Adding Activities to History

by Diane Lilleberg, Educational Consultant

Adding hands-on learning to historical studies does not have to require the kind of time investment you might think. It doesn’t have to mean setting other things aside to plan a week-long extravaganza. There are many series of books today that try to make history real to students of different ages through activities that give students a “you are there” sense of involvement.

A parent recently asked me to respond to a comment she read that suggested activities should be left to children and how they naturally play. Even if the comment did not consider the “idea vacuum” that isolation often imposes, it errs in not fairly considering different learning styles, different motivational needs, and the need for modeling to help initiate original play connected to studies.

Doing something active changes learning experiences.

I was a bookworm and loved all sorts of literature. I once researched clothing of the Shakespearean era, and I still remember details, not out of reading, but because I dressed fashion dolls in clothes of the era. My son recently completed paratroop training and still remembers what he learned about parachutes in order to make one to cushion the landing of an egg dropped from the school roof. Most of us have similar vivid memories, from stories to be sure, but often from things we actually made or did that either motivated our interest or cemented it into our memory.

Activities are an effective way to make content for older students more understandable for younger students. Most activity resources include historical summaries. Although many activity resources do not have enough content for older children, they often include stories of how children and families lived at the time. Others add interesting facts not often included in text that add interest and can make inclusion of different ages more workable.

Not all activity resources are alike, of course. Some include mostly history with a few activities. Some include activities but use modern conveniences in duplicating them (which they are criticized for, but materials can rarely be the same anyway). Some have instructions that are easier for children to follow without help, a big plus for me, as following written instructions is always a valuable addition to curricula. And some provide comprehensive history without an additional text, most helpful when you have older students sharing studies targeted for younger children.

To some degree, all expose the arts and crafts of the time, helping to add visual elements to written history and historical fiction. And all of them should add variety and fun, both to studies and to your family life.

This issue includes reviews of activity resources available through U.S. publishers. Using these resources will give your children a greater chance to incorporate related activities and projects in their imaginative play. Given what you might save by incorporating different levels into shared studies in content subjects, activity resources are a great investment to help make your shared study more meaningful to ages that may not be targeted as effectively as others.

Activity resources are listed first, but do not miss the excellent art resource books that not only add visual and hands-on components to history, but also teach art and offer creative artistic experiences as well. Prices are not listed because all titles mentioned are $9-15 (USD).

A Great First Start

Are you still focused on skill development, but want to get started with history on a small scale? My favorite (and kids agree!) is to start with a Canadian resource, Barbara Greenwood’s A Pioneer Story: The Daily Life of a Canadian Family in 1840 (International Edition). This is a brilliantly combined approach of history, non-fiction, and hands-on activities from pioneering days in Canada. The family’s story competes with the famous Little House titles in interest but it so painlessly inserts the “extra vitamins” of non-fiction integrated where interest is hot from the story, they won’t complain.

Wonderful illustrations by Heather Collins will help children picture and experience life in the time period. Published in shades of blacks and browns, this attractive book could not look better in color.

American Kids in History Series by David C. King

David C. King’s series usually tells a story of children in two families, often in contrasting settings such as city and country, through seasons of the year. The history priority is to give insight into lives of children and families in the midst of time periods that included historical events. Both the short stories and the activities make this series appropriate for including younger children when history texts target older children. In black and white, the illustrations are adequate for helping with the activities but are otherwise disappointing. The publishers suggest grades 3-6, but in fact the family-life focus and the large type suggests younger children. For grades above third, you will prefer a series with more “historical meat.”

Spend the Day in …

Spend the Day in … is a series of books by Linda Honan that explores family life in ancient civilizations. The stories are interesting, but the activities often quite realistically include their religious practices. There are enough activities, however, to skip those that seem too pagan and still have a lot of other options to try. While the focus is on a family, the family life intersects more with the culture than other family life titles. It is another black and white series with only adequate illustrations.

Kaleidoscope Kids

Kaleidoscope Kids is a series on Egypt, Greece, and Rome written by Avery Hart and Paul Mantell. This series makes history sound “cool” and reminds me of interesting sidebars and illustrations in a history text. Activities are both formal and informal, such as building a model of the Nile in a pan of sand or hollering out the news of the day like a herald. The leveling is very uneven due to philosophical questions that would be difficult for even adults to consider. But if you want to add humor and interest to dull history reading, this should help. Allowing you to pick and choose, the layout is in scattered paragraphs across the pages, very fitting for the breezy style that adds to the study of ancient civilizations.

