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I despised history when I was a kid. It was boring. It was textbooks and was a rote memorization of facts, names, dates, and places that had no interest to me. I was planning to become an artist—I was all about visuals and making things! And I did… I became a graphic designer and illustrator. Then we chose to school our four children at home. I shuddered to think of having to teach my own children history when my own experiences with it had left such a bitter taste in my mouth… I was about to relive my nightmare!  

But who would’ve thought that history could be not only visual but creative and hands-on and down-right fun? My few memories of anything “fun” about history had been the one “Colonial Day” we had, where we were encouraged to dress up. We spent the day making cream into butter, punching tin, and spinning wool. I loved it! Then there was the time I got to submit a “report” of sorts, by making an explorer’s journal and tea-staining the pages. I even burned the edges to really make it look authentic! I remember many things about that explorer because I was able to experience his life through new textures and a fresh format of writing.

This was ONE project and ONE special day… and I thought to myself, “THAT’S how I want to teach my kids history—every day!” (I’ll get to the enthusiastic ‘every day’ comment a little farther down…)

Living the Lessons

And so we did. In our first year of homeschool, I used a history text as a spine, and I built around it experiences that would give the children an opportunity to live the lessons. We included lots of what I would come to find were called “living reading” books, and we soaked up all the stories of past cultures, people, and events. We couldn’t get enough of it, and I was getting just as passionate as the kids! Finally, I was making those very connections that had been missing all those years of my own schooling. History was coming alive, and our afternoons became full of projects, games, and activities, sometimes right up until dinner time.

Having been an illustrator, I was introduced to the idea of illustrated timelines, and boy was that a big help! However, I was also picky about the look of the art, and eventually, six years into our homeschooling, our little company emerged.

Hands-On History Come to Life

Home School in the Woods launched its first set of timeline figures, followed by three more sets, a notebook and placement guide, and all the figures in digital format. At conventions, I would show other ways you could use the figures in hands-on projects, and the moms began to ask for directions on how to make those things, which expanded our business. I was more than happy to oblige, as I was discovering that most people are visual and hands-on, like me. It filled a need, and the next dozen years or more were spent creating hands-on history materials. 

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Throughout the years, I discovered many forms of hands-on that really seemed to help a child retain the information. Now mind you, a child can not possibly learn all of history in twelve years. So our goal should be to develop a love of learning, not tick off every mark in all of history! It’s wonderful to expose a child to various times, people, and events. If they truly aren’t interested, move on to other topics that may just light that fire.

How to Incorporate Hands-On History in Your Homeschool

Here are some of the ways we found to be the best:

1) Lap Books:

If you haven’t heard of lap books before, they are basically a file folder that has been folded to open in the center. By adding card stock pages on the inside, you create a portfolio that can hold all kinds of small, flat paper projects. The wonderful thing about these lap book projects is that they only hold small snippets of information: a few sentences or a paragraph or bulleted lists. This means that the writing is minimal, and the child doesn’t feel overwhelmed, but what he doesn’t realize is that he is learning a skill of paring down a larger amount of information into bite-size pieces. This helps build communication skills for the future.

Lap book projects also have multi-folds, can be booklets, or contain moving parts like spinning wheels, pop-ups, or sliders. This makes the whole lap book inviting to a child and can become a keepsake!

2) Newspapers:

By incorporating newspapers on the topic or era, your child can build up her writing skills by becoming a reporter or doing on-the-spot interviews. Like the lap book projects, it requires a small amount of writing and is creative in nature. Also, no newspaper is complete without advertisements! 

3) 3-Dimensional Crafts:

There are a variety of crafts that can be created in all sizes and complexities. If you are studying about the Renaissance, you must include artists! Try your hand at pastels like Da Vinci or a sculpture like Michelangelo. Studying Ancient Greece? How about making drama masks or platonic solids. Other forms of 3-D crafts are dioramas, dress-up clothes, or objects like puppets or toys of an era. You can also try your hand at authentic crafts, like candle-dipping of early America or Penny Rugs of the late 19th century.

More Fun Ideas For Hands-On History

4) Drama:

Speaking of dress-up clothes, don’t forget to put them to use! By incorporating drama, your children can act out the lessons that they learned! This is also a perfect opportunity to film what they do and share it with friends and family. Or take photos of yourselves in costume to add to your newspaper!

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5) Notebooking:

Notebooking can be similar to lap books but in a larger and single-page format. Anything that can be 3-hole punched and inserted into a binder without being squished qualifies for a notebook project. If you don’t want to do an entire lap book but would like to incorporate some of the lapscrapbook effect and can pique a child’s interest more than a common workbook. Don’t be surprised if you see your child pulling it out to peruse from time to time! 

6) Feasting:

The best way to a child’s brain is through his stomach! By creating dishes of the era or culture, your child will be able to take part in not just the making of the food, but also experiencing the tastes of the country.

7) Games:

What better way is there to drill information learned than by playing a game with it? Use a file folder to make the game board and have the kids create question cards pertaining to the subject. You’d be amazed at how much children retain information when they have to do the research and formulate questions of their own!


Now, to address the “every day” comment at the beginning… Do not feel obligated to make every day a hands-on day! Some days you just need a good book and a cup of tea with everyone on the couch for a time of read-aloud. Balance your lessons with the crafting, so you don’t suffer burn-out because even the most avid artists need some downtime! 

Not only can incorporating “hands-on” into your history lessons impact your child through all of the senses, but it will also cement the ideas in a tangible way as a more permanent reminder of the topic taught. It will also create keepsakes and memories you are sure to cherish!

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How do you incorporate hands-on history in your home?

two girls working on an art project

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