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?