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A How-To Guide to Making History Fun for Kids

Bring history to life with these tips.

I love history, the stories, the scandals, the successes, but I hated history in school.

While I was in high school, history classes were uninspired, therefore leaving students uninterested in the subject. According to The Nation’s Report Card, just 20 percent of American fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the proficient level on the 2010 U.S. history assessment.

Although 4th and 8th graders have increased their performance levels since 1994, high school seniors have made virtually no advances in their knowledge of U.S. history.

As a tutor of middle and high school students, I am familiar with the loathing of history, the stories of incompetent teachers, and the rampant cheating that can occur in some school settings. These feelings start early on and are difficult to repair.

With any discussion of failure, we cannot fail to recognize the successes. In this case, I must tip my hat to the inspiring and inspired teachers I have worked with throughout the years. It is incredible how truly impactful good history teachers are. These teachers bring history to life. After all, isn’t history just the telling of stories of the past? It should be exhilarating!

In my fifth grade classroom, the first week of school is met with groans about history. This groaning does not last once instruction begins. The wonder and excitement I find in history and the lively atmosphere I create around history instruction dominates the mood.  My students are soon transformed into historians merely because I love history, and I make it interesting, fun, and meaningful to them. 

How can you bring history to life for your child?

  • Start young. History at its core is storytelling, and kids love stories. Talking about events of the past in the form of telling a story engages children’s minds and imaginations. Be sure to include lots of details about clothing and food and customs of the time periods you are sharing to make the story richer and to paint a better picture.
  • Talk about current events. Daily news becomes the history your children will need to recall in school or later in their lives.  Although many news stories covered by our media involve difficult topics, you can gauge what you discuss and how you discuss it to the age appropriateness of your children.
  • Read history-based literature together. Hopefully some part of your home routine includes story time. Go to the library to find wonderful picture books about historical events and historical fiction. For older children, help them become interested in a particular period in history and then guide them to chapter books related to that time.
  • Share generational stories about your family members’ childhoods. Times have certainly changed since my grandmother was born in 1920, and her mother in 1889. Just those two generations have spanned more than an entire century. History seems a lot more current and meaningful when discussed in terms of real people’s experiences rather than arbitrary dates.
  • Study your family’s genealogy. A family tree with real pictures is a great piece of personal history to discover as a family. My cousin began our family tree on Ancestry.com and shared it with the rest of the family via the Internet. We can all log-in and add family members from other sides of the family and search real copies of documents, including birth and death certificates, military records, and address records. We have traced one line back to the 1600s! It is an incredible feeling to place your own bloodline into real history.
  • Talk about the media. This includes not just the news, but also film versions of historical events, such as Disney’s Pocahontas.  Invite your children into conversations about the realities (and fabrications) of the films or the opinions portrayed by the news media and you will be inviting them to think like historians, comparing fact, fiction, and the multiple perspectives of people interpreting events.
  • Go antiquing. As silly as this may sound, antique markets and swap meets are wonders for the imagination, bringing to life items of the past that children may have only seen on T.V.
  • Sing American folk and patriotic songs and talk about their lyrics and origins. I found that while learning history in school, I could relate to the songs my siblings and I used to sing in the car from our "WeeSing America" cassette tape, now available on CD. As with any topic you discuss with children, be sure to talk about the song's context and how our knowledge of the past and perspectives on certain events and traditional behaviors have changed over time.
  • Take a summer trip to an historical site. The Autry National Center in Los Angeles is a great place to visit and escape to the Wild West. Civil War reenactments come to Southern California periodically and are engaging places to visit, not just for the battles, but for the encampments and the enthusiasm for living history. The California State Parks website offers a list of historical landmarks by county.

Author Lytton Strachey wrote that historians are “explorer[s] of the past,” but I argue that they are also predictors of the future. By teaching children to appreciate history, we give them power to control the future in a manner grounded in common sense and intelligent decision making.

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