for taking kids to historical places

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.    Talk to the kids about the location before you go

I have found that when the kids hear about some of the stories and people who lived or worked at the historical place before we get there, they connect with it, and become eager to find out more once we’ve arrived. On each historical location page, I have included some of the coolest stories from that place, as a jumping-off point for your young person’s curiosity. Some of the locations also have a more extensive pre-visit sheet that you can download or print off, which will give you a deeper preparation. 

2.    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!?

3.    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 seek out. Responding to my children’s interests at a site just makes the whole experience so enjoyable! 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 helps them to 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 in 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! 

4.    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.

5.    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 2) 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.

6.    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.

7.    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! 

8.    Go inside first, but make time to explore outside too

With a full tummy (see tip 9) 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!

9.    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.

10.    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.

11.    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.

12.    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.

13.    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. 

14.    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). 

And finally… 

15.    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 15, 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!