How do you bring history to life for kids?

Getting in the historic spirit at Colonial Williamsburg

I have always liked history, and as fortune would have it, I married a man who shares that interest. Maybe it’s because I enjoy stories, but to me there’s something so amazing in the idea that at every point in recorded time ordinary people have been going about their day-to-day business with the same kinds of concerns that we have today. And I’m fairly ecumenical in my tastes – want to share the history of the ball bearing? The pencil? Cheese? I’m all eyes and ears.

But just because I’m a sucker for pretty much any kind of diorama, interactive display, or museum panel doesn’t mean I assume my children will enjoy them equally. I’m lucky that both of my boys like history too, but I know that making sure they continue to do so is part of my job as a traveling mom. If we keep having fun at museums and historic sites, they’ll keep wanting to visit them.

So what are my top tips for making historical attractions interesting for children?

1. Read, read, and read some more. Before we even leave home I make sure that we’ve read up on the place we’re visiting and understand its historical significance. When my children were younger, this might have meant me reading books to them or finding art or history books with lots of pictures that I could share and discuss. Now that they are independent readers, I visit the library and find age-appropriate books for them and then just leave these lying around to be discovered. Series I love include the “Horrible Histories” and “You Wouldn’t Want to Be a…” both of which take a humorous and engaging approach to teaching about history.

2. Take a tour. A good guide can do a lot to breathe life into a historic site or museum and many now offer tours especially aimed at families. The best thing about tours and kids is that sometimes they can be a great way to combine historic information with exercise, as when we rode through Central London with a guide via Fat Tire Bike tours. There’s no better way to keep children interested than to keep them moving!

3. Make connections. Visiting an old school house? Talk about the similarities and differences between it and your child’s classroom. At Hagley last spring, we played “I Spy” in the kitchen of a historic house – I asked the boys to find the antique equivalents of things that we have at home. At the Globe Theatre in London, we talked about how different seeing a play there would be from going to the movies. Another tack is to connect what you’re looking at to things your children have learned at school or to other places you’ve visited.

4. Encourage questions. This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve been in a museum or at a historic site and overheard families where kids ask questions only to have the adults simply respond “I don’t know.” When your child asks what an item is or how it was used, find someone who can give you the answer, even if it takes a little doing. Most museums now have docents or interpreters throughout who will be more than happy to help you get the information you need. We’ve done this so often that my children will often seek out docents themselves to ask questions.

5. Dress up. This last tip won’t work for every child or in every situation, but one of the most successful experiences we had in historic immersion was at Colonial Williamsburg where we rented a costume for Teddy. He absolutely loved wearing the blouse, rucksack, and hat (we purchased the latter and he very carefully chose a cockade with which to decorate it) and I think it made the entire experience more vivid for him. It helped that the interpreters there continually addressed him in character – expecting him to bow in return and doff his hat – and that he was invited to participate in both seed planting and a muster as if he were an 18th-century child. I think the takeaway here is that meaningful interactivity and immersion – whether it involves dressing up or not – is the way to go.

Thus far we’ve managed to have very positive experiences at a whole host of different historic sites from the Tower of London to Versailles to the small museum in Milton, Wisconsin. I’ll be honest and confess that I do worry about a bit about what will happen when my children get older and reach that eye-rolling stage when everything is boring. But until then I’m going to enjoy every historical moment.

These are my top tips for engaging kids with history on the road. Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite suggestions?

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  1. says

    GREAT tips! We also try to find movies the kids can watch beforehand, either about the place, the person, the time period – something they can connect with later. The movies are nice because the kids are at vastly different reading levels and it’s low key.

  2. says

    Great tips, Mara! I have a teenager who is right in the middle of the eye-rolling everything is boring stage. I don’t worry about it too much. We don’t make her go on day trips to museums or such when we are home but when we are traveling she has to come with us. She complains and rolls her eyes at the time and moans a bit (or sometimes a lot) about how boring it all is. What’s surprising, however, is that the place may come up in conversation months later and it becomes quite apparent that she was paying attention to what was going on despite the bad attitude. I just blame it all on teenage hormones and hope that my real daughter is coming back soon! :)

  3. says

    I think you’ve already done the most important thing for your kids in starting them young on the history front. My kids are all in the eye-rolling stage (the J. Paul Getty museum was an unmitigated disaster for us) and it’s really hard to try and develop an interest in these things now. Although I am tempted to make them all wear costumes. That could at least amuse me, if not them.

  4. says

    Great post! I really have nothing to add, you covered it all! We do try to follow up with an after activity or book or movie to bring the learning adventure to a close. I do think we are starting to inch our way into the eye rolling stage. To me, eye rolling just means they are having a great time and want more, right? :)

  5. says

    Great tips Mara! I think I would just add that the earlier you start with history, the better. When I told people that I took my 5 year old on the Freedom Trail in Boston, they looked at me like I was nuts! But some of the stuff the tour guide told them stuck and I got the added benefit of them growing up not knowing any better. I think that when you take older kids (who haven’t done the museum/history route in their younger years), then they ARE bored and whiny when you take them to places like the Louvre or the British Museum.

    I think it’s also important to keep a variety in your days – all history gets boring, but mixing history with parks and science museums or active adventures (like your bike riding) keeps it interesting.

  6. Leah says

    I just found The Mother of All Trips yesterday and so neat that you would post this topic today. I spent a good part of the day thinking about and writing up a list of different books that I’m planning to read with my almost 4 year old over the next 2 months in preparation for our trip to Washington DC, Virginia, and NYC in April. I’m a flight attendant and I love to travel too. You’re a kindred spirit Mara. After a trip to Pearl Harbor last January, my then 2 1/2 year old became obsessed with learning about WWII. Without going into full details on that war (he’s only 3 1/2 after all, no need for full details yet), his questions led to a study of Japan and a knowledge of aircraft carriers and the names of most of the planes used during WWII. Some kids have imaginary friends, and so does my son, but his imaginary friend is his WWII buddy Tom who is his navigator. Together they fly many missions and then he likes to “come home from the war” and tell me his war stories. At first I was kind of alarmed with all of the war talk, but he was just processing all that he’d learned. I can’t wait to hear his questions after experiencing places like Williamsburg, NYC, or Washington DC.

  7. says

    Great tips! I’d like to add one tip that works for our kids and that is “playing games”. A game of I spy, 21 questions or the ABC game makes learning fun. I also bring along sidewalk chalk, paper and bend-a-roos and ask the kids to re-create what they see.

  8. says

    Great list, Mara! The only thing I would add is that I think it’s important to choose the more kid-friendly historic sites and museums. Some do a much better job than others at engaging kids. The ones that have displays with plaques to read aren’t as kid-friendly as those with engaging tour guides, living history exhibits and demonstrations, and multi-media exhibits.

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