When I was at school, history lessons – learning about the Magna Carta, the Battle of Hastings, Agincourt, Bosworth, Bannockburn along with the names of unknown kings fighting unknown battles in unknown places – were the most boring I could imagine. They were just names and dates but I had to remember them because I knew that in a very short time, there would be a test. In the back of my mind was the question, ‘Why do I have to learn about this when I’ll never use it again when I grow up?’ And you can be sure our children’s minds work the same way as ours did.
But now that we’re older and wiser, we understand that our children can learn a lot by looking closer at the past. As we get older, our perception changes, as do our interests. All of a sudden, these characters are not eccentric anymore and we realise they were real people with real personalities. They fought battles, they won the love of their women, they made mistakes and they were vulnerable to diseases. Just like us. All of a sudden history becomes exciting.
And then at some stage, almost like a revelation, we realise that learning history has many important benefits as well. By understanding our past, and where we came from, we hope to better understand where we are now and even decide what might happen in the future. The way things are now is a consequence of the things that happened in the past. The way things will be tomorrow will be a consequence of the way things are now.
History not only provides us with a nostalgic glimpse of how things used to be but its lessons can teach us things that are important for life today. History can be the richest of all stories, the saddest of stories and the most shocking of stories. It’s a story of all people, in all places, at all times and because we know of that history, we can decide what may happen in the future.
It provides identity and shows us models of good and responsible behaviour, as well as teaching us how to learn from the mistakes of others. History helps us understand how society can change and develop. If we don’t teach our children to connect with history, then the consequences for our society could be disastrous. The more we know about the past the better prepared we are for the future because by remembering the past, we realise that we are responsible for building a legacy for the generations that follows us.
Considering the greed that caused The War of the Roses, the family misunderstandings that caused the First World War and the need for power that caused the Second World War, who would want to repeat them? As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The way our children absorb information is undergoing a rapid transformation. Images, video, sound bites, tweets and interactive apps are just some of the ways through which they learn nowadays. So keeping that in mind, we need to share our knowledge of history in a way that will be engaging.
Movies are a great place to start, as you want to make sure that learning about history is exciting and fun. Look to the old Hollywood classics like Ben Hur or The Great Escape, as well as hot soon-to-be released movies like Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Children will soon realise that being a ‘historian’ is like being a time-detective; they’ll start looking everywhere for clues to help them build up a picture of what happened long ago. On the small screen too, they’ll find plenty of grist for the mill, through popular, blockbusting series like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey.
Apps are of course another great way to bring history to life, with games, interesting visuals and interactive multimedia features making study fun. Take Timeline Eons: all major historical events are organised on a timeline, so kids can zoom in and out to learn about different time periods. Ancient Rome by Britannica Kids is another very well designed app teaching kids about ancient Rome – it includes media-rich material, games and quizzes. My grandkids also rate Faking It, a free app from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which teaches history through famous iconic photos.
And what about storytelling? We were telling stories long before the golden-haired, blue-eyed Vikings sailed dragon-prowed boats up a river in Northumbria one cold miserable January morning in 793AD. And we are still listening to these stories told by grandparents, parents, raconteurs and writers. Hence the word ‘his-story’.
From a very young age, children are taught to recognise and appreciate stories that they are told. At bedtime especially, a wave of hushed concentration envelops children as they hear the words ‘once upon a time’, and there are hundreds of titles, not necessarily nonfiction books, that could be suitable for this.
For example, there is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Although fictitious, this tale is full of intrigue, bravery, dashing knights on white horses waving swords, and swooning damsels in distress. Then we have the story of Robin Hood with his band of merry men robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, while romping though Sherwood Forest in his Lincoln-green long johns. For something closer to our times, there is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which offers readers a glimpse of what life was like in 19th century America and addresses important issues from the past – slavery, for example.
The list is endless and in every one, there is a story to grab children’s imagination. With just one chapter a night, it’s possible to take the time to answer any questions your child may have about the stories you choose. Who knows, soon your children may start reaching for the historical fiction shelf on their own.
Most children are already exposed to different cultures and values, and history helps to open their minds, explore ancient civilisations and learn the importance of world cultures. It helps them to explore the different stages of history and understand the importance of major events and the mistakes that were made. Mistakes that we hope will never be repeated. And isn’t that what we really want? To make our children’s future better than our past?
In the immortal words of the English poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”