One day last winter, when my twins were 4 1/2, they were fighting back exasperation as they explained to their obviously dense mother the differences between Radiator Springs McQueen and Cruising McQueen, two die-cast metal toy figures from the movie Cars. They could describe in great detail the different paint jobs and features each boasted, and could go on at length about when each appeared in the film.
Like many kids their age, Desmond and Nini had developed a fascination with the world of the Piston Cup and Radiator Springs. They had an encyclopedic knowledge of the movie's characters and personal histories and had developed the discernment to pick out small differences between the many diecast versions of each. The characters loomed large in their imagination and play life.
Well, I thought, if they can have this complex connection to Lightning McQueen, Doc Hudson, and Tow Mater, why not to Isis, Osiris, and Anubis? Or Zeus, Athena, and Aphrodite? At a time when they were so clearly eager to learn about the world around them, might it be possible to introduce them to its history in an age-appropriate and systematic way?
Over the weeks to come, I stayed up late nearly every night researching what resources were available to teach ancient history to the very young and sorting out what kind of approach I wanted to take. And over the months to come, as Nini and Desmond enthusiastically moved from one topic to the next -- dinosaurs, evolution, early humans, Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, the Old Testament, Ancient Greece -- I developed not just a great bibliography and set of resource lists, but also an approach that seemed to work extremely well for their age.
My research sample is of course tiny and unrepresentative -- early on, my friend Joanne Rendell and her son Benny decided to do the curriculum in tandem with us, meaning exactly three kids have tested it out. But I'm sharing it here in the hope that some of you will want to try it as well, and will post here about your experiences as you do, sharing new insights and resources.
Small children have no preconceptions about ancient history, no notion that it might be dry or remote or inaccessible. They also, however, have no real conception of time -- certainly not of millenia or centuries or even decades. Dates are meaningless to them, and all but the very vaguest chronologies impossible to grasp. Teaching ancient history to small children, in my experience, involves not trying to explain historical causation or even spending much time discussing historical change: It's a matter, instead, of making introductions to the marvelous, beautiful, and fascinating civilizations of long ago.
With each topic we explored, I read the kids piles of books, favoring well-illustrated picture books, and leaning less toward non-fiction than toward fiction -- either fictionalized accounts of the past such as, say, Jan Brett's The First Dog, or kids' versions of the myths and stories of a given civilization. We often found good films to watch in tandem with our reading and, living in New York City, we have been able to take marvelous field trips to institutions like the American Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I will detail these resources in each topic I address.
Early on, it became clear to me that the key element in the whole learning process was play -- lots and lots of open-ended, imaginative play. I could always tell that the material was sinking in when it came alive in their play. Where possible and practical, I acquired toys that tied into what we were studying: little plastic figures of Egyptian gods and goddesses, for instance, and architectural unit blocks for recreating Ancient Greece or Rome. Often, though, the kids repurposed existing toys to fit the theme: their assortment of vintage Fisher-Price Little People became the Greek gods and goddesses, while one of those plastic Barrels of Monkeys enabled them to build the monkey bridge to Lanka described in the Ancient Indian epic The Ramayana. Other times, we created toys or props for their play out of simple materials, as when they "excavated" a tar pit for "fossils"; or they made the world around them into their ancient-history stage, as when they built a mud Mesopotamia in the local park or transformed one three-foot-tall rock there into Mount Olympus.
As much as possible, we've followed this course of study with our friends Benny and Jo; it has greatly enriched the experience for all of us to have a history-themed get-together one or more times a week. Jo reports that Benny, who is a single child, engages in ancient history play much more avidly after these encounters.
Our pace has been quite leisurely; we stay on a topic until it feels right to move on, usually not until three to six weeks have passed. There are no worksheets, quizzes, or anything else that would add stress or drudgery to this study. The central goal here, above all, is the same as you might want from a social introduction: to leave a positive impression, to have the kids come away with a sense that these civilizations they are meeting are fascinating, that learning about them is fun.
If you achieve that, you'll meet another goal as well: helping your kids acquire a kind of basic, broad cultural literacy that will help them understand and navigate the world around them. Most people in my generation didn't get this kind of education; I certainly didn't, even though I attended excellent schools and read avidly throughout my life. No one thinks that your child will remember all she learned about the ancient world at age five when she reaches adulthood. But by acquainting her at an early age with cultural figures from Thoth to Moses to Ganesh, imparting a familiarity with Buddhism, the Bible, and Babylon, you'll soon see her finding references to these cultural basics everywhere and delighting in the experience.
Finally: We began this curriculum nearly a year ago, and I'm just now getting around to writing some of it down. Homeschooling twins often leaves me exhausted at the end of the day, with little time or energy to write. So it may be a while before I get it all down, and I will almost certainly jump back and forth between what we're doing now and earlier material. I hope you'll be inspired to give it a try -- it's been extraordinary fun, and I've learned at least as much as my kids have in the process.