History for Toddlers

113 29 May 2015

Playing with toys from Previous Generations. Trolley made by great-grandfather, played with by Granny and mum

I know, I do take my obsession with making history accessible to children to extremes. After all, my first conversation with my granddaughter, whose birthday is 5th November, centred on the fact that Guy Fawkes was the scapegoat and she was really born on Robert Catesby Day. That said, if we want to interest young people in history and heritage in all its forms, we need to ignite that spark when they are young and I do mean very young. So here we are, the long promised post suggesting how pre-school children can be immersed in history and family history before they even realise it. Thank you for your patience.

Special people cards

Special People Cards

Something really simple, like playing with toys that belonged to parents, or even grandparents can start conversations about continuity – ‘that was Daddy’s when he was a little boy’. Of course, it is a while before children can understand that their parents were once children but it is never too young to start introducing this concept. Reinforcing this with family photographs, showing Mummy and Daddy getting gradually younger, can help. How about laminating pictures of special people, starting with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and then moving on to family members who are no longer alive? If all the toys from earlier generations have been re-homed, you might find it easier to obtain copies of books that were past favourites. Some of these will have illustrations that evoke past eras. Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s beautiful Peepo, for instance, features 1940s’ interiors. You could also provide an opportunity to play with replica toys from earlier periods. This does not involve a great financial outlay; most of these toys were home made, so you can make your own.



Nursery rhymes, of course, have been enjoyed for generations and many reflect historical characters or events. Humpty Dumpty, for example, is believed by some to originate from a nickname given to a cannon at the English Civil War siege of Colchester. There have been many Dukes of York but the Grand Old Duke is thought to be James II (formerly the Duke of York) and to refer to the incident, in 1688, when his troops were marched across Salisbury Plain to combat with his son-in-law William of Orange.


Toys in Period Costume

Dressing up in old fashioned clothes can be fun, remember that this includes the fashions of the 1990s! Alternatively, toys can be dressed in period costume. Even quite young children can be taken to historical sites and many of these are realising the need to be child friendly and interactive. Do not assume that you cannot visit such places with under 5s. Obviously, you need to ensure that they do not disturb other people’s enjoyment of the place and you cannot expect them to benefit from the visit unless you are willing to act as an interpreter. Talk about what you can see, even if they cannot understand what you are saying, newly verbal children just enjoy ‘conversations’. If the venue does not already have a children’s trail, invent your own. As you enter a room, look for an object that is in your child’s vocabulary and ask if they can see it. We recently had fun spotting peacocks on a tapestry with Edward (aged 16 months). If there are opportunities for hands on interaction with artefacts at heritage sites, do take them.

Toys from previous generations

Toys from previous generations

Small world toys, such as Lego and Playmobil (other toy manufacturers are available) produce figures from the past, – knights, Victorians and so on. Once your toddler is safe with small pieces, these are great fun. Most small children love dinosaurs – these too are history! Remember to start to introduce the idea that dinosaurs are different from cats, cows or elephants, in that they are from the distant past. There are many more ideas and there is a booklet in preparation, finishing it is a little way down the ‘to do’ list but I will get there.

Before you dismiss your descendants as not being interested, ask yourself just how hard you have tried to bring history to them at their level.


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