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Helping Your Child Learn History

by Elaine Wrisley Reed

If you look for the meaning of "history" in the dictionary you may be surprised to find that history is not simply the past itself. The first meaning of history is "tale, story," and the second meaning is "a chronological record of significant past events." The opening of tales for children—"Once upon a time"— captures both the story and time nature of history.

When we study history we are involved in a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events. Many would say that history is not just one branch of knowledge among others, but that it is the most essential one because it is the complete story of human endeavor. It happens that the word "history" comes from the Greek "to know."

The Story in History

The work of doing history is to consider people and events that are no longer in our presence. Unlike doing science, we do history without being able to observe behavior and its results.

This work is fun when we make the past meaningful. We do this by weaving together various pieces of information about the past. In doing this we create a pattern that gives shape to "just a bunch of facts." Doing history is a way of bringing the past to life, in the best tradition of the storyteller.

But not just any story will do. While there are many possible tales of the same event, good history is based on evidence and several perspectives.

The history with which we are most familiar is political history—the story of wars, peace treaties, and changes of government. But anything that has a past has a history. This includes the history of ideas, for example the concept of freedom, and cultural history, for example the history of music.

The story of history is interesting to us because it tells us about real people who had ideas and beliefs, worked and struggled to put them in action, and shaped the present in which we find ourselves.

Time in History

Human events take place in time, one after the other. It is important to learn the sequence of events in order to trace them, reconstruct them, and weave the stories that tell of their connections. Children need to learn the measures of time, such as year, decade, generation, and century. When they hear "Once upon a time in history" they need to be able to ask "When did that happen?," and to know how to find the answer.

Time in history is a kind of relationship. We can look at several events that all happened at the same time, and that together tell a story about that period. Or we can look at the development of an idea over time, and learn how and why it changed. And we can consider the relationship between the past and the present, or the future and the past (which is today!). The present is the result of choices that people made and the beliefs they held in the past, while the past, in being retold, is in some way remade in the present. The future will be the result of the coming together of several areas developing today.

The main focus of history is the relationship between continuity and change, and it is important that our children understand the difference between them. For example, the population of the United States has changed dramatically over time with each wave of immigration. With the entry of these new groups into American society, bringing their own ideas, beliefs, and cultures, American democracy has continued and grown stronger. It continues to function according to its original purpose of safeguarding our basic values of freedom and equality, even as the meanings and effects of these values change.

A New Look at History

History is now understood to be more than memorizing names and dates. While being able to recall the details of great people and events is important, the enjoyment of history is enhanced by engaging in activities and experiencing history as a "story well told."

Original sources and literature are real experiences. Reading the actual words that changed the course of history, and stories that focus on the details of time and place help children know that history is about real people in real places who made real choices that had some real consequences, and that they could have made different choices.

Less can mean more. "A well-formed mind is better than a well-stuffed mind," says an old proverb. Trying to learn the entire history of the world is not only impossible, it feels too hard and reduces our enthusiasm for history. In-depth study of a few important events gives us a chance to understand the many sides of a story. We can always add new facts.

History is hands-on work. Learning history is best done in the same way we learn to use a new language, or to play basketball: we do it as well as read about it. Doing history means asking questions about historical events and characters; searching our towns for signs of its history; talking with others about current events and issues; writing our own stories about the past.

There is no final word on history. There are good storytellers and less good storytellers. And there are many stories. But very rarely does any one storyteller "get it right," or one story say it all. A good student of history will always look for other points of view, knowing that our understanding of history changes over time.

Your children do well to ask "So what?" Much that we take for granted is not so obvious to our children. We should invite them to clear up doubts they have about the reasons for remembering certain things, getting facts right, and collecting and judging evidence. At each step, asking "so what?" helps to explain what is important and worth knowing, and to take the next step with confidence.


Visitors to Omaha would not find the 1898 Trans-Mississippi buildings in this picture. Cheaply made, they didn’t last.

History as Story Activities

Our Town

Your phone book, newspaper, and other resources can serve as your best guide to history in your town. Not only does referring to them save time, it teaches how to use tools to get information.

What you'll need

  • Phone books, both yellow and white pages
  • Daily city newspaper
  • Community newspaper
  • History log

What to do

Newspaper search. Look in your city and community newspapers. They list "things to do." Look for parades, museum and art exhibits, music events, children's theater, history talks and walks.

Participate in an event and help your child write about it in the history log when you get back home.

For more help, call education services at your city newspaper. Ask about their education programs that use newspapers.

Phone book search. Look in your phone books under "History" or "Historical Places." You will find a few places under this heading but many more are listed elsewhere.

Brainstorm with your children about what other words to look under in the phone book to find local history.

Call the places you find. Ask about their programs, hours, and upcoming special events. Ask to be put on their mailing list. Also ask where else you should go to learn about your town's history.

