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Living History as Education for Your Children About Pioneer Life

Updated on April 22, 2012

Pioneer Cabin Chores

rolling out the bread dough pioneer style
rolling out the bread dough pioneer style
grinding the wheat
grinding the wheat
sifting the wheat
sifting the wheat
washing the clothes
washing the clothes

Jay Anderson describes living history as "the simulation of life in another time" or an imitation of our past. However, Richard Handler and William Saxton in Cultural Anthropology,describe Jay Anderson as a folklorist who is attempting to "legitimate living history as a scholarly subdiscipline" (Dyssimulation: Reflexivity, Narrative, and the Quest for Authenticity in “Living History”; Volume 3, Issue 3, page 242-260, August 1988). Not a very flattering description of Mr. Anderson or living history. But I believe living history is ideally suited for history education particularly in the young. As a statement of my belief I recently took my own girls to a living history museum.

We visited the Pioneer Farm Museumin Eatonville, Washington. The museum featured an 1887 homestead including cabins, a barn, a blacksmith shop, carpentry shop and a school house. Although there was the typical museum section were the girls were not allowed to touch anything it was preceded by enough fascinating hands on exhibits that the girls stood quietly for the speech about the authentic pioneer cabins. Before that speech the girls got to try their hands at real pioneer chores in a replica cabin, barn and carpentry shop. (They were to young to work in the blacksmith shop though they did get to watch a demonstration of how it would have worked.) The guides were full of fascinating tidbits about pioneer life. For example using the cinnamon grater that was typical for the time it would take 15 minutes to grate enough cinnamon for one apple pie. The girls got a glimpse of something outside their experience.

I would have to agree with Kate Stover in her article "Is it Real History Yet? An Update On Living History Museums" (Journal of American Culture; Volume 12, Issue 2, pages 13-17, Summer 1989) that, this museum at least, had a tendency to focus on the object as sacred rather than the history of the time as a whole. However even if it is true that "the museums pander to the public, portray an entertaining, simplistic and nostalgic past, and neglect historical change and historical conflict" that does not have to be a problem for your efforts to teach your child history. If you understand that the museum is only going to give your child a glimpse of history and create a platform for further study than the living history museum can become a wonderful tool.

For the entire trip home (and it was long) my daughter had questions about pioneer life. What was it really like? What would she have done if she had been a pioneer? What would Daddy and Mommy have done? How were things different? And with only a little effort you can direct your child's inquiring until you've created a full an accurate picture of the time, what reasons were there for the way they did things, how have things changed and what caused those changes.

However, it is best to be prepared. As I said my daughter was full of questions nearly the moment we left. Or have several age appropriate history books ready to read. Your local librarian will be happy to help you find the ideal books. Most museums will have a selection of books to purchase but, while they are all related to the time the museum is portraying it can be difficult to find books of interest to younger children.

So look for a living history museum near you. Bring the words of history off the page. Children have a limited range of experiences and such museums can easily open whole new worlds that your children have not previously imagined. And, should your child truly enjoy the experience consider involvement in re-enacted events. Stephen Hunt in "Acting the part: 'living history' as a serious leisure pursuit" (Leisure Studies, Volume 23, Number 4, October 2004, pages 387-403(17)) might state that re-enacted events "are not primarily an educational experience" but are instead a serious hobby that promotes "camaraderie, collective involvement, and a subjective understanding of authenticity" but again they have a use in helping your child pursue their education in history. Furthermore, reenactment provides your child with a group of comrades interested in the same time period or event. Reenactment will probably be of the most interest to boys as it typically revolves around soldiers and battles.

However your choose to pusure your history education I wish you and your children well.


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    • Nils Visser profile image

      Nils Visser 

      7 years ago from Brighton UK

      Nice one!


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