As home educators, I take my two boys (ages 7 and 10) on a lot of trips to historical places and museums. We must have been to hundreds of locations over the last 5 years, and I’ve learnt a lot during that time, and made lots of mistakes! I thought I would share with you a list of tips that make our days out easier. Of course, every child is different, so what might work for me, might not work for you, but hopefully, you’ll find some of these ideas helpful, or at least they can be a jumping off point to assist you in finding out what’s best for your little ones.
1. Research the location’s history before you go
In the old days, when we would just rock up to a historical place with zero prep, I would often end the day feeling frustrated because I hadn’t been able to read any of the information panels and the kids had dragged me round at such a pace it was all pretty much a blur. And when I did try to stay still for a second to absorb some information, the children would become irritated, and woe betide if I tried to get them to read something! So our historical trips would often end up with all of us being grumpy and regretting the whole affair.
And that is why I started to research the places we visited before we went there. I figured that if I learnt all about the location in advance, then if I couldn’t read the onsite info, it wouldn’t matter so much because I already knew something. This helped me to relax. I’ve created lots of pre-visit info sheets to share with you and your family (see below) so you don’t have to spend lots of time researching, because I know how busy you all are! Another alternative if you don’t want to research beforehand, is to take quick snaps of the information panels as you go round. That way you can read them at your leisure and get the context post-visit. Just make sure you’re allowed to take photos in the location and don’t use flash.
2. Talk to the kids about the location before you go
This is an extension of tip 1 really. Once you’ve learnt all about the historical site, share that information with your children. This is where Go History! is really useful. I have taken the research I have done for myself and presented it in easy-to-read sheets that you can share with your family. There are fun multiple choice questions, and bulleted facts and quirky tidbits to whet the appetite. I have found that when the kids hear about some of the stories and people who lived or worked at the historical place, they connect with it, and become eager to find out more once we’re there. Plus, you have the added bonus of not worrying about whether the kids (or you) spend any time reading anything at the location. They’ve already learnt something from the pre-visit research, so you can chill out a bit and enjoy the surroundings. But to be honest with you, my kids are more likely to want to learn more once they’ve found out a bit about a place before we arrive. It’s a win-win!
3. Focus on the stories
I don’t know about you, but my children respond so much better to stories, rather than artefacts. So when we’re at a museum or historical place I will try to talk to the children about how and why someone might have used an object. I ask them to think about putting themselves in the position of someone from that era. How do you think it would feel to use that object? Would you have liked to have lived during that time? Their favourite way to engage with history is through the stories and characters, and I try to include some of these on my pre-visit info sheets. The monk who was murdered; the Duchess who learned to fly; the King who got stuck trying to escape; the Queen who hated her husband… What’s not to get excited about!?
4. Go at their pace
Honestly, this made all the difference to my stress levels when out and about! If the boys want to leave a room and go somewhere else, I follow. If they want to spend half-an-hour looking at a single thing, I wait patiently. Before, the kids and I were always at odds as to when to move on, and when to stay. We were at odds at what I thought they should look at, and what they wanted to look out. Responding to my children’s interests at a site just makes the whole experience so enjoyable! And because I’ve already learnt about the place before going, I can go at their pace and follow them wherever they want to go and get into whatever they want to explore. We have fun! There’s a certain amount of acceptance on my part with this – accepting that I might not be able to see and do some of what I want, but that’s OK. By letting go of the ‘shoulds’ I really enjoy the ‘right now’, and being available for them helps me to bond with my kids, and really helps them create a positive relationship with history. No more forcing means no more dreading another ‘boring history trip’. They look forward to the freedom to explore their own way. Also, get down to their level, literally. By joining them at their height, you’ll get more of a sense of how and why they’re engaging with certain things, and why they want to get out of some areas!
