Kids love California for its beaches and its theme parks—but also for its ingenuity. After all, this is where their favorite TV shows and movies are made, and where a lot of their favorite gadgets have been created. And just like the farms that dot the Golden State, California’s brains and talent are a sustainable crop—so your child can take home some of that wisdom and savvy. On your next California family vacation, treat your child to a cool class or camp—ranging from one-hour animation or cooking lessons to family sleepovers at a zoo or even weeklong filmmaking camps. (Granted, plenty of kids want to learn how to surf or skateboard in the Golden State—and we have some great tips on where to do that too.) Brainstorm with your family on our list of fun learning vacations.
Cook Like a Celebrity Chef
With its wealth of big-name chefs, California is an excellent place to give your future Michelin-star culinary artist a cooking class—and one designed just for pint-size chefs. At the Gourmandise School in Santa Monica, kids and teens ages 6 to 17 can take cooking and baking classes with themes like handmade pasta, donuts, and of course, the quintessential “Taco Truck” class.
If you’re visiting the Bay Area, head to Culinary Artistas in San Francisco to sign up your chef-in-training for a creative cooking class—ranging from one-hour classes to weeklong camps—in beautiful Ghirardelli Square; if your child is four or older, you can drop him or her off and then go exploring yourself. Or, choose from weeklong camps during spring or summer, like Flavors of the Mediterranean or the Alice Waters–inspired Vegetarian Dishes.
Farther north in California’s wine country, plan an interactive parent/teen cooking class (for ages 12 and up) at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. Select from a wide variety of special Saturday Kitchen classes like Artisan Breads, Desserts, or Spain and the World Table. In addition to hands-on cooking instruction, you’ll also score a CIA logo apron, recipes, and a cool lunch together.
Lights, Camera, Action
Whether your kids yearn to be in front of the camera, or are curious about what goes on behind the scenes, California has a class for them. Kids can try out their acting chops at a single day drop-in improv class at the iconic Groundlings in Los Angeles, or hone their onstage skills during a one-week intensive summer workshop.
Camp Reel, a nonprofit in Oakland, offers four-day summer camps that teach young women storytelling and production skills, while Outside the Lens in San Diego offers Saturday photography workshops at the beautiful Liberty Station—as well as longer summer camps focusing on stop-motion animation, documentaries, and music video-making for grades six and up.
For kids who love animation, try a one-day cartoon-drawing class at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, or take a two-hour workshop on animation, storyboarding, and costume design at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
Ready for the big leagues? Located in the Southern California mountains near Big Bear, Pali Adventures’ summer program offers weeklong sleepaway camps with specializations such as Hollywood stunts, filming, movie makeup, and acting.
Walk and Talk With the Animals
Animal lovers can get their fill of furry, feathered, and fishy creatures with classes and camps that offer a front-row seat on the animal kingdom. At the Los Angeles Zoo, kids as young as two will enjoy “Wiggle Squiggle Zoo” with a parent, while six-year-olds can take a Zoo Critter class on “Tropical Treasures” (and the whole family can participate in one of the zoo’s 90-minute Saturday classes). In the East Bay, Oakland Zoo offers a ZooCamp (ages four and up) that combine games, crafts, and lots of up-close time with the animals. Down south, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has a family overnight program, as well as multi-day summer camps that let campers touch, feed, and learn about park residents.
For kids who want to explore marine life, SeaWorld San Diego offers overnight and weeklong camps throughout the summer, as well as the popular family sleepover experience that includes educational activities, dinner, and a place to sleep by the actual exhibits.
If your child is interested in a career with sea life, head to Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, where kids can take a Junior Biologist class or even a Job Shadow class with a veterinarian, marine biologist, or mammalogist. In Central California, kids can participate in summer day camps through Monterey’s Camp SEA Lab, exploring themes like “Flukes & Flippers” or “Explore the Shore.” And for a truly “immersive” class, take the 90-minute surface scuba diving lesson in the Great Tide Pool at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Train to be a Techie Star
For tomorrow’s scientists and engineers, California has a serious lock on the S.T.E.M. scene (science, technology, engineering, and math). Younger kids will love the engineer-designed LEGO classes and camps at Play-Well locations throughout California, featuring classes such as Jedi Engineering or Minecraft Master. Fascinated with robots? Sign your child up for an I.D. Tech robotics summer camp at Palo Alto High School or at various Southern California locations, where kids ages 6 to 17 will learn how to build, program, and control their own robots.
If college campuses are on your California tour, consider a weeklong camp through the Digital Media Academy, offered at UCLA, UCSD, UC-Irvine, and Stanford. Grouped by age, kids can take camps like Minecraft Game Design, iOS App Development, LEGO Robotics, and Adventures in Wearable Tech & Fashion Design.
California grows over one third of the nation’s vegetables, and over two thirds of its fruits and nuts—so a farm tour or overnight stay offers a vivid way for kids to learn about where their food comes from. At Mendocino County’s Philo Apple Farm, spend the night in an apple orchard and participate in a cooking demonstration (check its calendar for special events designed for families).
In California’s Central Valley, tour the Rosa Brothers Milk Company, east of Visalia, to ride the "Moo-Mobile" and see how milk is bottled and turned into ice cream. Then head southeast of Bakersfield to the Adorable Alpacas ranch in Tehachapi. A weekend walking tour lets you pet an alpaca and see how their fiber is spun into yarn. For a hands-on ranch experience, spend the night at Rinconada Dairy Farm in Santa Margarita and help out around the ranch by gathering eggs, feeding the sheep, or even milking the cows.
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