History taught in schools inevitably covers a few slices of particular periods or cultures. No matter how well it is presented, some children are unable to perceive an overview of history, or to see how one period relates to another. At home, not tied to specific curriculum topics, your children can learn about any period or culture that interests them, and gradually build up an awareness of the ‘big picture’ of the past.
Researching local history
If you are not confident about history yourself, you could start by researching your local area and its history: visit the local library, old houses, churches and museums. If you have an elderly friend or relative who has lived through exciting times, encourage your children to think of questions they would like to ask about the past. Perhaps you could cook the kind of food that was eaten in the War, and help your children act out some of the scenes from the past, using their toys or lego people if they don’t want to do it themselves.
For younger children, you could take a specific topic such as food, clothes, or homes and spend time with them finding out how different people have lived over the centuries. Help them to understand about the past, to see what changes have come, and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of modern life. Visit historic sites, look at old things and pictures. If you have elderly grandparents or friends, encourage your children to ask them about life in their younger days: this century has seen more changes than many! You will find a wide variety of books in your bookshop and library; those published by Usborne are particularly useful, with pictures and well-written text that appeals to children of all ages
Topics for children aged 8-11
For children of 8-11 there are specific history topics specified in the UK National Curriculum, which home educators can follow if they wish although there is no requirement to do so. However you will find that there are more resources in the shops for NC-related material! The key topics are currently taken from: Vikings and Saxons, Tudors and Stuarts, Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Victorian Britain, Britain since 1930. Browse your local bookshops for appropriate books, many of which are published each year for parents to use at home with their children.
An excellent series of books is the ‘Horrible History’ series, written for children of this age with a humorous – but accurate – view of history, including many of the unpleasant bits. Reading these gives an excellent understanding of the period, and the life of children as well as adults. There are several other titles in the series; if your children like them, they may learn more about history from these than any other source.
Relevant web sites which are particularly informative on these and other topics can be found listed (with brief reviews) on my history resources page.
General world history
While schools often focus on local or national history, a better understanding of world events and politics can be gained from the study of world history. When we were home educating, we made extensive use of a relevant CD-Rom, but these have mostly been superseded by interactive websites. A search can lead you or your children on a lengthy trail of research and information, as you find out about past cultures, and slowly piece together the history of the world.
An older child can perhaps be given a project, research the topic and produce a booklet or computer presentation on his own if history interests him. You can explain about checking sources, cross-referencing and other research skills as well as about the history topic. If you can find historical novels set in the appropriate period, this may help your children to get more of a feel for the subject than factual information.
A book we’ve enjoyed reading together is the Dorling Kindersley ‘History of the World’ by Plantagenet Somerset Fry, which has been in and out of print, but is often found second-hand. This is an amazing book which ties together every known culture and period of history, including several rarely studied in school. It was written for older children but is interesting to adults, and provides an excellent way of seeing an overview of history and the development of mankind from the earliest times.
Those who do not believe in cross-species evolution will disagree with the first chapter, but this helps to set in context the theory that we cannot necessarily believe everything we read. Discussing alternative viewpoints with our children can be helpful and healthy. Later chapters put Biblical heroes such as Abraham and Moses in context, from a non-religious point of view.
At some point in home education you may want to make a history time-line. To do this, you can either choose one country or continent and chart their monarchs or main features over the years, spacing the time line out. Or take the whole world and make a more general one. Use Internet sites and CD-Roms to print out relevant dates and facts, encourage your children to draw and write appropriate pieces. Rather than a timeline our children are making a folder with one page about each time and culture they have looked at – with key points of the periods, diagrams and clips from their computer research.
An interesting site, which gives several time-lines from different perspectives, and links to articles about historical figures, is at Hyper history
History for older children
As with younger children, you can continue encouraging historical research and study by following the interests of your teenagers, perhaps inspired by a news item, or wanting to know about the history of some household item. The same resources can be used and enjoyed, along with more research on the Internet and in your library. You can find some relevant sites listed at my history resources page.
If you want to stay alongside National Curriculum topics, perhaps considering GCSE history, you might want to use, or refer to the Letts Key Stage 3 history guide which outlines the main topics. These guides are written for use at home, although they are intended to be used as supplement to learning in schools. For a fuller set of guides, the Longman SHP (Schools History Project) books provide interesting and lively guides to the ‘core’ topics.
GCSE and beyond
If your child is interested in history and would like to take the GCSE you will need to decide what curriculum to study, since it is important to know about the particular topics required by each board. You might find a local adult education class offering this, or you may want to look at one of the options at my GCSE page