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How to Teach the Meaning of Independence Day to Children

Updated on December 31, 2012
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Independence Day is one of the most important holidays in the United States. It is a celebration of our national heritage, a remembrance of the historic moment in which the Founding Fathers threw caution to the wind and adopted the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. We honor this momentous occasion every Fourth of July, and even the youngest children learn very early in their lives to anticipate fireworks going off in celebration.

However, Independence Day is more than just a big party with picnics and sparklers. The concept of signing the Declaration - a wordy document in language many children cannot yet really understand - may be difficult for parents to convey to their children. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent resources available that can help make these difficult concepts seem more comprehensible, and sharing them may create bonding experiences that will strengthen your family and memories that will last a lifetime.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

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The History of Independence Day

The story of how America achieved its independence from Great Britain is a long and epic tale that has filled the pages of many long, scholarly books. However, at this point, your children really need to know the basic facts:

  • In the 1760s and 1770s, America was made up of 13 colonies under control of Great Britain. The king during this period was King George III. The legislative body of England, known as Parliament, began imposing heavy taxes on the colonies. This made some of the American colonists very angry because they did not have a representative in Parliament.
  • On December 13, 1773, a group of citizens called The Sons of Liberty protested taxes on tea by dumping a huge tea shipment from England into Boston Harbor. This event became known as The Boson Tea Party.
  • England punished the colonies for The Boston Tea Party with a series of decrees now remembered as "The Intolerable Acts." They closed Boston Harbor and decided that from then on, all government officials in Massachusetts had to be chosen by the King. Sometimes they required people living in Massachusetts to allow English soldiers to live in their homes.
  • "The Intolerable Acts" made many American colonists very angry. Some American colonists, such as Thomas Paine, began to call for America to become an independent nation from England.
  • In April of 1775, British troops attacked Lexington and Concord, and the American Revolution began.
  • In 1775, respected citizens from each of the thirteen original colonies met in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. Members of the Continental Congress disagreed as to whether or not they wished to declare independence from Great Britain.
  • On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a resolution to the Congress declaring that the thirteen colonies should become free and independent states. A five-person committee was organized to write a formal Declaration of Independence.
  • On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. On July 4, the Congress sent it out for publication to the world.
  • The Revolutionary War went on until October 19, 1781, when General George Washington defeated Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia.

The Declaration of Independence

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Listen to the Declaration as an audiobook

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Help Your Child Understand The Declaration of Independence

The central document that is most important in celebrating and understanding Independence Day is the Declaration of Independence. However, it is written in verbose, flowered language that children in today's culture might find difficult to understand. How can you help your children comprehend the text behind the Declaration of Independence?

There are several websites that have rewritten the Declaration of Independence in wording that modern children can understand. Try this version from Kidipede. The Declaration with its original wording can also be found at Ben's Guide to U.S. Government for Kids. Try reading both versions.

You can also visit a website called "American Treasures of the Library of Congress". This exhibit, which was once on display at the Library of Congress, has closed down now and people can only see the objects online. Among the images in this display is Thomas Jefferson's original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, complete with pen marks when members of Congress scratched out lines. Even Thomas Jefferson had to make revisions to his work!

If your child is an audial learner, or if you just want to reinforce the lesson with instruction in several formats, try letting your child listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence on a CD, such as the recording pictured at the right. At the website for Colonial Williamsburg here is an audiofile of Bill Barker reading the The video below presents part of the Declaration of Independence in song. Youtube also offers this video in which the text of the Declaration appears while being read by actor Max McLean.

Earlier in this article there was a photo of a painting created by artist John Trumbull. The Colonial Williamsburg website offers this interactive game in which children can learn the names of each person in the picture - and find out where Mr. Trumbull created some things that didn't really exist.

The Text of the Declaration of Independence - Sung!

Explore a Website that Teaches History

There are many wonderful websites that present concepts related to colonial American and The American Revolution in ways that are appealing and fun to children. Here are a sampling of some of the best:

  • Colonial Williamsburg - The website for Colonial Williamsburg has three areas that may be very interesting to children who are trying to learn more about the American Revolution. The History section has detailed interactive information about the people, places, clothing, trades and food of the time. There's even an interactive tour of Williamsburg. The Revolution section has lots of information about the war for indepedence, and the Kids section has lots of games and interactive activities.
  • The History Channel website offers 22 educational videos related to the American Revolution, articles on numerous topics about the people, themes and events that helped America win independence, and even a fighting game where you can pretend to be an American soldier in hand - to - hand combat. It's Mortal Kombat with a historic touch!
  • Ushistory.org is a website created by the Independence Hall Association in Philidelphia. It includes videos, free online textbooks. a detailed page dedicated to the Declaration of Independence, and a virtual tour of historic Philadelphia.

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Share a Great Book on the Subject

For some inexpensive help on explaining the Revolutionary War to your children, check out the shelves of your local public library. This is a sampling of books I found on the shelf of my library today. There are many more great resources, with more being published every day.

  • America, a Patriotic Primer by Lynne Cheney. The wife of former Vice-President Dick Cheney presents a series of patriotic ideas in the form of an alphabet. In this book, "D" is for "Declaration."
  • Felicity's World 1774 - Felicity is one of the American Girls, a series about girls who lived in America at different times. Felicity, who lives during the Revolutionary War, has had several books written about her adventures during that tumultuous time period. This nonfiction book pictured presents background information about Felicity and her times.
  • Thomas Jefferson by Cheryl Harness. This is just one of the many children's biographies written about the author of the Declaration of Independence. This one happens to come from National Geographic.
  • Let It Begin Here: Lexington and Concord, First Battles of the American Revolution by Dennis Brindell Fradin. A children's rtrade book that discusses the battles of Lexington and Concorde which began the American Revolution.
  • The American Story by Jennifer Armstrong. This collection f 100 stories presents historical events as short stories, perfect for reading before bedtime. The page of the open book is turned to "Founding Fathers - East", the chapter in this book about the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

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Watch a Movie

The educational website Brainpop has educational videos about many different historical topics. This video gives their version of how the Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

At the right you will see a DVD that I checked out from my local public library. It explains the American Revolution in wording that my children can understand. This particular video is called "The Declaration of Independence" and it's part of the Just the Facts Learning series. However, your local library may have other DVDs on the subject.

After watching some very factual videos on the subject, have a little fun and introduce your children also to the movie version of the Broadway Musical 1776 starring William Daniels. The following video from Schoolhouse Rock also has a fun, if somewhat simplified, vision of how American became independent.

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Visit a Famous Landmark

If you live in the right area of the country or have an opportunity, take your children to visit one of the many important landmarks that mark where crucial events took place during the Revolutionary War. Here are a handful of places that might create living history lessons for your children:

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    • RichieMogwai profile image

      Richie Mogwai 4 years ago from Vancouver

      Amazing hub. Indeed, it's important for the youth to know and to remember all these details about the American independence. It has a lot of parallels with the fight for Philippine independence. As for Canadian independence, well, the Canadian people chose to stay with Britain until the queen decided it was time to let the country go. Still, it is a brave and eloquent act to fight for independence, that's why I salute the Americans.

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