A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Activities: History as Story


History is a permanent written record of the past. Because recording history is an essential part of doing history, a "history log" is indicated for each activity. More recently, history is also recorded on audio and video tape, and many of the activities lend themselves to this type of recording as well. Your children may be interested to know that the time of their favorite dinosaurs is called "prehistory" because it is unrecorded history. They should also know that some written languages have been invented because telling stories orally, without recording them in some form, is not by itself a sure enough way to preserve the identity of a people.


George Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796, said: "Though in reviewing the incidents of my administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors." This reflection is a good reminder that history, with its facts and evidence, is also an interpretation of the past. There is more than one cause for an event, more than one kind of outcome, and more than one way of looking at their relationship.


All good histories are written on the basis of evidence. Your children need to learn the importance of evidence, and to distinguish it from biases, propaganda, stereotypes, and opinion. They need to judge whether the many stories about John F. Kennedy or World War I, for example, are based on solid enough evidence to provide an accurate account of the life and times.

What's the Story

History is a story well told. Through storytelling children can understand what's involved in writing the stories that make history.

What you'll need

Family members and friends
A fairy tale or folk tale
History log

What to do

  1. Tell a story of a person you know. Gather your children, other family members, and friends to have a storytelling session. Choose a person you know about whom the group will tell the story. Decide who will begin, and go clockwise from there with each person adding to the story. Set a time limit so that you must end the story somewhere.

  2. Read a folk story or fairy talk, for example, Little Red Riding Hood or The Story of Johnny Appleseed. Talk about how the story begins and ends, who the characters are and what they feel, and what happens. Ask how this story based on fantasy is different from the story you told about the real person you know.

  3. Read a story about an historical event.. Now pick a moment in world history, for example the fall of the Berlin Wall, the French and Indian War, or a current event in the news headlines. Ask the librarian for help in choosing material that is at your child's reading level.

  4. Help your child write in the history log about this storytelling experience.

In the storytelling session about the person you know, how did you verify the "truth" when there were differences of opinion about what "really happened"? If you were to write the story of a real event for the newspaper, what would count for you the most in preparing it? What else would you include? Where would you get your information? How would you check the accuracy of the information?

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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 should listen to your phone conversation. They learn how to ask for information by listening to you.

  3. 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?

History on the Go

Visit the historical places in your child's history book, either in person or by collecting materials.

What you'll need

Your child's history book
Maps, guidebooks
History log

What to do

  1. Find out what historical events your child is studying in school. Perhaps a historical site is near your town. Choose a site of one of these events to visit in person or through the materials you collected.

  2. Prepare the trip together in advance. Ask the librarian to help you and your child find books and videos on the history of the town or the historical figures who lived there.

  3. Call the Chamber of Commerce of the area for maps and guidebooks.

  4. Make a list. Think of some questions you want answered on your trip.

  5. Talk about the place you are visiting.

  6. Have your child write about the trip in the history log. Include answers to the questions that were answered that day.

  7. Have your children make up a quiz for parents, or a game, based on the trip.

  8. Encourage your child to read more stories about the place you visited and the people who were part of its history, and historical documents that are associated with the site. For example, in visiting Akron, Ohio, the site of the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in 1851, you might read Sojourner Truth's address, known also as Ane Ain't I a Woman?

What was historical about the place you visited? What kinds of things communicated the history of the place? When you returned, did you see your town in a new way, or notice something you hadn't seen before?

What's News?

What's new today really began in the past. Discussing the news is a way to help your child gain a historical perspective on the events of the present.

What you'll need

Daily or Sunday newspaper
Weekly news magazine
A daily national news program
History log

What to do

  1. Decide on how often you will do this activity with your children--current events happen every day. This activity can be most useful to younger children if it is done from time to time to get them used to the idea of "news." Older children benefit from doing it more often, at least once a week if possible.

  2. Look through the newspaper or news magazine with your child. Ask him to decide what pictures or headlines are related to history. Highlight these references. Some examples are the Yalta Treaty, the French Revolution, Lenin, Pearl Harbor, or Brown v. Board of Education.

  3. Together read the articles you have chosen. Write down any references to events that did not happen today or yesterday, or to people who were not alive recently.

