The summer I was ten, my parents took me to visit the restored town of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. We stepped into the musical instrument shop where I watched craftsmen constructing violins. That year I had started learning to play the French horn and had joined the orchestra. One of the craftsmen asked me if I played an instrument. When I said horn, he got out a 1700s hunting horn. As he played it, I was mesmerized: its circular brass tubing resembled my horn, and it sounded similar. But he could play so many notes despite its lack of valves. Outside the shop, we encountered the fife and drum corps marching down the street, boys not much older than me wearing tricornered hats, playing music that sounded alien to my young ears. My senses were bombarded with new sights, smells, and sounds. I was enthralled with this different world. When I got home, I went to the library and checked out every book I could about Williamsburg and then about colonial America.
Forty years later I’m still checking history books out of the library. Today, I’m a public historian who has engaged millions of people with history through exhibitions I’ve developed and educational materials I’ve written. As a children’s book author and a museum professional with over twenty years working at some of America’s most beloved history museums, I’ve thought a lot about how to engage children with the past.
What is the spark that ignites a child’s interest in history? We all know people who claim history is boring because they see it as a list of names and dates they were forced to memorize in school. But those who love history know it is not about rote memorization. They were captivated by the past, perhaps due to a history teacher who inspired them to look beyond the names and dates to multiple perspectives and challenging decision points. Maybe they experienced a “Williamsburg moment.” The true lover of history knows the past is full of fascinating people who navigated in a world unlike our own. The events of the past could easily have taken a different course had the people involved made other decisions. People in the past dreamed big dreams and brought change through both large and small actions.
Hooking kids on history requires finding personal connections that pique their curiosity.
Here are 6 ways to engage ages 8-12 with the past and foster a lifelong love for history.
POWER OF STORY
Even before children become independent readers, parents can stimulate curiosity with age-appropriate storybooks about the past. Early on, children learn the power of a good narrative to spark imagination. Whether a nonfiction tale about a famous inventor or history event, or a historical fiction story with memorable characters, books can captivate readers. The best nonfiction includes a bibliography and source notes. The best historical fiction provides research notes and comparisons with the factual events and people. Children want to know how the story is different from what really happened. Biography is also popular with children who are starting to think about a future career. Books about high achievers in all careers help children to see the many different paths people have taken to success.
POWER OF PLACE
A national historic site like George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, immerses a child in a past environment that can feel as exciting as a foreign country. Watching someone cook food on an open hearth, feeling a cannon fire, listening to fiddle music, trying a new dance step, or hearing a blacksmith pound on an anvil, engages the senses and stimulates the imagination. Historic sites illustrate change over time. The home of a famous person shows a different way of life and can inspire children to want to know more about the person. Often historic sites include hands-on components, a bonus for children. Historic forts like Fort Washington offer the opportunity to explore shadowy passageways and imagine the roar of cannon. Even battlefields can captivate young learners given signage panels that explain military strategy or a guide who introduces colorful characters involved in the battle. After visiting a historic place, children can be encouraged to delve into further study through books, movies and games.
POWER OF OBJECTS
Local history museums offer the opportunity to view original artifacts. Even at a young age, kids can understand the “real thing.” Intimate encounters with an invention that changed the world or an object owned by a famous person (Abraham Lincoln’s top hat or Harriet Tubman’s shawl), can hold a powerful place in one’s memory. When the child learns about the person in school, the memory of seeing the object reinforces the learning. Unfortunately not all museums are equally interesting to young visitors. A museum that does not include touchable reproductions or offer a context for the objects can bore learners of any age. Sometimes programming targeted to younger audiences is available only at certain times. Consult the museum’s website before your visit.
POWER OF FAMILY
Turn to family members for personal stories of the past. Some children will be fascinated by conversations with older family members about their childhood or stories about something such as a first car. My grandmother told of riding in a horse-drawn sleigh. I was amazed! Ask adults to reminisce and share their experiences of life in a different time. Children will gain an understanding that history is change over time and not all inventions or objects exist at every point in time. Old family photos can serve as an excellent visual reference to these changes.
POWER OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Ask your children to draw a picture of their neighborhood or a rough map of their journey to a place they often visit. What would that journey have looked like a hundred years ago? A book may show images of local landmarks that have changed or of once undeveloped land that is now occupied by homes or businesses. Explore the history of the land on which you live. Who else has lived on the same land? By tracking how a familiar landscape has changed over time, children can get a sense of how they fit into history.
POWER OF MUSIC
Whether the simple melody of a Shaker tune, the shrill tones of fifes, or the pounding of heavy metal, the changing sounds of music all have historical context. Ask your children what their favorite music is and explore why it sounds that way. What style came before it? Share how your taste in music has changed over time. Introduce them to ragtime, jazz, early rock or other musical genres that inspired change in the music scene and can offer insight into music innovation.
The more children learn to make comparisons and empathize with people of the past, the more they will grow to appreciate differences and see their place in a changing world. Everything has a history and you can use whatever interests your child as a springboard into understanding the rich history around them.
Do you have additional ideas for ways to engage children with history? Please add a comment.
After twenty years at the Smithsonian Institution, Tim Grove has launched a consulting company, Grove History Consulting. His fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, for ages 10-14, will be published in early 2020. He blogs at historyplaces.wordpress.com. His author page is timgrove.net. He is also co-founder of the History Relevance initiative.