5. Avoid guided tours
You know your kids better than I do, but my two get so bored on guided tours! The pace that adults go at and the information that adults want to hear are often very different from the desires of a child. So however much I want to do a tour, I don’t, promising myself I’ll come back when the kids are older! Some places do tours for kids and families, which are more suited to the younger ones. Admittedly, you can’t avoid guided tours in certain places (mines and caves for example). Choose shorter tours if available, and check with the guide that you will be able to leave if your little one gets fidgety or disruptive. I will often hang at the back during a tour, so I can whisper extra bits of child-interesting information, or distract them with our own game or discussion.
6. Make use of volunteers and staff
The invigilators in the different spaces at a site will be a wealth of interesting information, often not available on info panels (not that the kids will read those anyway!). They have stories to tell (see tip 3) and often know what excites kids about a space. If the kids have questions, I encourage them to ask the staff themselves – this helps with their confidence and gets them directly involved in the learning process.
7. Make use of on-site activities
This could be an activity pack, a quiz, an eye spy, or a special children’s day of activities or workshops. These organised activities take some of the pressure off you and help the kids to engage with the location in a new and interesting way.
8. Integrate imaginative play and dress up
Many historical places will have a dressing up corner, box, or even a whole room! Expect to spend quite a while watching your little ones dress up in multiple costumes, and you can try to encourage some imaginative role play. This makes history really come alive for them. If you’re allowed, let them wear the costumes around the rest of the site if they want to, role-playing as you go. Their memories of a historical trip that involve dressing up will be fond and long lasting! You could even choose to dress up before you go. Perhaps go as a knight if you’re visiting a medieval castle, or a soldier if you’re visiting a military museum. Or if they prefer, let them go in their spiderman outfit if it makes it more fun for them!
9. Go inside first, but make time to explore outside too
With a full tummy (see tip 10) and the excitement of arriving at a new place, it’s the perfect time to get the kids at full interest. Plus, you can use the promise of a good run around afterwards as motivation!
10. Take snacks and water
I find it useful to make sure the kids have got full tummies before we go in. This gives them lots of energy and a good chunk of time to explore before they start flagging and complaining. A lot of historical places will have a cafe, and using it is a great way to support them, but if you’re on a budget, most sites will also have somewhere for picnics.
11. Discuss the site rules
I think that part of engaging in history and heritage is understanding the preservation and maintenance of places and artefacts. I’m noticing a lot more historical places have displays about the importance of preservation, often with things children can touch to see how fingers affect objects. A discussion about why we don’t climb on ruins, or touch paintings is a great way to introduce young people to the care of historical objects, and I find it’s more effective than just telling them not to.
12. Check before you go
There’s nothing worse than getting to a historical place and finding out that the bit you really wanted to see is closed for cleaning, or you can’t wear your baby-carrier in the house. Always check the website (or call if they don’t have one) to make sure they have everything you need so you can pack accordingly.
13. Follow historical places on social media and sign up to newsletters
This is the best way to find out about special family days, discount days, events, and free open days. Essential if you’re on a budget.
14. Make use of annual passes
The National Trust and English Heritage both have annual memberships, which are great value if you plan on visiting lots of places. Many sites will also have annual entry included in the ticket price, which is brilliant if you have a little one that prefers to engage with history in short bursts. You might want to consider asking for an annual pass for a heritage group for a Christmas or birthday present.
15. Make use of free historical sites
Lots of historical places and museums are free, so you can still get your history fix without breaking the bank. Some places that charge may have annual free open days too (see tip 12).
16. Accept that sometimes your historical day out will be stressful
There are just those days with children, you know, those days, when no matter what you do or try, the day just seems to go wrong. The kids are tired or grumpy. They have no desire to get involved no matter what you do. As all of us parents know, these days are inevitable. I can offer no advice, other than you’re not alone! We all have days like that.
I hope you’ve found some of those tips helpful! We love going out on history trips as a family now (although, as I said in tip 16, we do sometimes have those days!). Some historical places are better suited and have made a special effort for families, but at any location just bring some knowledge, a sense of curiosity, and a willingness to play!