Literature Comes Alive

The Walt Whitman Birthplace offers a trove of interactive fun.

When families visit the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center in Huntington, they find something fun for everyone. In the modern Interpretive Center, children spin old-fashioned tops, flip Jacob’s ladder and test their skills while playing a wooden catch ball game.

“Look, I can roll a hoop with a stick,” a young girl exclaims. “What a great game!”

A tour guide tells her parents: “We get this reaction all the time. After all, when a toy has been around for hundreds of years, there must be a good reason.”

Walt Whitman, widely recognized as one of America’s greatest poets, was born in 1819 at what is now the museum. He died in 1892 in Camden, New Jersey. Whitman’s innovative free verse poetry captured the nation’s spirit during the 19th century. On display at the Whitman Birthplace, Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass (Bantam Classics) contains all of his poems, notably, “O Captain! My Captain!” which celebrates President Lincoln.

Whitman lived in Huntington until he was 4 years old, when his family moved to Brooklyn. Originally, the Whitman homestead was a 20-acre farm, but today it is about two acres. Now, children may cultivate a love for literature at the museum as they learn about the poet’s life and works, as well as the time period in which he grew up. What better way to keep your child’s mind and skills engaged when school is out than with engaging history, games and toys?

The museum has an oversized “Seek & Find” laminated booklet that encourages young visitors to explore the museum and search for items such as Whitman’s school desk and pictures of his mother and father.

One exhibit offers a significant summary of Whitman’s life and works. It traces the poet’s development from his boyhood to his international prominence. The collection of more than 130 portraits gives a unique glimpse into this important literary figure’s life. Visitors may also watch a 20-minute video about Whitman and listen to him reading his famous poem, “America,” captured on an Edison cylinder. Guests enjoy strolling across the grand lawn to attend a guided tour of the Birthplace farmhouse built by Whitman’s father.

A new series of seasonal events at the museum celebrates Yuletide, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween. At these gatherings, parents and children alike learn through entertaining stories and hands-on activities.

With a mission to be “Walt Whitman’s voice today,” the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association (WWBA) operates the historic site. WWBA maintains a vibrant literary calendar that includes lectures on poetry, writing workshops, a student poetry contest and book readings. The happenings aim to promote literacy and encourage writing in all forms. WWBA provides venues for writers, artists and musicians of all ages to nurture and showcase their creativity. Trained docents and volunteers offer year-round guided tours.

The Birthplace is a New York State Historic Site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The U.S. Millennium Council named the museum an American Treasure in 1999, and it has been cited as “one of the five best kept parks in New York State.”

After tours, children and families browse the gift shop, lunch at picnic tables and relax on outdoor benches. Patrons may also get exercise by walking to nearby Jayne’s Hill, Long Island’s highest point. Whitman often walked there for grand views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound.

About 7,000 students attend educational programs at the museum annually. A teacher recently evaluated the class experience there by writing, “Everything about this trip is great, and I look forward to bringing my class again next year.” A student added, “I wrote my first poem. I didn’t know I could write a poem!”

The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association hosts Scout programs and offers community service internships for high school and college students. The Birthplace is open daily from June 15 to Labor Day, and from Wednesday to Sunday from Labor Day to June 14. For more information, visit www.waltwhitman.org.