A Minuteman stood outside Knott’s Berry Farm’s replica of Independence Hall regaling students from Purch Avenue Elementary School in Gardena with the exploits of those Revolutionary War heroes.
Meanwhile, over on Knott’s Silver Bullet roller coaster, students from Orange County’s Kestrel Learning Academy were riding it – not just for fun, but to learn about physics.
“They see the world around them and learn more outside the classroom than inside,” said Harriet Goren of the Academy.
The students were at the theme park participating in its educational programs that have been offered since 1955.
“Walter Knott started the program by letting school classes come into Ghost Town to meet some of the personalities of the Old West and teach them about life on the frontier,” said Jean Strickland, supervisor of Knott’s Adventures in Education Tours program.
Strickland has a degree in education, and part of her job is to make sure the various program offerings are up to date and in line with California Teaching Standards. “We’re an extension of the classroom,” she said.
The programs are designed differently for each grade level. First graders can learn about transportation systems of the Old West, later grades teach students about geology, Native Americans, Early Californians, the Westward Movement and life on the frontier, Physics, and the Revolutionary War era.
Re-enacting the older eras is key to the program, according to Strickland, who has, at times, played the role of John Adams’ wife, Abigail, bringing to life the hardships she endured while her husband was away dealing with forming a new country.
“One of the things I do is read a letter from Abigail to John about the death of their baby, and I usually tear up. One time a student got up to comfort me as she thought it was about my baby,” Strickland said.
“Instead of just learning about history from us, they get to experience it here at Knott’s at the replica of Independence Hall; something we would have to travel all the way to Philadelphia to do and cannot afford,” said Eleanor Dunai, a fifth-grade teacher at Carden Hall in Newport Beach.
Before embarking on the field trip to Knott’s, teachers get packets with materials that complement the journey, including a pre and post-trip test for the students to see what they have learned.
During the physics program, a Knott’s expert talks about how roller coaster designers have to know about potential energy, demonstrated by the lift chains taking the coaster trains to the top of the hill. Then how that energy is turned into kinetic energy, making the coaster go down at high speeds. They also teach about centrifugal force, and what some human bodies experience while riding.
“They can be hands-on and feel the forces of physics,” said Tina Dileva, a parent accompanying a class from Dapplegray Elementary School in Rolling Hills Estates. “My kid’s a little daredevil and loves the rides. They scare me, but he learns all about why he likes them so much.”
In Ghost Town, students learn about life on the frontier from a variety of re-enactors including a seamstress in a dress shop teaching the kids about how many items of apparel were made from scratch at a spinning wheel.
In the one-room school house, students learn how teachers taught kids of all ages – including disciplining the frontier students by the wearing of the “dunce” cap. They also learn the importance of metal working on the frontier at Knott’s working Blacksmith Shop.
The field trips to Knott’s are not free; costs vary depending on the program and additional things like lunch and more. But based on the fact that many schools are participating during the week while in the school year, it is apparent that many think it works.
“It brings the lessons we’re teaching from a textbook to life,” said Marie Martin, a teacher at Carden Hall School in Newport Beach.
To learn more about the educational field trip programs, visit Knott’s website at: www.knotts.com/explore/groups/student-and-youth/adventures-in-education
Reported and Photographed by Mark Eades. Mark Eades is a former Disney Imagineer who spent more than 20 years as a writer and producer in the theme park industry, then went into journalism for 20 years. The father of five now spends time with his wife, while writing about theme parks and more.