Helping Your Child Learn History
With activities for children in preschool through grade 5
Downloadable File PDF (2 MB) | MS Word (190 KB)

Some Basics

What Is History?

"Once upon a time . . . " That opening for many favorite children's tales captures the two main meanings of history—it's the story of people and events, and it's the record of times past. To better understand what history is, let's look closer at each of these two meanings.

The Story in History

Unlike studying science, we study history without being able to directly observe events—they simply are no longer in our presence. "Doing" history is a way of bringing the past to life, in the best tradition of the storyteller. We do this by weaving together various pieces of information to create a story that gives shape to an event.

There are many possible stories about the same event, and there are good storytellers and less good storytellers. Very rarely does one story say it all or any one storyteller "get it right." A good student of history, therefore, tries to determine the true story by looking to see if a storyteller has backed up her story with solid evidence and facts.

The history with which we are most familiar is political history—the story of war and peace, important leaders and changes of government. But history is more than that. Anything that has a past has a history, including ideas, such as the idea of freedom, and cultural activities, such as music, art or architecture.

Time in History

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 a particular part of the past. Or we can look at the development of an idea over time and learn how and why it changed. 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.

As they prepare to study history, children first need basic knowledge about time and its relationship to change. They need to learn the measures of time, such as year, decade, generation and century. And they need to learn and think about sequences of events as they occurred in time. They need to be able to ask, "About when did that happen?" and to know how to find the answer.

The main focus of history is the relationship between continuity and change. It's important, therefore, that our children understand the difference between them. For example, the population of the United States has changed greatly over time with each wave of immigration. As new groups of immigrants entered American society, they brought along ideas, beliefs and traditions from their native lands. These new cultures and traditions were woven into existing American culture, contributing to its pattern of diversity and making our democratic system of government even stronger. That system continues to evolve to better realize its original purpose of safeguarding our basic human rights of freedom and equal opportunity.

A New Look at the Study of History

Studying history is more than memorizing names and dates. Although it's important for citizens to know about great people and events, the enjoyment of history is often found in a "story well told." Here are some suggestions to make the study of history more enjoyable:

Original sources make history come alive. Reading the actual words that changed the course of history and stories that focus on the details of time and place helps children know that history is about real people in real places who made real choices that had some real consequences, and that these people could have made different choices.

Less can mean more. An old proverb tells us that, "A well-formed mind is better than a well-stuffed mind." Trying to learn the entire history of the world is not only impossible, it discourages children and reduces their enthusiasm for history. In-depth study of a few important events gives them a chance to understand the many sides of a story. They can always add new facts.

History is hands-on work. Learning history is best done in the same way that 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 events, people and places; searching our towns for signs of its history; talking with others about current events and issues; and writing our own stories about the past.

Children do well to ask "So what?" Much that we take for granted is not so obvious to children. We need to clarify for them the reasons we ask them to remember certain things. They need to know why it's important to get the facts right. Encouraging children to ask, "So what?" can help them understand what's worth knowing—and why—and so help build critical thinking skills. Being able to think critically prepares children to:

  • judge the value of historical evidence;
  • judge claims about what is true or good;
  • be curious enough to look further into an event or topic;
  • be skeptical enough to look for more than one account of an event or life; and
  • be aware that how we look at and think about things are often shaped by our own biases and opinions.

Geography: An Important Tool for Learning and Understanding History

Geography affects history—just look at the dramatic changes in world geography over recent years. Governments change, and new countries are born. Many countries no longer have the same names they did even five years ago. Climate changes bring about events such as droughts and floods that cause massive loss of life and migrations of people from one place to another in search of safety. Environmental changes can change the entire history of a community or region.

As with history, children have a natural interest in geography. Watch a group of children playing in the sand. One child makes streets for his cars, while a second child builds houses along the street. A third scoops out a hole and uses the dirt to make a hill, then pours water in the hole to make a lake, using sticks for bridges. The children name the streets, and they may even use a watering can to make rain that washes away a house. They may not realize it, but these children are learning some core features of geography—how people interact with the Earth, how climate affects land, and how places relate to each other through the movement of things from one place to another. When we turn to maps or globes as we talk with our children about vacation plans, events happening around the world or historical events, we teach them a great deal about geography. Not only can such activities help our children learn how to use key reference tools, but over time, they help them form their own mental maps of the world, which allows children to better organize and understand information about other people, places, times and events.

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Last Modified: 02/11/2009