Best American Landmarks to Visit with Kids: Ellis Island
America’s historic and natural landmarks may not be as ancient as those found in other parts of the world, but their more recent origins add a tangible quality that may inspire a child’s learning. Whether seeing firsthand the documents our nation was built on, or gazing in awe at the beauty found in our national parks, visits to these places are an opportunity for memorable family bonding and can bring history to life for a powerful learning experience. This series includes tips and educational resources for visiting some of the most amazing landmarks our country has to offer with your kids. Some may be in your back yard, while others require a longer trip, but all are well worth a visit.
If your ancestors came to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, chances are they arrived via Ellis Island in the New York harbor. In fact, approximately 40 percent of Americans can trace at least one ancestor back to this historic federal immigration station. It was a gateway to America, the beginning of the dream of a new life for more than 12 million immigrants. The majority came from Europe—specifically Russia, Italy, Poland, Ireland, and Hungary—while others were from Syria, Turkey, and Armenia. Many were fleeing political oppression or religious persecution while others were escaping poverty, droughts, and famine. All wanted a piece of “the American Dream,” and this was their entrance way.
Most endured a long and often difficult journey by sea and arrived, with thousands of others, at Ellis Island to be processed. “And the noise and the languages were absolutely incomprehensible,” recalled Stephen Peters, who arrived as a boy in 1920, “that scared me more than anything else.” The inspection process typically took three to seven hours and most were admitted. For them, it was the “Island of Hope,” but for those denied entry it became the “Island of Tears.” This mass immigration took place from 1892 until 1924, when more than 12 million immigrants were processed.
In 1924, new laws restricted the number of immigrants and the Ellis Island immigration station eventually closed in 1954. Today, a visit to this historic site is like a visit back in time. The building now appears as it did back in 1918, thanks to renovations made in 1990. Walking through these historic halls and viewing the artifacts, photographs, and interactive displays at the immigration museum convey the enormity of this country’s mass immigration. And visitors hear moving stories from some of the courageous immigrants who passed through Ellis Island in search of a better life in America.
Activities to Include on Your Visit to Ellis Island
Guided tours: National Park Service employees and volunteers offer free guided tours through the renovated facility. They describe the courageous and arduous journey of the millions of immigrants who traveled to this country during those years. Self-guided tours are also available.
- Award-winning documentary: Try to reserve time to watch this 30-minute free film titled, Island of Hope, Island of Tears. It’s worth the time and will provide a helpful context for kids and adults. Watching it in advance of the visit may also be helpful.
- American Family Immigration History Center: This interactive exhibit features a collection of immigrant records stored at Ellis Island. Visitors can learn about their own family history by searching these archives. Passenger records, original manifests, and ship information is available. You can search these records online as well.
- Wall of Honor: Located outside the museum, this permanent exhibit features individual and family names of immigrants from every nationality, including forced migration from slavery. Names continue to be accepted for the wall and you can search for your family’s name and panel number in advance.
- Ellis Kids Exhibit: This colorful interactive exhibit helps kids imagine what being an immigrant in the 1900s was like as they learn about the journey on the ship, going through processing, and trying to adapt to their new country. Kids also have the opportunity to become Junior Rangers at Ellis Island by downloading the Ellis Island Junior Ranger activity booklet, which kids can bring and complete on their visit.
Related Educational Resources and Activities
- Explore Ellis Island via this scholastic Virtual Field Trip. A host explains the history of Ellis Island while taking viewers through the building.
- Read letters and watch videos from children around the world who have recently immigrated to the United States.
- Take an interactive tour of Ellis Island and follow in the footsteps of immigrants who crossed the Atlantic Ocean on route to America via Ellis Island.
- Take some online quizzes to test your knowledge on immigration and Ellis Island (you’ll need to register with the site first).
- Learn how to study your own genealogy and discover who your ancestors were!
- Read about the famous people who entered the New York harbor and passed through Ellis Island or do your own passenger search.
- Access educational resources on immigration and Ellis Island and view a timeline of the history of immigration in the United States.
- After a visit to Ellis Island, try these activities, including creating a family tree, to keep your children engaged in the subject.
- Museum Planet sells a .99 cent app that offers a narrated digital tour of Ellis Island.
Related Children’s Books
- Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story by Eve Bunting and Ben Stahl
The true story of a 15-year-old girl who travels to America from Ireland with her younger brothers. Grades 3–5
- I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project by Veronica Lawlor
Fifteen young immigrants write about their arrival in the United States. Grades 3–5
- The Long Way to a New Land by Joan Sandin
The story of a family who journey from Sweden to America in 1868. Grades K–2
- Watch the Stars Come Out by Riki Levinson and Diane Goode
A grandmother tells her granddaughter of her mother’s voyage to America. Grades Pre K–3
- Island of Hope: The Story of Ellis Island and the Journey to America by Martin Sandler
Stories from immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island, including teens. Grades 6–9
Questions for Discussion
Before your visit, ask your children:
- What would make you want to leave your home and go to another country? (Lack of food, lack of freedom, fear for your life?)
- What would you take with you if you had to leave your home behind and make a long voyage by sea?
- What would you miss most about America if you had to leave?
- What do you like best about your country?
After your visit, ask these questions for further discussion:
- Do you feel more grateful about living in this country after seeing what people went through to come here?
- Why do you think they risked so much to come to America?
- Do you know anyone who came to America from another country? What country are they from? (Look up the country and learn more about it.)
Educational Places to Visit Nearby
In addition to the Statue of Liberty, which is on the grounds and offers a museum and a guided tour, the following sites are worth a visit:
Castle Clinton National Monument
Originally built as a fort during the War of 1812, this national monument has changed through the years as New York has grown, becoming an immigrant processing station and even an aquarium. A visit to this site is an educational opportunity to learn about the war with Great Britain in 1812.
This reconstructed 1848 townhouse commemorates Teddy Roosevelt, the only president who was born in New York. His boyhood home looks as it did when Roosevelt lived there in 1865. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the impact this president made.
Thomas Edison National Historical Park
Here is a chance to see Thomas Edison’s home and laboratory and learn more about this great American inventor and how he changed our world.
Note: Ellis Island suffered significant damage from Hurricane Sandy. Although the museum reopened in October 2013, some of the museum’s collection was relocated during the renovations.
Elizabeth Street is a writer for Learning Liftoff. For the past 20 years, she has written newsletter and website content for nonprofit and corporate organizations on such topics as the plight of children of prisoners worldwide, the lack of prenatal care for mothers in developing countries, and child mentoring programs. She has a particular interest in the importance of providing all children with a quality education regardless of their family’s financial status or background. A native of Virginia, Elizabeth is a graduate of James Madison University and loves animals, with particular fondness for her two cats, Oscar and Emmy.