history hunters

history hunters

Have some hands-on historical fun with your kids by stepping back in time and doing things the old-fashioned way!

History has long been thought of as one of the more difficult learning areas to teach effectively. Perhaps that’s because children, like adults, usually have a greater sense of excitement about the “What’s new – what’s next?” dimension of life. But the past is also fun to explore because it’s a completely different world in itself. And if children are to make sense of the future, they need to understand what’s helped shape the present.

One of the best ways to encourage young children to take an interest in the past is to engage them in intriguing, practical activities. Often, these are so easy to introduce and so much fun to take part in that you’ll find yourself wondering why you haven’t thought of them before.

As you enjoy history with your children, keep in mind that the past is a concept of time they may still be seeking to grasp. With many children, phrases such as “When Gran was a little girl…” or “In the olden days…” may best help set the scene.

Eat it!

making butter

What better way to start little ones thinking about history than to have them make something they can eat? Set the butter-making scene by showing children how it was done in the past, from milking the cow through to separating cream from milk and churning the cream into butter.

To help you do this, access photos from library books or free-to-use web-based archives such as natlib.govt.nz. Google image search will also help with this. If you live within reach of a museum (even a small, local one), plan a visit to look at early butter-making equipment. Talk to children about the various ways in which butter is used in your home (on toast and sandwiches, in cooking, and in baked goods). Then let the fun begin.

Cream is the basis for the activity. The easiest way to turn it into butter is with an electric mixer – simply whip past the cream-sponge-fill stage and watch as it magically solidifies into a creamy-yellow substance, leaving behind the liquid we call buttermilk. Children will be surprised by the blandness of their butter until they add a pinch of salt to it.

Shape the butter into a log, wrap it in cling film, and pop it in the fridge, all the while talking about how folk from the past, without the help of electricity, stored their home-made butter in air-cooled safes.

If you don’t have a mixer in the house, you can still turn your cream into butter by shaking it vigorously inside a sealed jar (this is much slower than the mixer method, so encourage patience and ensure everyone takes turns).

Use it!


It’s “Aprons on!” for this absorbing, soothing activity. As with making butter, seek out the past in photographs to help set the scene. Talk about electricity and how it’s used around your home. Ask children for alternative ideas for light (battery-powered torches, oil lamps, candles) and which of these sources olden-day folk would have used.

Candle-making, at its simplest, involves dipping a wick into a tall(ish) container of melted wax, letting it dry, and repeating the procedure until a candle of the desired diameter is achieved. Candles as thick as your little finger are the size to aim for so that the patience of small children isn’t overly tested.

If you want to try candle-dipping but haven’t planned ahead, don’t let this stop you. Dismantle household candles, save the wick, melt the wax, and tip it into a recycled tin can. Snip the wick in half and let the children dip (supervise closely as hot wax can cause nasty burns).

Plan an electricity-free evening when you eat your dinner by the light of the homemade candles. If the children’s candles are seriously slim, pop them on top of a cupcake and use as you would birthday cake candles.

Play it!

games from the past

Can the TV cartoons and ditch the digital as you take your children on a ride back in time to when games were simpler (and possibly more challenging) than some of the ones played today. For just a couple of dollars, you can pick up a bag of marbles, a set of knucklebones, or a canister of pick-up-sticks. Throw in a game of quoits, or roll newspapers to create te rākau (sticks used in traditional Māori stick-games) and you’ve got a history lesson at your fingertips.

Children will enjoy these old-fashioned delights, and be prepared to spend longer at them and strive toward mastering them, if you teach a few basic rules. Join in the game yourself and encourage older children to play with younger siblings by instigating handicaps for the more skilful members of the group.

As well as team games, help children to construct their own old-fashioned playthings such as slingshots and willow bows and arrows (keep arrows blunt-ended and missiles soft).

For more games from the past, check out: childhood101.com

As much as the future, a journey into the past is the introduction to a whole new world of adventure. Make sure your children don’t miss out on it!

Build on it!

Once children have a concept of “time-past”, they may well become more interested in their own family history. This is the time to dig out family photo albums and memorabilia such as old badges and school certificates, family recipes from another generation, war medals, passports from the past, letters, and diaries.

Encourage your children to ask specific questions of grandparents and older family friends, such as “What games did you play at school” or “Tell me about a club you belonged to”. Giving older people warning that such questions are on the horizon will help them better prepare their replies so that the experience is richer for everyone.

hunting out history

There are many opportunities to let your children share in fun activities with a historical focus.

  • Ask your local museum about children’s holiday programmes.
  • Take children to a commemorative event such as Anzac Day.
  • Join in with a family reunion.
  • Attend Matariki celebrations.
  • Visit a working historic park such as Fairymead (Christchurch), Shanty Town (West Coast), Howick Historical Village or the Museum of Transport and Technology (Auckland).
  • Schedule a historic train ride such as the Taieri Gorge Railway journey (Dunedin) or a Silverstream Railway excursion (Hutt Valley).
  • Visit a toy museum.


Catlins author Diana Noonan is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers for children


more entertainment and games from tots to teens:

25 Wonderful Things To Tick Off Your Toddler Bucket List

Bubble Bath Fun: 8 Ideas To Try

3 Steps To Riding A Bike

Scroll to Top