Your younger children can listen to your phone conversation. They learn how to ask for information by listening to you.

Begin a list in the history log of local historical sites. Include phone numbers, addresses, hours of operation, and other useful information for future visits.

What is the most surprising thing you learned about your town? If you were asked to be a tour guide for visitors to your town, what would you show them? If you went to another town, how would you go about visiting it?

Rub Against History

Children find rubbings great fun. Cornerstones and plaques are interesting, and even coins will do.

What You'll Need

  • Tracing paper or other light weight paper
  • Large crayons with the paper removed, fat lead pencil, colored pencils, or artist's charcoal
  • History log

What to do

Help your child make a kit to do rubbings. It could include the items listed. The paper should not tear easily but it should also be light enough so that the details of what is traced become visible.

Have children make a rubbing of a quarter or half dollar. Make the coin stable by supporting it with tape. Double the tape so that it sticks on both sides and place it on the bottom of the coin. Lay the paper on top of the coin, and rub across it with a pencil, crayon, or charcoal. Don't rub too hard. Rub until the coin's marks show up.

Go outside to do a rubbing. Look for:

Dates imprinted in cement sidewalks

Cornerstones and plaques on buildings

Decorative ironwork on buildings and lampposts

Art and lettering on monuments and around doorways

Your child can ask family members to guess what each rubbing is.

Have the children tell about each rubbing. Tell them to look for designs and dates among the rubbings.

Children may want to cut some of their rubbings out to include in their history logs. Or they can fit several on one piece of paper to show a pattern of dates and designs.

What showed up in your rubbings? What did the date and designs commemorate? Historical preservation groups in America have worked to preserve old buildings and to install plaques on public historical places. Is this interesting or important work? Why have humans left their marks on the world from early cave drawings to Vietnam Veterans' Memorial?

History as Time Activities

Time Marches On

The stories of history have beginnings, middles, and ends that show events, and suggest causes and effects. A personal timeline helps your child picture these elements of story.

What you'll need

  • Paper for timeline
  • Colored pencils
  • Crayons
  • Shelf paper or computer paper
  • Removable tape
  • History log (optional)

What to do

Draw on a piece of paper, or in the history log, a vertical line for the timeline. Mark this line in even intervals for each year of your child's life.

Help your child label the years with significant events, starting with your child's birthday.

Review the timeline. Your child may want to erase and change an event for a particular year to include a more memorable or important one. (Historians also rethink their choices when they study history.)

For a timeline poster, use a long roll of shelf paper or computer paper. For a horizontal timeline, fasten it to the wall up high around the room using removable tape so that your child can take it down to add more events or drawings. For a vertical timeline, hang it next to the doorway in your child's room. Start with the birthday at the bottom. Your child can begin writing down events and add to it later.

For older children, have them do a timeline of what was happening in the world at the same time as each event of their life. To begin, they can use the library's collection of newspapers to find and record the headlines for each of their birthdays.


Some of Omaha’s huge stockyards
can still be seen today.

What is the most significant event on the timeline? What effects did the event have on your child's life? What are the connections between the events in your child's life and world events at the time?

Weave a Web

A history web is a way of connecting people and events. Is there an old ball field in your town you've always wondered about? Or did you ever wonder why there are so many war memorials in your town? Then you need to do a history web!

What you'll need

  • Large piece of paper or poster board (at least 3 1/2 x 2 1/2 ft.)
  • Colored pencils or markers
  • History log

What to do

Pick a place in your community that has always seemed mysterious to you— an old ball field, general or hardware store, house, or schoolhouse. Or ask yourself. "What are there lots of in my town?" Churches, fountains? Pick one of these historical "families."

Go to one of these places. Jot down in your history log what you see and hear there. For example, look for marks on the buildings, such as dates and designs, or parts of the buildings, such as bleachers or bell towers.

Find out other information about the place by asking a librarian for resources, or by searching the archives of your local newspaper. Look for major events that took place there, such as the setting of a world record or the visit of a famous person. Also look for other events that changed the place, such as modernization or dedications.

Find people who have lived in your town a long time. Interview them using questions about these major and related events, and any others they remember.

Draw a web, with the name of the place you studied in the middle (like the spider who weaves a "home").

Draw several strands from the middle to show the major events in the life of the place.

Connect the strands with cross lines to show other related events.

When the web is complete consider the relationships among the strands.

Ask the editor of your local newspaper to publish your web. Ask readers to contribute more information to add to it. This is exactly how history is written!

When was the place you picked built? If you picked a "family" of places, when was each place built? If they were built around the same time, what similarities and differences do you notice about their features, such as style and what they commemorate? How is the place you picked connected to other events in history?

This article was taken from Helping Your Child Learn History published by the US Department of Education. This book is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce it in whole or in part for educational purposes is granted.

Copyright ©  1993 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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