On History and Parenting

Earlier this summer I devoted a post at my personal blog to reflecting on what I’ve learned about teaching history to our five-year old twins. I wrote about how children process the violence they encounter in the past, their ability to empathize with people in history, and their capacity for the “five C’s” of historical thinking — for example:

Our kids pumping water at the Oliver Kelley Farm…causation is right up the alley of kids who love to take things part and put them together. (As I write, they’re working on jigsaw puzzles.) I quickly realized that the single most helpful question I can ever ask at these museums and sites is one familiar from other contexts: “How do things work?” Or, “Why would people do ______ in the past?”

This worked best at the Oliver Kelley Farm, which recreates a miniature economy that was largely self-sufficient but also tied in to larger markets. For example, we came across a cart that had wheels with no rubber or metal. “Lena and Isaiah, why do you think they made the wheels out of wood?” It took about five seconds for their eyes to turn to the forest separating the farm from the Mississippi River.

But my most practical conclusion was that it’s totally worth the $75 a year it costs to buy our entire family a membership in the Minnesota Historical Society, which carries free admission to more than two dozen museums and sites around the state.

If you live in or near Minnesota, here are some kid-friendly options that come with an MHS membership:

  • Kids' activities book from the MN History Center
    And don’t leave the History Center without picking up your free kids’ activities book

    The Minnesota History Center is one of the best museums of its type in the country. The Then Now Wow space is kid central (especially the indoor playground disguised as grain elevator), but aspects of the Open House, Greatest Generation, and Weather Permitting exhibits are also engaging. On weekends and holidays kids can also watch performances by the History Players, and at certain times there are craft projects. And the museum’s café is excellent.

  • Mill City Museum tells the history of Minneapolis in a remarkable space carved out of the ruins of one of the city’s many flour mills. The 19-minute film by humorist Kevin Kling is fun, and the Flour Tower elevator ride gives a memorable overview of mill’s history and leaves you eight stories up to enjoy terrific views of the Mississippi’s St. Anthony Falls. Younger kids will especially enjoy experimenting with hydropower in the Water Lab and with play dough in the Baking Lab.
  • Historic Fort Snelling (next to the MSP airport) offers kids a scavenger hunt: find artifacts around the grounds and they can claim a prize in the fort’s store. There are often special events on the weekend (e.g., World War I Weekend is coming up), plus during the summer the fort hosts camps for kids.
  • Just outside Elk River, the Oliver Kelley Farm (mentioned above) is a functioning 1860s farm. (Note: it’s going through a renovation, with the visitor center closed until spring 2017.) Kid-friendly activities vary by season (it’s a farm, after all), but kids can pump water to fill the cows’ trough, give the tomatoes and beans a drink in the garden, or wash vegetables in the kitchen. There’s grain to be threshed in barn, chickens to be fed, and nature trails to be walked. (In this vein, also check out Gibbs Farm in St. Paul, Eidem Homestead in Brooklyn Park, and Gammelgården in Scandia — not part of the MHS package.)

– Chris Gehrz

What other historic sites have you visited with your kids? What have you learned about how children encounter the past?


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