Learning history for conversations with a preschooler

By Jane Flanagan

The developing mind of an almost 5-year-old is an amazing thing. And an intimidating one, at least for me. I always make the mistake of thinking that I have a good handle on how my son’s brain is operating at any given time.

A recent dinner conversation comes to mind. On the way back from a weekend on Long Island, Rusty and I stopped at a diner. As he sipped his juice and waited for his spaghetti to arrive, he opened a coloring book. He started scribbling and I was eager to chat, so I attempted to engage him in a discussion of the events of the weekend.

“Did you have fun?” I asked.

He responded the way he usually does to such questions: with a one- or two-word disinterested answer.

But a few minutes later he became animated. “Do you see how I’m coloring Spider-Man?” he said.

I then reminded myself that children this age primarily think in the here and now. I admonished myself not to expect too much abstract thought or discussion of past events.

Then he asked his next question.

“What country did Joan of Arc fight?” he asked.

“France, I think,” I said, feeling the full weight of my historical-knowledge inadequacy.

“I know who beat the Iroquois,” he said. “Hiawatha.”

He resumed coloring.

To think I almost aborted such comments with another one of my assumptions.

Joan of Arc and the Indian chief are an out growth of Rusty’s weekly computer sessions with his Dad. They play a game called Civilization, in which they move famous historical figures through time periods. My husband loves the game, but I objected when he suggested teaching it to Rusty.

I have a mandate that my son should not be on the computer. Preschoolers, I think, learn best through what they can see and touch. But, as often happens, I failed to see that there might be an exception to one of my dictums.

For this game provokes lengthy discussions.

“Who’s that?” said my husband Bob one night pointing to the computer screen.

“Caesar?” said Rusty.

“No, that’s Queen Elizabeth.”

In Rusty’s case the mix-up is easily attributable to his being 5. But, I have to say, that I, too, had a hard time distinguishing these historical figures. For example, one night I happen to glance at the screen and saw Cleopatra in a pilgrim’s outfit. Nearby Caesar was sporting a bowler hat. It seems that as these leaders vie for world domination, the winners move onto the next time period and adopt its dress.

Now Rusty is constantly trying to assimilate these cross-dressers into his world view.

“Is Alexander the Greatest still alive?” he asked one evening at dinner.

“No,” said Bob. “Oh, and by the way, his name is Alexander the Great.”

“Is it okay if I call him the Greatest?” said Rusty.

“I don’t think he’d mind,” I said.

He is also trying to incorporate these historical figures into his daily activities. One day we were at a playground, an unusual one that had a giant shovel and a huge pile of dirt. Rusty got to work heaving over his shoulder.

“I’m a settler,” he said.

There was also one of our walks to preschool last spring. As we set out Rusty told me he was a Barbarian. Halfway there, as he waved his plastic space shuttle, he told me he was a spearman. By the time we arrived at the front door he was an Aztec.

As his mother, I am delighted with his new knowledge. I’m also terrified.

Now, I sit on occasional Wednesday evenings around a table with Ivy League- trained lawyers who have a penchant for learning about the past. It’s a history book club. Several Oxford scholars are also in the group. Talk about intimidating But I’m there because the gap in my history education defies description and what with spearmen and Aztecs, well…..

I’m now off to check up on Joan of Arc. It was France, right?



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