The Revolutionary War lasted eight years, but ask any eight-year-old if they’d rather go to a museum to learn about it or play on an iPad – guess which answer you’ll get? But take heart, ye who fear that 21st century kids are in danger of losing our history! There is a revolutionary movement happening for the minds of the next generation in books, music, and museums, and if we get this right, we’ll turn their technology-saturated worlds upside down with a new-found love for history.
Go ahead, let kids take a swipe at history.
The new Museum of the American Revolution opened its doors on April 19 and it, like many other museums today, is learning to speak the language of the next generation.
Giant iPad-ish walls of timelines allow kids to take a swipe at history with pictures, videos and other hands-on tools.
“Please Touch!” is the secret password here. Get your hands on an 18th century cannon and real wood from the Annapolis Liberty Tree. “Please Smell!” is another. Get a whiff of tea from the Boston Tea Party or a tar-pitched rope as kids enlist as sailors, lift a twelve-pound cannon ball and board a life-size sloop.
Pictures come to life with animation reminiscent of a Harry Potter movie. Life-like mannequins act out scenes such as George Washington breaking up a brawl or Banastre Tarleton’s British Dragoons shouting and wielding sabers atop their charging horses.
After a movie about George Washington as the “Sword of the Revolution,” the curtain rises to reveal the catalyst for the museum’s existence: General George Washington’s beautifully preserved tent sitting amidst the four seasons that magically change in the background. Kids walk out of this smiling, thinking how totally awesome George Washington was to camp out for the majority of the war "share in the hardship" and "partake of every inconvenience" with his men.
This and other museums like Colonial Williamsburg and the brand new American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, Virginia, have learned the answer to today’s troubling question for America’s kids: How do you move a young mind from “airplane mode” to #passionateabouthistory!? You do it by making history relevant, making it personal, making it fun, and making it come alive.
But music and books are also playing a role in this revolutionary movement for young minds. I’m honored to partner with the National Park Service to put on Epic Patriot Camp at Revolutionary War parks like Kings Mountain and Cowpens. The purpose? To make history personal and come alive for kids. Campers wear period dress and assume the identity of a patriot or loyalist who was there at the battle. They craft their version of their character’s story while they go on “treasure hunt” research missions in the museum and in books, drill and march, make musket balls, sleep on the ground in colonial tents, and eat blue ice pops (for those colonial Bluetooth moments).
At Epic Patriot Camp last year I shared how my upcoming Revolutionary War novels will feature Patrick Henry and the Marquis de Lafayette, and two young girls rushed up to me, bursting to do their “Oui, oui je m’appelle Lafayette” rap from Hamilton. A Broadway musical used hip-hop to make history relevant and come alive for the next generation. Some adults and history purists may bristle at George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette rapping, but if kids are singing the history of the American Revolution, isn’t that a good thing?
Some adults and history purists may also frown at a novel with talking animals (whhhhat?) who lead Patrick Henry to rally a nation to Independence. But when twelve-year-old Katie Wyrick read my 672-page book in a couple of days (#thesefastreadingkidsslayme) she said The Voice, the Revolution, and the Key, “instills the ideal of liberty in readers, making them feel as if they might one day be willing to say, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’” That makes this author shout, “HUZZAH!” as loudly as the soldiers must have done after the victory at Yorktown.
Some fifth graders from Jefferson School in Summit, NJ, happily jumped off the bus on a field trip to the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton while I was there researching this week. I decided to turn the focus of my research on them. I asked if I could pick their brains on why kids should visit museums. Their top three reasons? To learn! To have fun! To understand the history behind it all. They loved museum docents in period dress who fired a musket and taught them how Washington’s soldiers were inoculated against the small pox (“ew-gross, pus! COOL!”).
After the tour, I asked why it’s important for their generation to learn America’s founding history. Catherine said, “The things that happened in our past follow us to our future.” E.J. said, “History is what we all grow from.”
Fifth-graders said this. (#tearsofjoymomentforthisauthor)
I asked kids at Epic Patriot Camp what would happen if we lose our history. Young Julia Slaughter answered, “We’d lose a piece of ourselves.” I then asked them who is responsible for keeping history alive for the next generation. Their answer? “We are.”
That’s why kids should visit museums.
Whether they swipe, camp, sing or read, kids are jumping onto the new cloud of the American Revolution, so there’s hope for America. Can I get a “#HUZZAH!”?
Jenny L. Cote is the author of "The Voice, the Revolution, and the Key" (AMG Publishers), a book designed to encourage kids to get excited about learning the history of Patrick Henry’s life and quest for liberty.