Making History Come Alive For Teens

By: 
Tara Taft

How do you make history come alive for a teen?

I pondered that question one spring as my family planned a trip to Gettysburg National Military Park. Here’s what worked for us, including a 12-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy.

Find at least one book or movie that is age appropriate and relevant to your destination. After reading Michael Shaara’s book, “Killer Angels,” I rented the movie, “Gettysburg.” Filmed onsite, the movie is engaging and not too graphic, rated PG. We all watched it and found ourselves especially interested in the location of the Little Round Top, one of the battles on which the movie focuses.

Photo by: Tara Taft

Check out the area for information on special events. While reading about a local cultural fair, I discovered that a 5K road race, the Spirit of Gettysburg, was scheduled to take place on our first morning in town. Upon entering Gettysburg the night before, we drove right to the school to pick up our race packets. Besides giving us something to do, participating in the event provided us with our own pre-tour of the place as well as insight into the surrounding community. We left the race with a souvenir t-shirt and coupons to local restaurants.

Consider the weather. Bicycle tours of Gettysburg exist for families, and camping is available as well. Since we planned our trip for the summer, we opted for the air conditioned car tour and the hotel with the pool.

Photo by: Tara TaftLook for child friendly tours or activities. We chose to hire a licensed tour guide through the National Park Service. For $55, Harry, a retired high school history teacher, rode with us in our car, telling us stories about the various monuments and providing us with an interactive education of the area. We read the park’s newspaper and chose a ranger-led talk all about the Little Round Top battle. We saw the site of the battle, and the ranger referred to the movie and showed us where specific historical events took place.

Bring in a local or familial angle. With a little research, we discovered that our kids have at least three ancestors who fought at Gettysburg, one great grandfather and two great, great grandfathers. We read aloud letters from my son’s namesake the night before we left. At the visitor center, we spent time on the park’s computers, exploring databases and finding all three ancestors.

Souvenirs. Be sure to allow time to explore gift shops. Consider giving your child a set amount of money in advance so they can choose what they want to buy rather than continually asking you for money.

Gage the family mood. Allow some flexibility in your itinerary. If everyone is tired of museums, take a break. Go for a swim, get an ice cream or take a walk or a nap. If you’ve all seen enough, it’s ok to leave before you planned to. Although we’d planned to stay three nights in Gettysburg and check out the following morning, after two full days of learning and intense heat and humidity, we decided to move on at the end of the second day. We were not charged by the hotel, and we left all wanting to return another day in the future.

About the Author: Whether she’s visiting national parks or dining gluten free, Tara loves to share stories and photos of her travels on her blog, snapshotsandsojourns.com. She is currently writing the Tucker Tyler Adventure, a travel memoir about two women traveling through Europe in 1954.  She also writes for and edits a newsletter for Boston Children’s Hospital’s Celiac Support Group.