“Girls, we are going to see the wagon-train ruts made by the pioneers on the Oregon Trail,” my mother said one bright summer day a number of years ago.
My two sisters and I decided that a trip would be fun, but I had a few questions. “How could ruts made over a hundred years ago still be visible? Wouldn’t the wind and weather cover them?”
“I don’t know,” Mom replied. “We’ll find out when we get there.”
When we arrived at the historical site, we found deep ruts in sandstone cut by thousands of wagons during their migration westward. It was amazing! Just standing where so many hearty pioneers had been gave me a new appreciation for the people who made history.
During my own homeschooling experience, most of our trips and activities revolved around learning, but that learning was done in fun ways. Even during the summer months, we found exciting ways to discover new things. In this article, I’d like to share five things you can do to keep your children busy while still improving their knowledge of history.
Visit Historical Sites in Your Area
During my growing-up years, we rarely went on real vacations, but we always managed to find a few places to visit in the summer. We went to our local museum, visited an old mining town on a friend’s land, or went searching for shark teeth on the Wyoming prairie. (Yes, there are lots of fossilized sea creatures in Wyoming. I had a large collection of rocks from our gravel road that were fossilized seashells. How do you think they got here? Noah’s flood, perchance?)
Do a little research about sites in your area and make plans to visit a few this summer. You might look for old forts, abandoned towns, battlefields, houses of famous people, historical trails, Indian petroglyphs, or historical landmarks. Some historical landmarks can be expensive to visit, but others cost nothing at all. Also check out local museums, some of which do not charge admission fees. Search out surrounding communities, even up to a few hours away, and plan some day trips. Be creative and find something fun the whole family will enjoy!
Have a Living History Day
To really make history alive, you might attend a living history day. Another idea is to create your own! It could be with just your family or with a large group of friends (think homeschool support group!).
For this example, let’s assume the day will be for just your family. A certain time period can be chosen, such as the pioneer era, and each child can research a particular aspect of pioneer life. One might learn how the pioneers cooked; another how they dressed. Other interesting things to learn about include their weapons and equipment, the music they enjoyed, and their mode of transportation. If each child learns about one or two areas, they can share this information with the others.
For a true living history day, each child would need to dress in a historical costume. This doesn’t have to be a big project. A few long dresses or skirts and a pair of overalls can be used.
When the living history day arrives, try eating pioneer beans, and let each child give a short speech sharing what he or she learned about the pioneers. A small teepee may be made in the backyard (check at the library for an instruction book); I’ve even seen a little teepee made from broom handles! To really go in-depth, you might have an area where the children can set up displays. End the history day with a sing-along highlighting pioneer songs.
On a similar note, you could have a historical costume party, where each student comes as a famous historical person and has a display highlighting that person. A speech might also be given. If each student brings a food dish from his or her character’s era, the food can all be shared in a potluck-style meal. The party might end with some old-fashioned games, such as musical chairs, a three-legged race, a gunnysack race, or blind man’s bluff.
The idea is to continue learning but have fun while doing it!
Make a Diorama
For a very hands-on project, try making a diorama! It could be as elaborate as a castle or as simple as a log house. You can do this with your children, or they can do it on their own. To make a small cabin, gather some branches and cut them into equal lengths, then notch each end so the logs will fit together just like a real log cabin. The roof can be made from more branches and perhaps be flat. There are also kits that may be purchased to make some really fascinating dioramas. Wouldn’t it be fun to make a diorama of the Alamo or the White House?
After building the diorama, look up information about the structure in an encyclopedia or at the library and answer these questions: Why was the building made? Who built it? When was it constructed? What historical significance did the building have?
Study Family History
To learn more about your family history, why not create a family history newspaper? It could be fairly long or just a few pages, depending on how much material you have. Again, you can do this with your children or have them do it on their own.
Start by writing down those well-known family stories. Do you have a famous person in your family tree? Even if you don’t know the exact relationship, you might include a short biography about him or her and say that family tradition says you are a descendant.
Ask your grandparents or great-grandparents about their childhoods. Try some of the following questions: What was life like when you were a child? How did you live that is different from the way we live now? What was school like? Did you have a special friend, toy, or pet? Where did you live?
Once you get them started, your relatives will probably share many wonderful stories that could be included in your newspaper. They may also know stories about their parents and grandparents that are fascinating. Make a recording of your conversations—this will make it easier for you to remember the stories and write them down later. Plus, you’ll be able to keep the recordings as special keepsakes for years to come.
There are several different ways you could make the newspaper. A simple way would be to type the articles in a Word document. (If you use two columns on a page, it will look more like a real newspaper.) On the top, you could have the name of the paper in large letters; I would call mine FOX FAMILY NEWS. In a slightly smaller font, include headlines for each article. My first article would be “GI NEARLY CAUGHT IN DEADLY BOMBING,” and I would write an article telling how my granddaddy barely missed being in a fatal bombing during World War II.
If you want to do a really neat format, use design software (most computers have at least one program that would work for this). Print the newspaper, have it copied on 11 x 17 sheets of paper (that’s two 8.5 x 11 sheets side by side), and give the copies out to your family.
Participate in a Reading Contest
To get your children to read during the summer months, have them participate in a reading contest. Many libraries have summer reading programs, but if your local library doesn’t, you can hold one for your immediate family. For each number of books read, offer some kind of prize. It doesn’t have to be elaborate: maybe a special ice cream treat or an outing with Dad or Mom. For the grand prize, if all the children read a certain number of books you could plan a historical outing, such as a trip to a battlefield or an old fort. Pack a picnic lunch and make it an all-day trip.
Although the books don’t have to be historical in content, there are some wonderful historical books out there. Here is a short list: The Tinker’s Daughter by Wendy Lawton (other books in the Daughters of the Faith Series are worth reading as well); Hasty Pudding, Johnnycakes, and Other Good Stuff: Cooking in Colonial America by Loretta Frances Ichord (this author also has some other historical cookbooks); The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare (her other books are good too); The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds; Confederate Ladies of Richmond by Susan Beller; Songs and Stories of the Civil War by Jerry Silverman (this author has other books about historical music); The Spy or Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper; Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace; The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French; The Lost Colony of Roanoke by Jean Fritz (all her books are enjoyable); In the Reign of Terror by G.A. Henty (his other books are excellent too); and Ben and Me by Robert Lawson. I could go on and on for a long time, but I’ll stop there!
If history is feeling dull and boring, try bringing some fresh life to your studies with one of these five ideas. History really can be fun and memorable! And if you ever visit Wyoming, be sure to see the wagon ruts near Gurnsey—they’re fantastic!
Amy Puetz Fox, a homeschool graduate, loves history. She is the author of Heroes and Heroines of the Past: American History and Uncover Exciting History: Revealing America’s Christian Heritage in Short, Easy-to-Read Nuggets. Visit her website at www.AmyPuetz.com to see many resources relating to history.