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History Resources for Young Gifted Learners: Introducing the Colonial Period to Toddlers and Preschoolers

A PhD-prepared scientist by day, Jennifer is also the mom and afterschooler of two young, gifted children.

When Young Gifted Children Need "More"

As a parent of two rather young, gifted sons, I often get asked questions like, "Why do you intensely tutor your children?" or "Why are you forcing them to learn? They are so young!"

Yes, they are young, but their learning is child-led because that is at the core of my parenting philosophy. If you are the parent of a young gifted child (or any child), you know you cannot make them do anything they really do not want to do. As the parents of gifted learners, we all know we cannot somehow force knowledge into their brains. We can, however, make available to them a feast of resources that are age-appropriate and developmentally engaging and offer plenty of opportunities for young children to do what they do best: play.

In this article, I will tell you how I introduced American history to my sons for the very first time to give them the more that they both needed. I began with colonial history. I frequently travel with my sons to historical sites on the East Coast; to understand what they were visiting, they needed to understand the way of life in colonial America. My sons were 2 and 4 years old when I first presented the book The Ox-Cart Man to them.

Book recommendation: "The Ox-Cart Man."

Book recommendation: "The Ox-Cart Man."

Why I Love The Ox-Cart Man

The Ox-Cart Man was written by Donald Hall in 1979, and it won the Caldecott Medal in 1980. Because many of my thoughts on education are derived from the Charlotte Mason method, I strive to ensure the books I introduce to my children are living books. This book meets all my criteria for a living book.

The Ox-Cart Man tells the story of a family who lives in the country in colonial America. It describes all the activities the family participates in throughout the year to prepare goods to deliver and sell in a colonial town. In addition to learning about country life in colonial America, children learn about commerce in colonial cities, seasons, agriculture and farming, and handicrafts.

I purchased this book two years ago, and it is still a staple in our home (my sons are now 4 and 6). I typically read the book every night for about a week (remember, developmentally, kids love repetition in books!). Each night we focus on a different aspect of the book and delve deeper into that topic. For example, because we often visit Colonial Williamsburg, we talk about how the store the man visits in the book is similar to the stores we visit in Colonial Williamsburg. This can be done with any topic in the book. I keep wishing my sons would decide to like handicrafts so we could go more in-depth on that aspect of the book.

Illustrations from the book.

Illustrations from the book.

Using the Illustrations to Guide Activities

First, I wanted to give you an example of the beautiful illustrations found in this book and then tell you how I use the illustrations to assist my sons in their child-led learning of colonial America.

1. Make Up Your Own Stories

First, I read the book many times to my sons to build their context and knowledge about life in colonial America. After that, although they usually want me to actually read the words, we started "reading" the pictures. Each of my sons would take turns using what they learned throughout the entire book to make up more elaborate stories about each picture.

Storytelling helps young learners (even gifted ones) develop early literacy skills. Though my older son could read by the age of 3, he gained significant knowledge about the parts of a story (beginning, middle, and end) through storytelling. He also learned that all stories need a climax and then a falling action. Through storytelling, he was even able to learn that literacy-specific vocabulary. My younger son, who is now three, is developing those same skills.

Straight from a cotton field (fell off a truck).

Straight from a cotton field (fell off a truck).

2. Build a Waldorf-Inspired Colonial America Table

If you are familiar with Waldorf, nature tables are a big part of the philosophy. I do incorporate various aspects of Waldorf into our home, including lots of nature. One activity I used with this book was letting my children pick various objects they felt represented the book and put it on our "colonial table."

I had them do this activity again recently after using the book for two years (see photo above). Based on the illustrations in the book, one son chose to put a big pile of cotton on the table (bugs and all! Yay!). The other son put a wood shaving he recently brought home from the carpenter's station at Colonial Williamsburg. He felt this represented the work the farmer did to build barrels and a cart to take into town. (It actually came from the carpenters making shingles by hand.)

Beautiful, natural play materials let your children retell the stories in books.

Beautiful, natural play materials let your children retell the stories in books.

Pretending to Be the Ox-Cart Man the Waldorf Way

One aspect of Waldorf I incorporate into my home are the beautiful, natural play materials. (If you already have a farm set or some animals, those will work beautifully.) For my children, I began investing in Ostheimer animals when my oldest son turned two. These toys are so gorgeous that I keep them displayed in wire bins in the living room so I can see them all the time.

I'll go ahead and mention these toys appear to be indestructible and will thus become family heirlooms. Although Ostheimer makes an ox, we do not own the ox. We own the Ostheimer cow/bull and the apple tree (which you can see in the illustrations posted above where the farmer gathers apples to sell in town). When we are afterschooling heavily in history, I will pull out all the animals and barn that are related to colonial America and set them up on a piece of furniture in the living room to let my sons explore their own retelling of the books we are reading.

Honestly, we have pretty much any animal you could ever find on a farm made by Ostheimer. (Yes, I had some sticker shock—but, seriously, indestructible!) After four years, I've only had one piece break off the tail of one dinosaur. That's how sturdy these are! I would recommend them for any children who no longer chew on things.

Key Points to Remember

  1. Even young learners, toddlers, and preschoolers, can learn about and enjoy history when it is introduced in a developmentally appropriate way.
  2. Creative activities let the children take the lead in their learning and decide what topics in the book are most important to them.
  3. Play. Play. Play. Even when history is the topic of interest, letting the children play will give them solid foundations in literacy and math. And for the young gifted learners, you can introduce "literary terms" by letting them lead their learning and being creative with their play.
  4. High-quality materials that stand the test of time have the most flexibility with afterschooling. Like all moms, I'm looking for a good deal and toys I do not have to replace . . . ever, basically.


Denise McGill from Fresno CA on March 05, 2020:

I think your children are highly favored to have you! Keep up the good work. I agree that if they have the curiosity and want to know more, give it to them. I made art supplies available for my children and they were encouraged to write and illustrate their own stories.