nice thing for people, especially during these times,” she says. “We are spreading hope, one little red mailbox at a time.” Check out the one that started it all at the Glenmere Avenue beach access in Kill Devil Hills.

3. Experience a new adventure in an old world at Roanoke Island Festival Park

This 25-acre interactive historic site, clad with costumed historic interpreters, gives young and old a glimpse at the lives of settlers and native Americans when the first English settlers arrived in 1585. Although the indoor museum and below deck on the ship Elizabeth II are closed, the park continues to offer a great educational and fun-filled experience for kids, including the American Indian town, the settlement site and above deck on the Elizabeth II.

Roanoke Island Festival Park

The American Indian town features a garden area, dance circle, leader’s house, and longhouse with interactive exhibits that allow guests to learn more about Algonquin Indian history and culture. The basket weaving and longhouse building activities are the only hands-on attractions that are unavailable currently. While below deck is closed, the upper deck of the Elizabeth II, the representational ship that interprets one of the English merchant vessels from the Roanoke Voyage of 1585, is still open to the public. The costumed interpretive staff of sailors will gladly answer your questions about the ship, the historic Roanoke voyages, or any other inquiry about the beginnings of English-speaking America. Currently they are allowing five guests aboard deck at a time so that visitors can safely socially distance.

In the settlement site, guests can still watch the blacksmith at work, try out the bow lathe, test out the pillory, and explore the military tent. All their activities are outdoors and spread out, and hand sanitizer stations are located throughout the park. While there, stop by the ticket shop, filled with fun souvenirs, and don’t miss the large rock pit filled with shark teeth for children to find and keep.

4. Explore Nags Head Woods Nature Conservancy

Insider's Guide to the Outer Banks: Nags Head Woods Preserve

Nags Head Woods Preserve is an extensive ecological preserve that protects a range of unique habitats, including forested dunes, interdune ponds, marshes, and wetlands.

Get your kids out to experience the sites, scents, sounds and most beloved by all children – critters – of a rare woodland habitat. Maritime forests such as Nags Head Woods are becoming increasingly rare due to human development throughout coastal environments. These woods boast an amazing amount of plant diversity, including trees such as oaks, hickories and beech. There are seven plant community types, including one that is globally rare: the maritime deciduous forest. So far, there are 550 plant species documented. As far as animals go, there are 150 species of birds, including prothonotary warblers, summer tanagers, and blue grosbeaks, 50 species of amphibians and reptiles, seven species of fish in the fresh water ponds, and more than 20 different mammal species. If you are lucky, you might see the adorable fan favorite, the river otter, and if you are really, really lucky you might spot the most recently sighted animal in the woods, the bobcat.

Due to COVID-19, the office and visitor services are closed, but all trails remain open. There is an audio tour on the Roanoke Trail that tells of the history and town that used to be located in the woods, and if you would like help identifying plants there are free apps that you can download on your phone. Some great options are PlantNet and PictureThis. Just take a picture of the plant on your phone and it will identify it. Remember to stay 6 feet apart on the trails, and in the summer months, don’t forget to use lots of bug spray.

5. Make a family night of star gazing

Cape Hatteras is one of the best places in the world to stargaze, experts say

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is one of the darkest and best places for stargazing along the East Coast. And now it is on track to become one of 67 places worldwide, including 37 parks, recognized by the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association.

With minimum artificial light in the Outer Banks, the celestial show at night is amazing. If you come from the city, you may never have seen a show like the one the night sky of the Outer Banks and the Outer Albemarle Peninsula can offer. The beaches of Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke and Duck are some of the best places to go. Use apps like Sky Guide to identify constellations with your kids. If you want a beautiful keepsake, local photographer Wes Snyder offers Family Milky Way Portraits. Using a special camera, he can take a photo of your family with the Milky Way in clear view behind you.

If you’re up for a short drive inland, Coastwatch Magazine recently named the Outer Albemarle Peninsula, the 2.4 million acres of public lands and waters and surrounding estuaries and barrier islands, as some of the darkest skies and best star gazing on the Atlantic Coast. A famous place to go star gazing there is Pettigrew National Park, just outside of Columbia. The park has a sky chart on its website so you can pick a perfect night to go. If a date has a blue square next to it, that means it’s probably going to be a great night for star gazing.

If you want to leave it to a professional and learn from a local, then Ghost Crab Quest might be for you. The company specializes in various Outer Banks explorations, including star gazing. One of the owners and tour guides, such as Jim Gould, will meet you at a designated spot and give you and your family a beginner’s astronomy lesson.

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