How do you teach the First World War?

First World War in the Air
First World War in the Air

I had this moment, I had this awful moment when I saw my son, my beautiful 4-year-old with his hands on the machine gun at the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition. A replica of course, a toy, a piece of fun, but it felt very wrong to me. I don’t buy my son toy guns, I don’t want to encourage him to run around shouting “I shoot you”, “You are dead”. But what I have very quickly learnt is that kids have fantastic imaginations. Old toilet rolls become guns, hands are so simply shaped, fingers tucked in, thumb and fore finger out proud.

It is stick up!
It is a stick up!

You can’t stop children being influenced by their peers, their surroundings, computer games and cartoons. You can’t stop them playing. How do you teach this tricky thing that guns and shooting people is wrong and bad, but in war – well that is okay. That is ridiculous of course, it is never ok, but children often see things in very black and white terms. In war we have goodies and baddies and we can shoot the baddies, but what happens after war, what happens when we are all friends?

The Tower of London Poppies, Sept 2014
The Tower of London poppies, Sept 2014

The 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War has passed, the poignant poppies at the Tower of London have gone. They proved a talking point for many families trying to explain each poppy is a life lost. Anniversaries are important, but when you lose someone it is not only the anniversaries we remember, it is the everyday stuff that creeps up on us and tinges our day with sadness. The poppies may have gone but it doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about the First World War, what it meant and the sacrifices that were made.

I have let this one off the leash
I have let this one off the leash

When I brought my children to the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition I wasn’t planning on giving them a history lesson. I learnt a long time ago that when something is difficult to explain and hard to express sometimes it is better to let them come to you with their own questions. When they are ready to ask, they are often ready to hear the answer. Keep it short, don’t elaborate, answer the question they ask and no more.

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You can’t talk about the horror of the trenches, the millions of lives lost, the devastation and death. But you can show them these funny planes that look so basic and fragile. You can talk about the differences between the plane we flew up to Scotland in last summer. But most of all you can just take a step back and let them discover things at their own pace and at their own speed. 

It is harder than you think to fly one of these things.
It is harder than you think to fly one of these things.

When we visited on a bitterly cold January day, I hung back and let them take the lead, I just watched them. They loved the interactive elements of the exhibition, they sat in the cockpit, they fired the guns, they ran in the officers mess and laid down on the bunk (all on top of each other I might add). They smelt boxes of tobacco, coal tar soap, played with old record players. They began to see and feel and touch a time that seems like another world to them.

I am not sure my son has any idea what this even is.
I am not sure my son has any idea what this even is.

Just because it is difficult to talk about the First World War, it doesn’t mean we need to shy away from it. That is why exhibitions like this are so important, it can be an entry point for the next generation to understand our difficult and sometimes painful past. Kids learn by touch and play, it was lovely to see the exhibition come alive in their hands, and with it the history that we need to teach them too. They will remember a day filled with fun and giggles, and I will remember watching my son and the mixed feelings I felt when he held that gun. Perhaps we all still have much to learn, but small steps are sometimes the best way.

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