Teaching the French Revolution to Children

Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789
Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789 | Source
Battle of Fleurus, June 26, 1794, French troops led by Jourdan beat back the Austrian army
Battle of Fleurus, June 26, 1794, French troops led by Jourdan beat back the Austrian army | Source
Napoleon Bonaparte seizing control of France
Napoleon Bonaparte seizing control of France | Source

Revolutions, or any war, can be difficult to teach children. You want to provide them with the facts but at the same time you don't want to provide to much bloody detail or be asked questions which will lead to bloody details. It is a delicate balance to walk, but the following plans attempt to do just that.

Lesson One: Overview of the French Revolution

As with every history lesson, start with a history sentence (or at most two sentences) which includes the date, the place, the people and the most important event or events. In the case of the French Revolution the who and where are obvious but the exact event or events to emphasis can be tricky.

Your choices include:

  • Summoning of the Estates-General
  • The Tennis Court Oath
  • The Storming of Bastille
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man
  • The 1791 Constitution
  • King Louis XVI attempted flight to Austria
  • French war with Austria
  • French Republic
  • Trial of the King
  • Nations join forces against France
  • Reign of Terror
  • The Directory
  • Napoleon Crowned Emperor of France
  • Napoleon's War with Europe
  • Napoleon Exiled to Elba
  • Battle at Waterloo
  • Napoleon Exiled to Saint Helena

Pick a couple of the events that you feel are the most crucial to the French Revolution. Then as your child gets older (and studies the topic again) you can fill in more details. So choose your history sentence and begin and end each lesson by reciting that sentence.

On the first day show you children a map of France circa 1789. Explain that the French people were starving and sick when a young King Louis XVI (he was only 19) and his 18 year old wife Marie Antoinette came to the throne. The King inherited a country burdened with debt and compounded the problem by creating more debt.

The King called advisers from the people to solve the problem of the country's debt - the Estates-General. But the members who weren't nobles or clergy wanted a constitution. When the King refused to listen the people took an oath declaring they would not leave until a constitution had been written - the Tennis Court Oath.

The people began to fear that the King would send his troops against them so they went looking for weapons. This lead to the storming of the Bastille. Hoping to find weapons the people fought Governor J. de Launay and his troops to take the armory. The governor was forced to surrender but this battle lead to a wave of violence called the Great Fear.

The National Assembly was able to create the Declaration of the Rights of Man but the King refused to acknowledge it. The people demanded the King move to Paris to show his support. In 1789 an angry mob forced his consent.

In 1791 the National Assembly finished the Constitution. But they proposed paying off debts by confiscating church land. Moreover they demanded priests take an oath of loyalty to France. This caused Pope Pius VI, the leader of the catholic church at that time, to condemn the revolution.

When the King, fearing for his safety, attempted to flee to Austria, the people of France retaliated by declaring war on Austria. The National Convention decided to completely do away with the monarchy. In 1972 they put the King on trial. He was found guilty of conspiring against the liberty of France, a sentence which led to his execution. This caused the other nations' monarchs (kings) to go to war against France because they were afraid.

The growing turmoil lead to neighbors becoming suspicious of one another, the establishment of neighborhood watches to ensure loyalty, accusations of disloyalty and many suspected traitors being put to death. This period in French history is know as the Reign of Terror. The leadership during this time eventually lost power and the Directory took control. But the Directory too lost power and a general named Napoleon Bonaparte seized control.

In 1804 Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France. But his attempted conquest of Europe lead to his exile to the island of Elba. He returned to France but was defeated in the Battle at Waterloo. This time he was exiled to the Island of Saint Helena where he eventually died.

Day Two: the Storming of Bastille

Begin with your history sentence. Then provide your children with a coloring page of Bastille. (A print copy can be found at the Educational Technology Clearinghouse or an online coloring page can be found at Super Coloring.) If those images seem to violent for your child's sensibilities Hello Kids has images of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette (or you could use these coloring pages on your first day).

As your child is coloring explain that Bastille Day is still celebrated in France today as the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the modern republic. The Bastille prison was a symbol of despotism and cruelty and it's storming is seen as a triumph of the people over oppression.

The fight began because an angry mob received word that an armory (a store of weapons) was kept at Bastille. Despite the ten foot thick walls and ninety foot towers two men attacked the guardhouse attempting to lower the first of two drawbridges. The soldiers threatened to open fire unless the men stopped. The men lowered the first drawbridge and went to work on the second so the soldiers fired their weapons

For four hours the crowd attempted to storm the Bastille. The French Guard joined the people storming the prison providing cannons for their cause. Realizing they could no longer defined the Bastille the soldiers forced the Governor, the Marquis de Launay, to surrender. Upon surrendering several soldiers and the governor were killed. The National Assembly ordered the Bastille be razed (completely destroyed).

The storming of Bastille marked the beginning of the French Revolution, which lead to the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

After your explanation label their pictures with the date and add them to their history notebooks. This will allow you to place the events within the larger context of world history. End the lesson with your history sentence.

Day Three: Pictorial Review of the French Revolution

Bolsa Grande High School has a French Revolution project that is perfect for older students. The students are to demonstrate their understanding of the French Revolution by creating a storybook which would depict the events for a younger audience.

If you have an older student you can have him create the storybook and share it with his younger siblings. Otherwise you can provide the black and white pictures for your younger students and as they color them review the events you covered on day one.

Date each image. Briefly review your timeline to place the events in the context of world history before adding them to the history notebooks. End the lesson with your history sentence.

Day Four: The Geography of the French Revolution

Pearson Education has a map labeling project online. While this project is geared toward older students, even your younger students should be able to complete a few of the labels on the map.

Start with the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the English Channel. Next identify France, England (Great Britain), Portugal and Spain. Then add the following rivers: Seine, Rhine, Elbe and Po. Follow that with the mountains: Pyrenees and Alps. Finally add the cities London, Paris and Rome.

Upon completion of the map added it to the French Revolution section of your history notebook.

Day Five: French Revolution Games

NeoK12 has a number of online traditional puzzles and/or slider puzzles featuring the French Revolution. Each puzzle has a description next to it. So as your child completes the puzzles you can review with her the events of the French Revolution.

After your children have completed the puzzle games work together on the timeline game adding labels to the dates and pictures on the timeline. As always end the lesson with your history sentence.

Briefly review your history sentence several times over the next few months and you have provided your child with a solid foundation of understanding regarding the French Revolution.

What did you learn about the French Revolution

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