  4. Have a conversation with your child about what these past events and people have to do with what's happening today. Help your child write in the history log the connections you find between past and present.

  5. Watch the evening news or a morning news program together. Write down as many references as possible to past history and discuss the links you find between these references and the news story you heard.

  6. During another viewing, help your child focus on how the information was communicated: did the newscaster use interviews, books, historical records, written historical accounts, literature, paintings, photographs?

  7. Help your child compare several accounts of a major news story from different news shows, newspapers, and news magazines.

"There is nothing new under the sun," according to an old saying. Did you find anything "new" in the news? What "same old stories" did you find?

History Lives

At living history museums you can see real people doing the work of blacksmiths, tin workers, shoemakers, farmers, and others. Children can see how things work, and can ask questions of the "characters."

What you'll need

Visitor brochure and museum map
Sketch pad and pencils, or camera
History log

What to do

  1. Awaken your children's expectations of what they will see and what to look for. Write or call the museum ahead of time to obtain information brochures and a map. Living history museums are located in Williamsburg, VA and Old Sturbridge Village, MA, among other places.

  2. Plan how to actually "visit history." Pretend to be a family living in the historical place. What would it be like to be a family living in the place you choose to go?

  3. When you visit the museum, ask your child what his favorite object or activity is, and why.

  4. Help your children sketch something in the museum, and put it in the history log. Tell your children that this is the way history was visually recorded before there were cameras.

  5. Use your camera, if you have one, to make a "modern day" record of history, and create a scrapbook with the photographs of what you saw.

  6. When you get home, talk about what it would have been like to live in that historical place in that period of time. Compare this to the image you had before your visit.

How were days spent in the period of time you experienced? What kind of dress was common, or special? What kinds of food did people usually eat, and did they eat alone or in groups? What kind of work would you have chosen to do as an adult? If a living history museum were made of the late 20th century, what would people see and learn there? Reminder: if you can't visit a museum, travel by reading books.

Cooking Up History

Every culture has its version of bread. "Eating it, one feels that the taste one cannot quite put to words may almost be the taste of history." (from Edward Behr [see Acknowledgments]). Children enjoy making this american indian fried bread.

What you'll need

2 1/2 cups all-purpose or wheat flour
1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dried skimmed milk powder
3/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Oil for frying

Mixing bowls and spoons, spatula
Large skillet
Cloth towels
Baking sheet
Paper towels

History log

What to do

  1. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

  2. In a small bowl, stir together the dried milk, water, and vegetable oil.

  3. Pour this liquid over the dry ingredients and stir until the dough is smooth (1 or 2 minutes). Add 1 tablespoon of flour if the dough is too soft.

  4. Knead the dough in the bowl with your hands about 30 seconds. Cover it with a cloth and let it sit 10 minutes.

  5. Line the baking sheet with paper towels to receive the finished loaves.

  6. Divide the dough into eight sections. Take one section and keep the rest covered in the bowl.

  7. Roll the dough into a ball and flatten with your hand. Then roll it into a very thin circle 8 to 10 inches across. The thinner the dough, the puffier the bread will be.

  8. Cover this circle with a cloth.

  9. Continue with the other seven sections of dough in the same way.

  10. In the large frying pan or skillet, pour vegetable oil to about 1 inch deep.

  11. As you begin to roll the last piece of dough, turn on the heat under the skillet. When the oil is hot, slip in a circle of dough. Fry for about 1 minute or until the bottom is golden brown. Reminder : Parental supervision is necessary at all times around a hot stove.

  12. Turn the dough over with tongs or a spatula. Fry the other side for 1 minute.

  13. Put the fried bread on the baking sheet and continue with the other rounds of dough.

  14. Eat your fried bread while it is hot and crisp. Put honey on it if you like. Write in your history log what you learned about this bread and others you have tried.

How is this bread different from other breads you have tried? Think of common expressions that use the word "bread." For example, "the nation's breadbasket"; "I earn my bread and butter"; or "breadlines of the 1920s." What does "bread" mean in each of these? What place does bread have in your daily life and in other cultures?

Rub Against History

Younger 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Go outside to do a rubbing. Look for

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

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

  6. 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 today's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial?

[The Basics of History] [Table of Contents] [Activities: History as Time]