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Inspiring kids to learn history

Erin Robinson loves war. Wandering through battlefields in the footsteps of her heroes, she can tell you all about Stonewall Jackson and President Lincoln. Someday, she will even create a scrapbook filled with postcards from Gettysburg and essays about how she learned about Civil War-era guns being fired. Unfortunately, the project might have to wait a few years until she hones her writing skills. Erin is only four.

"When she was three, I started taking her to small parks and places that had maybe one statue and a little story," Deborah Robinson, Erin's mother, says. The family lives in Bridgeville, DE. As Erin's exposure to historic places grew over the last year, it fueled her desire to learn about history. "We have visited several battlefields between Pennsylvania and Virginia. Man, she loves to visit battlefields."

Elaine Mellon of Collingdale, PA, also finds that local places can inspire her two boys, ages six and ten. "Boys love maps and visiting actual battlefields and reenactments," she says. At the Hagley Museum in Delaware, her sons were inspired to learn about colonial life through immersion in the era. "They learned to play 'rag ball,' made their own colonial toys, dipped candles, sewed little bags, helped crank ice cream, hand-washed clothes and many other hands-on experiences," she says. Mellon finds that the boy's comprehension and retention of history is much better when they follow their own interests and are directly involved in learning.

"History is about meaningful nexus," says Jonathan Schmalzbach, the executive producer for Apex Publishing, an online producer of high school history courses, and the executive director of the Independence Hall Association, both in Philadelphia. Schmalzbach stresses the "show" over the "tell." "Kids can hold complex and competing theories in their mind[s]. Go beyond the simplistic 'taxation without representation' explanation. Show how those very taxes the colonial rallied against built their roads and provided protection from frontier depredation. This is far more interesting and meaningful," he says.

If getting to an actual physical location is not practical, kids and parents can explore history virtually through award-winning web sites such as ExplorePAHistory.com. "Gaining a sense of the place where something happened and viewing structures and artifacts from the event or time period helps put history in context and make it more real," says Sue Baldwin-Way, Director of Communication and Education for WITF and the person in charge of workshops and lesson plan development for ExplorePAHistory.com.

"The web is a perfect medium for drawing people into a story. In one place, we can present sound, video, images, interactive features, and stories that illustrate what happened in history and bring events to life," she says. "Multimedia and the ability to examine copies of actual archival documents and images make history more real and more personal than descriptive text alone."

"Trust in the power of story and narrative," Schmalzback says. "Hollywood wouldn't have [made] and continue to produce so many spectacles that are history-based if there wasn't a good story behind each."

For the parents we spoke with, the story and the immersion seem to be working to inspire their kids to learn history, whether it be by visiting an actual historical site or by virtual dunking into the vast sea of history.

Elaine Mellon says her sons also "learn through software games such as 'Age of Empires/Age of Kings,' where mastering each level earns you a new history chapter to read, or 'Rune,' where they interact [with other players] in context of ancient civilizations."

As for Deborah Robinson, she and Erin will continue to visit interesting places such as the New Market Museum in Virginia. "I just try to make it fun, and she learns in the process."

Resources

Program
The History Hunters Youth Reporter Program works with area schools to introduce students to local history from the colonial era to the Civil War. Classroom activities are combined with visits to historic houses in Germantown. There students act as reporters, gathering facts and writing articles for the Youth Gazette, a newspaper posted at the program's web site. Students can dress in period costumes and help with chores, all while learning about their country's past. This program was the winner of the 2004 Award of Excellence from the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations. For more information, visit www.historyhunters.org.

Places
Valley Forge: Visit the famous place where George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Alexander Hamilton and other important people served. Why not visit in the middle of winter to find out what it was really like during the worst weather of the six-month encampment? For more information, the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau can be reached at www.valleyforge.org. You can request materials and even get a coupon book.

The Betsy Ross House: Visit the 1740 house where the first flag was created. It is located at 239 Arch Street (between Second and Third Streets) and is open 7 days a week, Memorial Day through Labor Day, from 10am-5pm. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Off-season, Tuesday through Sunday 10am-5pm; open on Monday holidays (Martin Luther King Day, Presidents' Day, Columbus Day, Veteran's Day). There is a suggested donation of $5 adults, $2 children. For more information, call (215) 686-1252.

The American Helicopter Museum and Education Center: Kids can learn all about our country's aviation history through interactive displays and more. They can even climb in to actual helicopters and try out the controls. The museum is located at 1220 American Boulevard, West Chester, PA. Museum hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10:00am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from noon to 5:00 pm. Tickets: Adults -- $6.00; Seniors -- $5.00; Children and Students with ID -- $4.00; Children under 2 with parent -- Free. For more information, go to www.helicoptermuseum.org.

The New Market Battlefield State Historic Park and Hall of Valor Civil War Museum: Located in Virginia. Explore the site of an important battle in Civil War history. Visit the museum, historic farm, scenic Shenandoah River overlooks, picnic spots and walking trails. The park, a National Historic Landmark, is open 9-5 daily, year round (closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day). For more information, call toll free (866) 515-1864 or visit www4.vmi.edu/museum/nm/.

Web sites
www.UShistory.org is sponsored by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia. Through the website, you can learn all about local historic places, including such obscurities as the Cave of Kelplus, where Johannes Kelpus arrived in Philadelphia from Germany. Read about colonial figures and find our how much that 1840 bank note is worth.

www.historychannel.com offers video clips, debate and analysis of history and program schedules of its award-winning shows.

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