Laurie Carlson books

Activity books by Laurie Carlson are my “best buy” and “best for most levels.” There are so many activities to choose from, and few are difficult to implement. The history summaries that are included are short but excellent. The “midline” leveling does not talk up or down, and activity directions are so user-friendly that many projects can be organized independently by older children for the younger ones. Newer titles add world history.

A series addition by Nancy Sanders is Old Testament Days: An Activity Guide, covering life from Abraham through Nehemiah.

… for Kids with 21 Activities

The … for Kids with 21 Activities series published by Chicago Review Press is an activity series for middle-school students that includes even more history than it does activities. Titles focus on both characters and time periods. Marco Polo for Kids is an especially welcome taste of the Orient. They are beautifully produced books with excellent history that can stand alone apart from supporting history texts, with exceptional illustrations and photographs. If you are including older students in a program leveled for younger students, these should help build sophistication and challenge while adding interest to studies for all.

Art and History

A Scholastic title, Teaching American History with Art Masterpieces, is my favorite all-around title for visual American history. Written by a team headed by Bobbi Chertok, the works of art displayed on the included posters cover Jamestown through the transcontinental railroad.

The study of each famous painting is fleshed out to make an effective short unit on the time period. Both artistic and historical elements are presented expertly. With each print is a reproducible newspaper “USA Yesterday.”

The style of the paintings vary, and I enjoyed the challenge to kids to guess which details later artists put in that were not accurate at the time of the event. Another highlight is an imaginative voice speaking from a character captured from the picture who comments on the event.

Provided questions and answers guide the exploration of the art that helps children (and parents) learn how to look. The unit also includes a short bio on the artist, creative student worksheets (i.e., designing a business card for Paul Revere), and extension activities for additional ideas, some suitable for research.

For those not from the U.S., do not be too disappointed. You can try Month-By-Month Masterpieces by the same authors. It focuses more on the artists than on history.

Activities Inspired by Artists

Artists’ Workshop is a series of five titles that are both gorgeous books in full color as well as thoughtful introductions to different genres and the artists that reflected and inspired the times in which they lived.

Each book begins with an introduction to the genre—for instance, landscape pictures or portraits. The introduction is followed by a famous work of six different artists in full color, with an engaging text segment that discusses the author, the times, or the methods (i.e., the kind of brushes, the distinctive outlining, or the use of color or line).

Following the effective two-page spread of art and artist, there are two pages of art ideas based on the featured art piece or artist. This spread leads students in their own projects and is illustrated by actual children’s art commissioned for this series. Because of suggesting three or four different ways of approaching an artistic response, there is always a choice that will work regardless of materials. Children fascinated by art, though, will likely want to try more than one of the ideas. Only minimal supplies are needed–a basic set of paints (i.e., poster paints) and colored paper.

Each title ends with a page “More about the artists,” as well as “Other things to do” suggesting additional project ideas using the genre, some of them appropriate for a research project. This series is appropriate for all elementary and middle-school levels.

Animals (Artists’ Workshop) by Penny King and Clare Roundhill
Cave paintings in Lascaux, France, Aztec animal art, Rousseau’s jungle pictures, two artistic renditions of St. Francis and his animals, Fante flags, and animals in Aboriginal styles.

Portraits (Artists’ Workshop) by Penny King and Clare Roundhill)
Egyptian effects, Roman mosaics, Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso, Giacometti’s surrealist sculptures, and portraits using cameras and photo montage.

Stories (Artists’ Workshop) by Penny King and Clare Roundhill
Bayeux Tapestry, Ramayana illustrations, Cinderella illustrations by Rackham, Midsummer Nights’ Dream by Chagall, and a modern Russian miniature box.

Sports and Games (Artists’ Workshop) by Penny King and Clare Roundhill
Greek games, Greek profiles, “Racing Romans,” and “Powerful Persians.”

Landscapes (Artists’ Workshop) by Penny King and Clare Roundhill
Hokusai’s Mount Fiji, an Austrian tree mosaic, Monet, Georgia O’Keefe, Burchfield’s winter, and Hundertwasser’s distinctive houses. This title does not coordinate as well as others to history, but it is excellent with geography or as a stand-alone art title.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial purposes.