As a longtime museum worker who has observed many children within a museum setting over the years and the parent of 3 adult children who all show an interest in various aspects of history and love visiting museums, I have a few insights about how to cultivate an interest in history in children.
For your convenience (and to play nicely with Google’s algorithms), I present these insights in list form, however none of them is really any more important than the others. They’ll work best if you try to incorporate most of them in your efforts over time.
1. Children of All Ages* Can Enjoy History
First and foremost, don’t assume that a child must be a certain age to “get” history. Their interest in history can be piqued at any age, from babies and toddlers up through their teen years. While babies and toddlers might not understand everything they see in a museum or at a historic site, it’s fabulous to introduce young children to such places because it helps them develop a comfort level with being at museums and sites.
Also, speaking from the perspective of my small museum, our staff tends to go a little mushy for babies, toddlers and other young children, which makes it very easy for us to engage with them. While checking out an eagle in a giant pine the other day at my museum, a family with two young children walked up and I just had to show them the eagle. Before one of the children left the museum, he asked his mom if they could see the eagle again.
I’ve discovered that children up through around 12-13 years of age show an open interest in history for the most part. Those who seem harder to reach are those between roughly 14-18. Those age ranges are not inscribed in stone or indicative of an individual child’s interest in history at any given age. I’ve seen some children develop such a strong and abiding sense of history at a young age that it carries them through their teens, drawing them to do intensive research throughout these years and into adulthood.
I suspect those who seem lackadaisical about history during their late teen years actually do care about some aspect of history, but when they are in a group of their peers, it’s not cool to show that interest. I’ve been met with a lot of blank stares during school tours with kids this age, however, when I talk to kids individually after the tour, suddenly they have all sorts of thoughts and ideas to share. This leads to my next insight …
2. Provide Individual Attention When Sharing History
Children appreciate periods of time when they get supportive individual attention from the adults in their lives. When you share history one-on-one with a child, maybe through talking about family history or reading a book on history together, the child may not remember the specifics of the history you shared, but they will most certainly associate the good feelings they experienced to both you and history.
3. Make History Personal and Hands-On
I have heard the sentiment “History is boring!” from far too many adults over the years. Those who tend to say this sort of thing are carrying around an idea of history being the forced memorization of names, dates and events that have no relationship to their lives. Yet, if you engage these people in a discussion about the history of a specific topic in which they have an interest, their eyes light up and they are off and running, able to convey history on the topic at great length.
It’s perfectly natural to pick up a hobby like quilting or classic car restoration or pottery or cooking and want to know some history related to that hobby and pretty soon you’re sucked into a sumptuous rabbit hole of history.
Such is the case with children. Follow the lead of their interests and you can easily introduce history related to those interests.
Got a kid who likes video games? I have a son who, within the course of his video-gaming teen years, became intrigued with the history presented within the video games. (You do know that video games follow stories and that many of these stories are pulled from something in history, don’t you?) This son is also an artist and he wants to design concept art for video games. What’s his inspiration? History, specifically Scandinavian and Viking history. He recently visited a museum in the United Kingdom where he took a few thousand photos of Viking artifacts to use as inspiration in his art. Why the interest in Scandinavian culture? Because our family has Swedish and Danish ancestry from multiple sides. You can’t get much more personal than that.
Family history is a marvelous way to make history interesting for children because it is so personal. If a child keeps hearing they look like their late great-uncle George, you know they are going to want to know all about George.
Another way to make history personal is to provide hands-on experiences. When children learn history by doing, say, by attending a hands-on archaeological dig, the history is more likely to stick with them.
4. Explore Different Types of History
History is not simply what’s presented in history class, nor is it just about visiting museums. There are many different ways you can expose children to history. I’ve mentioned a few of them throughout this post, but there are more to add. You can ….
- Visit a historic site or museum
- Go to an archaeological dig
- Discuss family history or draw up a genealogy chart together
- Share a book on history
- Study the history within video games
- Watch history documentaries together
- Take a walking or driving tour
- Sift through old photos or newspapers
- Point out interesting architecture
- Talk about the history presented in your child’s favorite movie
- Visit an archive to show your child how to do research (If you think this is too heady or arcane, we recently had a grandfather bring his grandchildren to my museum to show them historic photos from their community within our archive.)
- Attend history programs and new exhibits
- Have your child interview a person from a different generation about their life experiences
- Visit an antique store
Because history is everywhere, the options are limitless. Check out this post on other areas included in the history enterprise in order to generate further ideas.
5. Examine Local History
Not only does this encompass the suggestion to explore different types of history, examining local history helps make history personal for children. They are growing up in a specific geographic area, so this history is their history, whether you (as their parent or caregiver) were born in the community or not.
Help children to see the wonder of their local history by pointing out interesting architecture and visiting area museums, parks, zoos, cemeteries, and sites. If you want to know more about a particular place, take your child to the local historical society to do some research.
6. Limit the Amount of Time Spent on History, But Make It Frequent
Ever plan to take a day to visit a museum and find that you are exhausted after the first hour-and-a-half? Happens to me all the time and I should know better to pace myself. If adults get tired focusing their attention on one subject or place for an extended period of time, why do we think kids can pay attention endlessly without acting up?
If you want to get children interested in history, don’t make it a marathon slog to do so. Limit your time on concentrated history activities to allow for a reasonable span of attention. If you can manage a half-hour at a museum with very young children, that’s plenty. If your kids start crying, whining or getting cranky, it’s time for a break or to head home. Don’t let the experience become so negative that children associate history with bad things.
Instead, expose children to history in short, but frequent spans of time. To make this less costly in terms of museum admissions, become a member of a local museum in order to get discounts on admission fees or find museums with free admission or free days.
7. Show Some Enthusiasm!
Finally, if you really want to get children interested in history, show some enthusiasm, for criminy’s sake! When you’re sharing history content, whether at home or in a museum or at a historic site, your attitude makes all the difference. If you are bored or indifferent or grouchy or impatient about history, that attitude is going to transmit to the kid. Blech!
If, however, you share an artifact or photo with a child and point out what’s interesting or cool about it, conveying your passion for the subject, that feeling with be transmitted and, Shazam!, you will infect the child with a love of history.
*Children of all ages includes adults, too! You’re never to old to cultivate an interest in history, which is a life-long pursuit.