Kids love living history


January 31, 1993|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer

The children were running and jumping all across the village green in Williamsburg, Va., trying out stilts and rolling wooden hoops.

Some had just gotten out of "school" -- held under a tree behind a house. Dutifully, they had scratched the answers to math problems on slate boards and answered questions about the story the teacher had read from the tiny book.

Others were drilling with the Army militia, marching down to the encampment, following the tough sergeant's orders, standing by as the cannon was fired.

These children weren't at all interested in the historic significance of Williamsburg -- that it was the center of Colonial government before the American Revolution. Nor did they care that the buildings had been built with painstaking attention to historic accuracy and detail.

But they were getting a sense of everyday life during the 18th century -- of the way children lived. And they were having fun doing it. That was exactly the point.

As more families travel together -- as more parents seek out educational enrichment for their children on trips -- living history museums are revving up their kid appeal.

"We're programming with children in mind," says Polly Jontz, director of Indiana's Conner Prairie, which depicts life in an 1830s Plains settlement.

"It's new and different programming," says Ken Kipps, a Colonial Williamsburg spokesman. "We're trying to do all we can for children to have a meaningful experience here."

At Williamsburg, the children snacked on fresh-squeezed lemonade and gingerbread, listening to a guitarist play a medley of nursery rhymes on a guitar. They helped do chores, drawing water from a well and even dressed up as Colonials. (They were astonished to learn Colonial children bathed only infrequently and slept night after night in their same underclothes.)

Whether it's Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, which re-creates New England life in the early 19th century, or Jamestown settlement in Virginia, the site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, or any of the other living history museums across the country, children will find a growing array of hands-on activities designed to bring their social studies lessons to life.

Even historic sites that didn't previously have programs now offer some. In California, for example, 47 state historic parks including Old Town San Diego and Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, have Living History Days, when costumed interpreters re-create a period in California history. Write to the Office of Public Relations at the California Department of Parks and Recreation, P.O. Box 94286, Sacramento, Calif. 94296-0001; (916) 653-6995.

Old Sturbridge Village lets children "Meet a Critter," petting and learning about different farm animals. The program is especially popular with inner city children, a spokesman says. Children also have the chance to dip candles or write with a quill pen, among other things.

Williamsburg experimented last summer with a Children's Resource Center, where parents could stop and learn about the day's child-oriented activities. The on-site hotels also offer some children's programming, and a Parents' Guide to Williamsburg suggests homes, workplaces and buildings that would be of particular interest to children.

In Jamestown, children can explore replicas of the ships brought here by the Colonists in 1607 and try on soldiers' armor. And on some days, they can even help clean the cannon. In the adjacent Indian village, they may rest on deerskin pallets, help make bone tools and grind corn.

But even with the best programming, it will still take a little work on the parents' part, so children can have fun visiting one of these places.

"Too many parents think it's like going to an amusement park and being entertained," says one dismayed Williamsburg historic interpreter.

If you go, take the time to find out where the most child-oriented and hands-on activities are that day and head in that direction. Let your children march with the soldiers or do laundry in an outdoor tub, watch a blacksmith work or try on bonnets.

Skip anything too esoteric and anything "hands-off." No matter what their age, they like to explore by doing.

Look for anything that depicts real life -- particularly family life. Seek out the historical interpreters dressed in period costumes. They are only too glad to answer the children's questions, reveling in their character all the while.

It also will help if you've introduced the children to what they'll be seeing ahead of time. Tell them about an ancestor who might have lived through this period. Read a book or watch a video about the era.

If you're heading to Conner Prairie, for example, the "Little House on the Prairie" series is a great preparation. Before a Williamsburg trip, the American Girl Felicity stories, which are set in the Colonial town, are sure to please. (Both are available in libraries and popular bookstores.)

Then, once you're there, encourage the children to put themselves in the place of the youngsters who might have lived in Williamsburg or Conner Prairie or Old Sturbridge Village. What games did they play? What clothes did they wear? What did they eat? What was it like not to have bathrooms or running water?

Don't forget to take lots of breaks. Sit on the village green. Drink lemonade. The children may see less but remember more.

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