Sharing History with Children

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Sharing History with Children

Fun ways to help kids learn about history.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Kids can be little sponges for stories from the past. As any parent knows, you just need to engage them briefly with tidbits that they might remember. Here are some ways to do that:

“When I was little…”

Remember the beauty of the words, “when I was little…” 

Children of all ages, even very young ones, love hearing stories of how things used to be. Tell them about your own first day of school or share with them the favorite games you liked to play, or what type of vacations your family took. Those stories never grow old. 

Remind your kids to ask their grandparents about what it was like for them, too. Grandparents will love it, and your kids will hear wonderful family stories of how things used to be. 

Create a family time capsule. (No burying required!)

The purpose of a time capsule is to put away something from “now” to look at later. Some families may want to write letters about their lives today; other families may want to have each person select an object and write a note about why this item was chosen. Was the item a popular fad of the day? Was it a souvenir from a trip taken this summer?  The process of deciding what to write about or what object to choose is an education in itself.

If you’re collecting letters, the pages can be stored in an envelope or a file. If you’re collecting objects, select an appropriately-sized box, label it well, and  place it in the basement or the top shelf of a closet where it can be stored for a time.

After deciding on the type of item to be collected, discuss with family members when you want to look at the time capsule again.  (You probably need to let at least one year go by, or the project will lose its impact.)  Opening the box or envelope on a holiday when everyone is together and has time to relax will give you an opportunity to look at your own family history; the process also shows kids the pleasure of looking back over time.

Newspaper Boys (and Girls?)

Today, most parents get most of their news online, but some households still have one or two papers delivered in printed form. (If your child walks to school, he or she may see the wrapped papers lying in driveways.) Explain to your children that printed newspapers used to be the primary way for families to get the news.

In a city, customers could buy a newspaper at a newsstand, but in the suburbs, newspaper boys were the key to distributing papers. Children as young as 11 or 12 would meet the delivery trucks early (5 a.m.?) and wrap and pack the newspapers into their carrying bags. Some kids delivered the newspapers from their bikes, others walked along sometimes pulling a wagon behind them.

Collecting payment from customers was often a part of the job. Once a month, they would visit their route in the evening to collect money owed for the newspapers.  

Personal Phones are Something New

As all adults know, not everyone grew up having a phone in their pocket or purse. You may still have a house phone, but if not, point out to your children when you see a regular phone. Most cities have removed all the phone booths, so you could show your kids photos of old telephone booths or images of things like rotary dial phones (remember the gritty feeling on office phones that weren’t dusted often?). Older hotels sometimes still have the privacy booth where phones used to be, even if they no longer have phones connected.

And while you are discussing phones, tell them about busy signals and party lines!

For the story of the first cellphone call, click here.

Tell kids stories about children from the past. If they can identify with others, it helps them understand.  

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) documented the plight of children at labor.  His work with a camera was so persuasive that it eventually led to changes in child labor laws.  

Until 1938, there was no national labor law that kept children from working as hard as adults.  While some states had regulated against it, in many locations some children could work a 12-hour day in a factory or in the mines.

If you visit The History Place with your children, you can give them a good idea of what their fate might have been if they had lived seventy-five or one hundred years ago.

Why Music is Important in the Military

In elementary school, many children start a band instrument. If your child has signed up to be in the band, this offers the opportunity to talk about music and its importance in the military. During the Civil War, boys as young as age 9 came into the military as drummer boys. They were key to setting a pace for marching units. Buglers (explain that a bugle is like a trumpet) would sound calls to tell soldiers to move forward or to retreat. They played a very important part in all military maneuvers. For more on this topic, see Bugle Calls and TAPS.

Show Them Where/When You Vote

There is no better teachable moment than voting. Kids need to understand the importance of all citizens participating in the election process. If you still go to a voting center, take them with you if you can. If you are filling out a sheet that is scanned in, it’s a little boring (not as fun as the booths with levers), but the process of going with you will make an impression.

If you vote by mail, talk about what you are doing and why it’s so important.

Older kids might also be interested in knowing that originally only white men who owned land could vote. To read about women getting the vote, and the vote for Black people, check on these stories: Little-Remembered Stories of Women and the Vote, and Congressman John Lewis Leaves Lessons.

Help your child follow his or her passion.  

Most kids become fascinated with something from the past.  For some it is dinosaurs, for others, it may be fire trucks or the Titanic. In addition to web resources, there are many ways to advance his or her love of the subject.  

A natural history museum usually offers incredible displays and information about dinosaurs (not to mention the great books for all ages they will have in the gift shop). 

There are many fire history museums throughout the country, and the guides tend to be retired firemen who offer wonderful stories. If there are no firehouse museums near you, check with your fire department. In all likelihood, they will have a family day where kids can see the equipment and hear stories.

No matter the topic, there is wonderful information online and in libraries. And chances are, you’ll have fun learning right along with your kids! (I have a grandson who loves trains, and my knowledge of the topic is growing exponentially!)

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