A PhD-prepared scientist by day, Jennifer is also the mom and afterschooler of two young, gifted children.
Helping Your Young Children Love History
Time and time again, I've heard people say they "hate" history and how it is "boring." As someone who looooooves history, I did not want to find myself in the position of having two children who found history boring. For that reason, we began afterschooling with history at a very early age in a way that engaged both the mind and bodies of my children. (History IS really boring if all you do is read about it.) As my children have grown, we have revisited all of these resources many times as they learn something new each time.
My own, personal education philosophy borrows bits and pieces from many different educational philosophies, which you will see in the table below. My beliefs most closely align with Charlotte Mason education, but we are secular. I also borrow ideas from Waldorf and Reggio Emilia. I found that blending each of these educational philosophies brings history to life so that young learners can really engage with what they are learning.
Educational Philosophies for Teaching History
Charlotte Mason believed history is taught through living books and children should learn about their own country first. We are American; thus, my primary book selections reflect American history. I personally chose to begin with a combination of early colonial America and Native American history. (Yep, the good, the bad, and the ugly.)
The Waldorf philosophy draws heavily on fairy tales and natural materials. From this philosophy, I helped my children collect objects to be displayed on a history table (similar to a Waldorf nature table), and we explored the hero tales from American history.
From the Reggio Emilia philosophy, I believe children should have some control over their learning by developing their own interests and that learning is child-led. Additionally, and this is my favorite part, I believe that learning should take a multi-sensory approach.
Living History Resources
No matter where you live, historical locations are nearby. Here are a few tips for locating and preparing to visit these resources:
- Search for museums, historic sites, or living history villages, like Colonial Williamsburg.
- Use the location website to learn about the place you will visit and orally teach this information to your children.
- Engage your children in storytelling by making up fiction stories based on what you taught them about where you will visit. Let them act out the history they have learned with toys and costumes.
What Should Your Children Know Before a Visit to a Living Resource?
Children learn best when they have some knowledge base about the subject. The fancy education word for this is scaffolding. Scaffolding is beyond the scope of this article, but the basic premise is that you, as the parent-teacher, build the structure of your child's knowledge as they move towards a more complex understanding of the topic. As they master the material, they need less support (aka scaffolding) from the teacher.
Taking a child to a wonderful museum or living history exhibit will not be interesting to the child if they have no idea what they are looking at. What you will end up with are "bored" children who want to run around and who do not engage with the history. (And children will still need those breaks to run around!)
Books and Repetition
In addition to the tips I offered above (preparing for the visit by telling stories and acting out history), I always choose 2 to 3 books that pertain to the place we plan to visit. Children love repetition in reading, so start reading the books 4 to 6 weeks before your outing. That may sound extreme, but, developmentally, we know reading repetition is important for children to build literacy skills.
By the time you arrive at your destination, your children will be able to relate the exhibits they see to all the knowledge they acquired from the books. The books and storytelling will be how you scaffold their knowledge so they are ready to fully engage!
Think Outside the Box!
Money can often be a problem when you want to take your children on many outings. There are several resources available that can become part of your afterschooling history program that are completely free!
- Crops—A major part of early America was agriculture. Each region will have their own specific crops. Find out what the primary crops are for your area, if you do not know, and visit them through the growing season. Your children can see how tiny the plants are when they first sprout and how big they get, and then you can discuss where that crop was grown in early America and by whom. In our area, we see a lot of tobacco fields, which were essential to colonial America. It's easy to watch the plants grow through the season.
- State and National Parks—State and National Parks are located all over. The National Park Service has a website that will help you find what facilities and parks are close to you. Many parks have facilities with hands-on activities for children; they can talk to park rangers, and my favorite part is taking a child-friendly hike. You may only make it 100 feet, but spend those 100 feet pretending to be an early American explorer, crossing that stretch of land for the first time.
- Online Artwork—Sometimes distance is a real hindrance to seeing certain parts of colonial history. Art is one way to bring those images and experiences of early American history to life. The best online resource I have found is the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian. It has a search feature to help you find portraits that depict early American life. Please don't expect your children to be enamored with paintings you show them online. Use this resource after reading the books and then play games like "I Spy." I live close enough to Washington DC to take my children to the museum, and they would play "I Spy" in there for hours.
- Hands-on Artwork—Also, keep art materials on hand so your kids can create their own early colonial scenes. Don't forget to collect all sorts of things from nature to glue on the art. How much fun would it be to glue sticks all over an old Amazon box to create a log cabin? (Spoiler: SO MUCH FUN! I've had one sitting in my house for three years now.)
History can be both fun and interactive for children with a little effort and time. Some of the key points from this article are:
- Use a variety of educational philosophies to bring history to life.
- Invest the time to help your children learn about history before they see it.
- Think outside the box when money is tight.