Cowboys, covered wagons, shoot-outs, log cabins – what kid wouldn’t be fascinated with our pioneer forebears? However, as we’ve become more sensitive to the moral ambiguities of settling the frontier (which was already home to numerous Indian tribes), we’ve also made our history texts and movies more ambiguous and a lot less kid-friendly. Here are some hands-on ideas for inspiring your kids to learn more. You probably don’t have a butter churn lying around, but a lidded jar will do just as well. Have your kids pour a cup of cream into the jar and shake vigorously for about ten minutes, until it separates into butter and buttermilk. Rinse the butter and stir in a pinch of salt or honey to taste. Grocery stores and refrigerators are luxuries settlers didn’t have. When they harvested produce, they had to eat it immediately or preserve it. If your kids like apples, they can make the same dried fruit pioneer kids enjoyed. Wash, core and peel a few apples and slice into rings ¼ inch thick. Dip each ring in a mixture of 1 cup lemon juice and 1 quart of water (okay, maybe settlers wouldn’t have had lemons, but it will keep your apples from turning brown). Hang on a string in a cool dry place and let dry for several weeks. Voila! Dried fruit that will last all winter. Pioneer kids worked hard, and they weren’t able to bring much with them on the trail. They played blind man’s bluff, leapfrog, and tag. They made their own toys from scraps: pick-up sticks, rag or cornhusk dolls, and hoops. Give your children a chance to see how much fun they can have playing games that require no batteries or plugs, no deep investments or fancy equipment. No matter where you are, the odds are that it was once the frontier. Check out your town’s historical society or look for original housing sites. And read books that bring history to life: Sunsets of the West by Tony Johnston is a beautifully illustrated story about the overland trek from New England to the Sierra Nevadas; The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are classics for a reason- they have enthralled generations of elementary school kids; and older kids should try reading list staple O Pioneers! by Willa Cather or Look to the Mountain by LeGrand Cannon, a novel set in a time when New Hampshire was the frontier and sixteen year olds raised children in homes they’d built themselves. Learning about history doesn't have to mean sitting at the desk with a textbook. Bring history to life by giving your kids a chance to experience cooking, or playing, or eating the way our ancestors did. Turn off the TV and sit them down at a crackling fire for a story. You may not want to relive the hardships of pioneer life, but you can recreate its simple pleasures.
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