Backpack Adventures: Family Reunion
When families step through the 18th-century door of Westport’s historic Handy House, they often don’t know what to expect. The extraordinary architectural features that make the house interesting to adults do not always engage their children. But an innovative family program offered this summer takes a different approach.
Designed for children ages 5-12, the Handy House Family Reunion seamlessly combines fun and summer learning. When families come into the Handy House, they are given a map and a backpack containing a puzzle box and tools like a magnifying glass, notebook, and special flashlight that reads invisible ink. A booklet guides them through the rooms of the house, five of which showcase different residents from the house’s earliest construction in 1712 to its final owner, who died in 2003. Featured in the Family Reunion are the Handy House’s first resident Elizabeth Cadman White, popular Westport doctor James Handy, Hannah Handy, who lived in the house as a teenager, Abbott Smith, a New Bedford businessman and antiques dealer, and Eleanor Tripp, who lived in the house for decades into the 21st century and did much to restore it.
In each room, kids search for pictures of objects and then match those pictures to puzzle pieces in their box. The objects show interests or activities of the person featured in the room, or things he or she might have owned. For example, in Dr. Handy’s room, the pictures include a 19th-century medicine bag and an odd-looking stethoscope. By talking about the pictures with their parents, kids make connections to their own lives and get a subtle dose of Westport history and culture.
When the kids have found all the puzzle pieces, they glue them together in the pages of the booklet, to create a portrait of the person whose room they are in. As they complete its pages, the booklet becomes an album of the Handy House family, which is theirs to take home. At the final stop, they learn about another important resident of the house, who supplies an invisible clue to lead them to a very unusual group portrait. That resident is Buttons, Mrs. Tripp’s scrappy little dog!
According to Jenny O’Neill, executive director of the Westport Historical Society, “the Family Reunion takes a more holistic approach to interpreting the house. While distinctive details such as moldings and hinges can be intriguing to adults, architecture and building techniques usually do not resonate with children as much.” The Family Reunion challenges kids to follow directions to navigate through the house, search thoughtfully for pictures of objects, and then complete a puzzle. O’Neill adds, “We hope that families will continue to talk about what they experienced in the Handy House even after they leave.”