C hildren respond to stories. Stories fire the imagination, letting the child be part of something that would otherwise be beyond his reach. Stories also make the child think and analyse – why did it happen, how did it happen?
The biggest, most intricate and never-ending story a child could learn is, of course, his history. Clichéd as it may be, history is basically the story of man it is closely connected to geography – knowing what, is enhanced by knowing where.
There is a reason why fantasy books have maps in the front – Frodo’s journey to Mordor is made all the more real when the reader traces it on the map. In the same way, learning where countries are relative to each other, and what they can offer each other, informs the lesson about the course of events in that area’s history and vice versa.
Relative space: The younger the child, the more receptive he is to imaginative learning; children as young as three enjoy stories that let them pretend to be somewhere or someone else, typically leading to a host of questions.
The Alice Smith School, for example, starts teaching humanities in Reception where the students are 4 to 5 years old. Children this young can start small, learning about the world around them, in school perhaps, and then slowly move on to bigger areas such as the city of Kuala Lumpur, then other states, and then the country.
“History should be about learning how something that happened in the past affects what happens today, while learning geography can start with learning about where you live”, says Simon Thorpe, who teaches Year 3 at Alice Smith. This is especially important for children who live lives of a somewhat transient nature – moving between states or countries because of the nature of their parents’ jobs. Knowing the history and geography of the place you live in gives a person a sense of grounding and involvement in the movements of the community.
Accessibility: But how do you make such lessons interesting? Young children have notoriously short attention spans, and depending on how they are handled, humanities lessons have a tendency towards dryness, especially if the child is not that interested in the first place.
One way to do it is to actually tell a story. Involvement and application is the best way to learn, so lessons can be made accessible to young students through activities or projects. Playing dress-up is one way; students in Alice Smith have theme days where they dress in Victorian costumes when learning about the Victorian era, and turn the classroom into a Victorian classroom, for example.
Even the teachers dress up, reveals Amanda Klahn, a Year 5 teacher at Alice Smith, which encourages the students to get involved and ask more questions. Adult participation and interest is certainly important to get the lesson’s ball rolling, especially for young children.
Parents themselves can be great resources for a child that is learning humanities. Parents can tap into their own knowledge of places and events, and use their experiences to enhance the child’s learning experience.
Cause and consequence: Teaching and learning humanities such as history and geography in school does not have to be just about the facts; we all remember having to memorise lists of dates or the primary exports of a number of countries, but did knowing these things really help us in the real world?
Lists of dates will mean almost nothing to a young child, but knowing the impact of certain historical events on the world today, important geographical features, or what ancient Greek inventions are still used today are not only interesting, but will get the child thinking and asking questions, says Thorpe.
The main aim of teaching humanities is to get the child to ask questions, says Klahn. “Being able to ask questions is a skill transferable to other subjects too. The teacher’s job is to encourage more and more interest and get the child to form their own conclusions.”
Asking questions certainly demonstrates thinking skills, and this is one of the most important things a 21st century child can learn. A primary school-aged child will only go out into the real world in about 15 to 20 years, but the skills learned now – thinking, being inquisitive, making decisions and forming opinions – and practiced over time, will be what make them global citizens.
Humanities are, in the end, another vehicle with which to teach the child the skills he needs to be successful in the future.