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Why is it important that children experience heritage?

Life Lines handling box flyer to schools

Why is it important that children experience heritage?

Today’s Museum Week theme is #kidsMW – here, Ellen discusses why it’s important that children experience heritage, and how heritage helps influence and structure future society.

With both schools and heritage sites having smaller budgets to facilitate trips outside the classroom, the question of heritage in children’s lives and education is becoming increasingly important. This is a great shame, for heritage and history can have a huge impact on children as they grow up; here are a few reasons why heritage is so important to the lives and wellbeing of our young people.

Heritage sites, most importantly, give children a sense of pride and a greater awareness of their local area and the heritage contained within it. Heritage and its history give young people a greater awareness of the history surrounding these institutions, and gives them a wider awareness of the issues that faced, are facing, and will face the world they are growing up in – it can provide an awareness of national issues that they might otherwise find hard to possess. It is also important to highlight that an awareness of heritage and local history can give children a sense of national identity – it gives them something in common with other groups that they otherwise might not identify with, either because of the lack of common ground, or the lack of reason to do so.

A more direct experience of history can also help to bring history to life. To the average schoolchild in a classroom, the industrial revolution can seem a far cry from current life, but if they visit an old textile mill and see the reality for themselves, it becomes a lot more tangible – I remember having no enthusiasm for my GCSE History topic of cotton mills until we visited Quarry Bank Mill, at which point it became much more interesting for me. Similarly, the Romans might not seem too interesting when viewed on a classroom screen, but when confronted with actors playing Roman soldiers, or huge architectural remains like those at Vindolanda or Hadrian’s Wall, children’s enthusiasm often sky-rockets.

A visit to a heritage site, such as a museum, can also provide an alternative learning route to that of the traditional classroom. It is becoming more and more apparent that children learn in many different ways – some can absorb lectures without fault, others lose interest after thirty seconds. Heritage sites, more often than not, can teach children in engaging and exciting ways, be it through dress-up, actors, interactive exhibitions or workshops – this can help facilitate the needs of children who otherwise struggle to engage with historic materials, and thus is an invaluable resource for education in general.

In addition to all these arguments, it is also worth pointing out that without experiencing heritage for themselves, children cannot be expected to have interest in and enter the sector in the future – indeed, introducing children to heritage and museums is the best way of guaranteeing future visitors and supporters. Education and outreach programs are the best ways to introduce heritage to young people, and initiatives like the Kids in Museums takeover day allow children to get hands-on experience that they otherwise might be denied. Indeed, interactive experiences can often unearth budding heritage professionals long before they realise their interest in the sector!

There is also evidence that heritage and history can also provide children with something of a moral education. While teaching children how to be good members of society at home and in the classroom is a great foundation, it can sometimes take seeing the aftermath of large conflicts or issues to really drive the point home – seeing the aftermath of world-changing events shows the consequences of some behaviour and can spark children to amend their own accordingly. Visiting topical museums such as the Holocaust Museum or the International Slavery Museum can make talking about important issues much easier for children, and spark conversations that would be difficult to accommodate in the classroom, but help form the social awareness of young children. This is at the centre of the Museum Week discussions – how museums play a role in structuring the future of society.

On the flipside of this issue, it is also worth considering how children are important to heritage as well. Interaction with children can provide heritage sites and museums with a greater awareness of children’s needs and the needs of local schools – the museum can learn what is relevant to the curriculum and adjust their services accordingly. It also generates a loop of positive feedback – the more schools and young people that interact with heritage organisations, the more proficient the organisation becomes, thus attracting more children and families to them. Provision for children also makes sites more attractive to families who might otherwise be hesitant to visit if there was nothing to keep their children entertained – activities for young people therefore open up heritage sites to wider audiences in general.

Despite the decline in heritage funding over recent years, heritage and local history is as important as ever in the education and lives of our children, as evidenced above. Learning about the past is integral to knowing our present, as well as preparing for and predicting our future, and nowhere is this more important than for the youngest members of our society.

By Ellen Smithies

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