Mayra Leiva of Reseda, California, knew her eight-year-old son was a little interested in history. But she was surprised when all at once he became a walking encyclopedia, spouting dates and pretending every tire swing was a time machine. “It happened after he saw Night at the Museum,” she says. “Now he’s really paying close attention to history books. I’ve had to do a lot of Googling to keep up!”
Not many children will tell you that their favorite school subject is history. Memorizing dates and learning long-ago facts that don’t seem relevant isn’t exactly high on their fun list. Perhaps that’s why pop culture—movies, music, television, and even video games and comic books—can be such useful teaching tools.
“Teaching through pop culture helps students relate history to their own background and experiences,” says Gail Hudson, a fifth-grade teacher and 2020 Nevada Teacher of the Year. “It’s tying into something that’s already caught their interest.”
Take the movie version of the Broadway show Hamilton, which releases on Disney+ July 3. The multicultural cast and rap-fueled score reflects what kids are watching and listening to, which has help raise interest in the American Revolution. “That engagement helps kids connect to the stories,” says Michelle Orihel, associate professor of history at Southern Utah University, who’s shaped classes around the musical. (Try it at home with Teaching History With Hamilton.)
Kids are likely consuming plenty of pop culture at home right now, with shutdowns and social distancing still in place. So it’s a great time for parents to use all that media consumption in a (lightly) educational way.
“As parents, we know how to communicate best with our children, so it’s up to us to introduce the veggie in the overall meal,” says Adilifu Nama, professor of African-American studies at Loyola Marymount University, whose books explore Black culture in movies and comic books. “With kids, basically what we’re talking about is putting spinach into the blender and adding it to their favorite type of smoothie.”
Luckily parents don’t need to be history experts to use pop culture as learning tools. And you certainly don’t want to follow up a movie with a boring lecture. Often it’s more about asking the right questions to get children thinking about the historical relevancy.
For instance, Nama cites Mulan as a movie to get kids’ brains ticking. “When you get to a cliffhanger, press stop,” he suggests (for instance, when Mulan’s male disguise is discovered). “Then ask, ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ and plan to finish the movie at the same time tomorrow.” The suspense motivates kids to think about the story—and maybe even chase down answers on their own.
One common question that parents might be tempted to ask is, “What would you have done in that situation?” Don’t.
“It dismisses the context, which is really critical,” says Kathryn Obenchain, a professor of social studies and associate dean at Purdue University’s College of Education. For instance, movies about slavery—such as Harriet—can prompt kids to think about what they’d do if they were enslaved. But … “when we teach history to young kids, they say, ‘If I had been a slave, I’d have just run away” or “I’d just talked back.’ A better question for a budding historian is, ‘Why do you think the character acted that way?’”
Parents can also encourage kids to look for causes and effects. “History is about why things happen in a certain order,” Obenchain says. “You might ask kids, ‘Why would this action have caused that action? And what from the story would tell us that?’” She points to the rap battle in Washington's cabinet from Hamilton. "There’s a clear cause and effect: Jefferson says we cannot abolish slavery until 1808 because we made a deal with the Southern states to allow the slave trade to continue until 1808.”
Obenchain also suggests asking kids how they think a character felt to help them connect to the movie’s major themes—what she calls “the human story”—like justice, courage, or power. Night at the Museum, for instance, is ultimately about friendship and learning to work together (even if you’re Attila the Hun).
Truth vs. fiction
No surprise here—not everything kids see in pop culture is going to be true. “Kids aren’t going to learn about the Abbasid [culture] from Aladdin,” says Scott A. Metzger, associate professor at Penn State College of Education and co-author of Teaching History With Film. “But these movies can provide parents with opportunities to discuss the past with their kids in ways [kids] are ready to handle.”
And figuring out what’s not true can be a great way to learn history. Metzger suggests prepping your kids with a little accurate info before the show begins. (For instance, historians doubt that Pocahontas rescued John Smith, as she does in the animated film.) Then let kids search on their own for errors—after all, they love it when adults get things wrong! (For facts, Orihel trusts the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the New-York Historical Society, and the Museum of the American Revolution.)
Movies also tend to tell one viewpoint of a story based on a director or writer’s vision. “There’s not ‘the story’ of a historical event,” Obenchain says. “There will always be multiple sides.” She suggests asking kids to think about why a movie was told the way it was. For instance, older kids could reflect on why the Kevin Costner character in Hidden Figures was fictional. Younger viewers can ponder over why Mushu the dragon in the original Mulan is not part of the new live-action film, on Disney+ August 21. (Learn about some of the real-life characters who didn't make it into Hamilton.)
Of course, learning about history through pop culture isn’t limited to films. Here are some of the experts’ recommendations for TV, comics, and video games.
Bubble Guppies: Some episodes of this preschool show take place in settings such as ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages.
Liberty’s Kids: Colonial teen reporters—one American and one English—cover the Revolutionary War.
Find Me in Paris: A teenage ballerina from 1905 finds herself magically transported into the present.
Comics and graphic novels
Colorful History: Free, history-based comics from Pop Culture Classroom, a Denver non-profit that helps create curricula using comics and other pop culture
Action Presidents by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey: This comic series covers each of the U.S. presidents with a kid-friendly combo of history and jokes.
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell: This trilogy tells the story of U.S. Representative John Lewis and the civil rights movement.
Cuphead: Featuring animation and music styled after the 1930s, this game can inspire kids to learn more about the Jazz Age.
On the Trail of Captain John Smith: Send kids on a journey with Captain John Smith to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. They’ll play mini-games and watch videos about challenges that the settlers faced.
Pixel Ripped 1989 and Pixel Ripped 1995 (VR): Kids play as gamers from each of these eras, using an 8-bit console in the ’80s and a Game Boy in the ’90s, and discovering each decade’s retro style. (Hey, video game history is still history, right?)
Oregon Trail: In this classic game, kids to try to survive as settlers in the Old West. And though the latest version has more detailed graphics, you can still play the throwback 1990 version for free.
The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.