Austin mom Megan Coalson was fielding her six-year-old daughter Fiona’s volcano questions when the pair uncovered a surprise. “We did some research and found out Austin has an extinct volcano, ‘Pilot Knob,’ near the airport!” she says. All at once, local history became super interesting.
“Anytime we can connect students with real experiences, that makes history so much more meaningful,” says Jessica Wheeler Saum, 2022 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. And exploring the history of their own town not only gives kids an exciting gateway to the past, but also instills pride. “It makes kids own a piece of who they are and where they live,” says Saum, who teaches special education at Stagecoach Elementary in Cabot, Arkansas.
Even little learners can gain a lot through hometown history. “When I’m teaching toddlers and preschoolers, there’s what happened today, maybe what happened yesterday, and everything before that is dinosaurs,” says Carrie Heflin, early education specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “But you could say, ‘Hey, remember yesterday when we were talking about volcanoes and how much you love them? Did you know there’s a volcano right here in our town?’ That’s a great access point.”
Best of all, kids will discover that learning about history doesn’t just have to come from museums, books, and traditional “historic” sites. In fact, your kids’ favorite spots may be filled with historical surprises. Here's how to start digging.
Think like a pro. By using open-ended questions to prompt exploration, you can get kids thinking the way a historian would. “My favorite question to ask is, ‘What do you notice?’” Heflin says. “We can prompt, ‘What do you see, hear, feel, smell?’” The key is to show kids there are no wrong answers. “Following where they lead empowers the child to seek their own knowledge,” she adds. “It gives value to their observations, and it makes clear that you’re not there to lecture them.” Plus, it builds research and critical-thinking skills.
Shop local. One surprising place for kids to start their history hunt is the local shopping district. “We have a ‘Sew and Vac’ store that has been on the corner for 50 years,” says Lorelei Coddington, liberal studies chair at the School of Education at Biola University. Signs that a little history might be hiding in storefronts include embedded sidewalk-entrance signs from previous tenants, traces of painted ads on the sides of buildings, old window panes, ornate doorknobs, or even lampposts from another era.
Seek out “the oldest.” Think about places your child goes often, then find “the oldest” of that place to compare. For instance, kids might be interested in the velvet curtains and balcony inside the oldest movie theater or the materials used to build the oldest local church. Children can also walk past homes in the oldest area of town. “How big are they?” prompts Coddington. "What makes them different from the more recently built homes?” A trip to the oldest park can reveal a lot about the town’s history—through what’s growing there. How tall are the trees? How long did it take for them to grow? What else used to grow there?
Go haunting. It doesn’t have to be Halloween to check out a haunted house. Help kids check online or ask a librarian about “haunted" locations in your town. Creepy stories can inspire kids to guess (and research) the real history behind them. Who built the house? Who lived in it? Who was first to report a haunting there? What was the house like when the haunting is said to have started: occupied, neglected, abandoned?
Ask the locals. There’s nothing like first-person sources—that is, people who’ve experienced a town’s history—to bring that history to life. “Feeding children too many maps and old photos is not as exciting as chatting with someone who remembers ‘way back when,’” says historian and author Thomas Dresser. (And remember that for kids, 20 years ago—or even 10—can feel like ancient history!)
If you live in the town where you grew up, take your kid to visit buildings from your own childhood. (And if you don’t, a local bestie's family can be a great stand-in!) “It could be the school you went to or a home you grew up in,” Heflin says.
For a look further back, Saum recommends reaching out to older adults, like people from independent living communities or elder care facilities. “Kids can ask, ‘What was school like when you were my age? What did you do before or after school? How did you get there?’” she suggests. “For a lot of kids, lunch is their favorite part of the day. So, ‘What was lunch and recess like? What did you do over summer break?’”
Taste the town. Heflin suggests finding a restaurant that serves food that’s either grown locally or traditionally served in the community. “Then ask, ‘People have been eating this food here for a long time. Do you like it, too?’”
Chefs, waitstaff, and even regular customers can help explain the history of the local food and why it's served there. For instance, in California’s Coachella Valley, kids will find date shakes thanks to official government “Agriculture Explorers” who brought back cuts of Moroccan date palm trees in the early 20th century; in New York City, egg creams—a traditional seltzer and chocolate syrup drink—arrived with Eastern-European Jewish immigrants.
Visit the dead. The dead do tell tales, and cemeteries are a fun place to start. As long as the cemetery grants permission and the headstone is in good shape, kids can bring crayons and tracing paper to create gentle rubbings.
A historic preservation teaching guide from Middle Tennessee State University recommends sending kids on a hunt for special engravings such as military or freemasonry symbols, a mark from a tombstone maker (often located near the base), or interesting inscriptions. Things children can think about: What could be the reason behind a lot of close-together death dates? Or similar last names throughout the cemetery? Kids can make guesses about who the people were in life, then look them up to learn about them.
Don’t shy away from uncomfortable history. Old photos of historic buildings that are no longer standing can be fascinating to kids. “One challenge I’d pose to parents with older kids is to think about why those buildings are no longer there,” Heflin says.
That can include uncomfortable discoveries. “What stories have been erased by natural disaster or intentional actions, such as redlining?” Heflin asks. You might uncover a school that was once segregated, a place where a Civil War-era statue once stood, or businesses and homes that were torn down as more wealthy, usually white residents moved into neighborhoods traditionally occupied by immigrants or people of color.