Talk on Helping Children Connect with History

This morning I was the guest speaker at the Alamogordo Kiwanis (different then the Noon Kiwanis I belong to.) I had planned on there being some children in attendance but due to testing there weren’t any. Here is some of the presentation:

While in college taking education courses we were taught children needed to have an established understanding of time and how time passes to begin to understand history. This concept of time is said to have developed by grade 4. But, if we look at history as a Story rather than a sequential timeline of events, children can embrace history at a far younger age. After-all, how many of our favorite childhood tales begin “Once upon a time…”? The US Department of Education in its 2004 publication for parents Helping Your Child Learn History points out this phrase captures the two essence meanings of history. History is a story of people and event. History is a record of times past, “Once upon a time.” Further, they acknowledge that “Although it is important for citizens to know about great people and event, the enjoyment of history is often found in a story well told.”

Children begin to thing about their own story, their place in history and society as they begin to ask “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?”. This personal inquiry develops into wondering about their family and community. As this continues to develop, children create their own “usable history”. This is the history that pertains to them, that is important to them, that has meaning to them. Most often this “usable history” includes stories of family, friends, and community rather than “school history”, that which is taught in books that children find less or little connection with. Living history museum and historic sites, along with their outreach programs, provide children with the opportunity to experience history which becomes part of his or her “useable history” because they are immersing themselves,  in the context of the story that is history.  

When working children, museum educators want to engage children to help them connect with history. We do this through the use of story and hands-on opportunities where they can explore and investigate. Dewey refers to these hands-on opportunities as “Learning by doing” theorizing that “experience is key to learning and knowledge. When and experience is acted on it becomes knowledge. Abstract ideas need to be applied to life experiences to have meaning. Meaning is developed when connections are made between prior knowledge and between prior experiences.” (Connecting Kids with History through Museum Exhibits)

 [discussed examples of how children can take part in hands-on and history through story – dressing in clothing, games & toys, ‘a day in the life’, connecting a single experience with a multitude of subjects]

Children bring to their understanding and learning of history their own personal experiences, their own history. This was very evident to me early in my experience as a museum educator when I was teaching a school workshop on tin punching. My students usually were from rural or suburban schools. We would begin each session by looking at an assortment of tin items discussing their uses, unique characteristics and comparing them to what the students knew. This included a pierced tin barn lantern where I pointed out how the piercings let light out but kept the wind from getting in. This particular morning the class came from an inner city school. When I raised up the lantern for the kids to see, instead of hearing “lantern” as usual, I heard “cheese grater”. After a moment of pause I realized, yes this lantern does look like a cheese grater. Nutmeg graters are made the same way. I discovered talking with the kids that this group hadn’t brought the lack of electricity into their understanding of history or what they were seeing that day. Rather then discussing the rest of the tin items, we talked about candles and lanterns along with what would be different about their day without electricity.

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