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Step into the Past with Living History Experiences Around the World

by Barbara Rogers

Oct 17, 2022
Age Specific / Multigenerational

Churning butter, grinding corn, learning to tie sailors’ knots, hollowing out a log for a canoe — these experiences invite children into past ages, immersing them into times and cultures different from their own. The sights, sounds and activities of an earlier time bring history to life for kids in ways a classroom can never duplicate.


At authentically restored villages and living history museums across America, families can step into the past and become part of another era. These are so engaging, children may not even realize they are learning about their country’s history.



The world’s largest living history museum is Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia. Stepping into the meticulously restored capital of the British Empire’s American colonies is like stepping back to the 18th century. Visiting shops and homes, children can watch the printer turn out the daily broadsheet (and maybe take home a copy) and see how shoes are made by hand, how thread is spun and how books are bound.


In some, children can try their hand at early skills or help prepare foods to cook on an open hearth. They can join the fife and drum parade, and the whole family can ride in a horse-drawn carriage.


In nearby Jamestown Settlement, visitors meet three cultures living there a century earlier: the English settlers, the enslaved Africans and the native Powhatan people. Children can board one of the replica ships to imagine life as the settlers crossed the Atlantic; in the Powhatan village they can join everyday activities of making rope or grinding corn.


Two different eras of American history come to life in Massachusetts: the early 1600s and early 1800s. In the 17th-century English Village at Plimoth Patuxet Museums (formerly called Plimoth Plantation), costumed interpreters inhabit authentically built homes and use period tools and methods to recreate the Pilgrims’ daily lives. They even speak 17th-century English as they engage with visitors.


The adjacent Historic Patuxet recreates a Wampanoag village, showing the lives and culture of Native Americans. Children can participate in activities and explore the large wetu house as they learn about the people the Pilgrims met on arrival. At Plymouth Harbor, visitors board a replica of the Mayflower to experience the cramped quarters of the Pilgrims’ crossing and learn about navigation and sailors’ skills.



In Old Sturbridge Village, families experience the life of a small New England village in the 1830s. While adults admire the homes and antique furnishings, children can join a class in the schoolhouse, play period games or make dipped candles to take home. During school vacations, Discovery Adventures may be a two-day experience in printing that includes learning to set type, making walnut-shell ink, marbling paper and sewing a notebook.


Families can experience some of the world of Little House on the Prairie at the Connor Prairie Living History Museum in Fishers, Indiana. Various areas recreate different periods and inhabitants, from an 1830s pioneer village to a “modern” rural town of the 1880s and a Native American village. Children can play historic games and milk a cow, while hands-on programs teach them to make soap, weave, make a quilt square or operate an old-style printing press.



Old World Wisconsin, in Eagle, offers an outdoor museum dedicated to rural life, created from more than 60 historic farmhouses, barns and buildings brought from small towns across the state. The farms and village recreate the world seen by pioneers moving westward across the prairies in the late 19th century.


In the houses and shops, children meet costumed actors portraying historical figures and demonstrating old-time rural skills. Kids can try scrubbing clothes on a washboard, pitching hay, churning butter and spinning wool; or they can meet farm animals and take a lesson in a prairie schoolhouse.


Experience some of the excitement of the gold rush era at Montana’s Nevada City Living History Museum, where hands-on activities include preparing a period recipe in one of the cabins, playing 1860s saloon games in one of the three restored mining towns or riding in a stagecoach.


Living history experiences are not unique to the United States. In New Brunswick, Canada, Kings Landing recreates a village settled by Loyalists escaping to Canada during the American Revolution. Costumed docents work fields with horses or oxen, weave, sew, cook meals and engage in daily tasks. Hands-on workshops include activities such as spinning, rug hooking, candle making, paper crafts and woodworking.



Europe, too, has its share of living history museums. The most visited in Germany lies south of Stuttgart, the Black Forest Open Air Museum. Traditional multistoried Black Forest farmhouses with giant sloping roofs form a typical farming hamlet, with a self-contained farmstead dating from the 17th century. Watch activities such as roof thatching, cheese making, cooking on wood fires and weaving. Several hands-on experiences are geared to children, and most of the docents speak English. The café serves the famous Black Forest cherry cake.


Near Interlaken, Swiss Open-Air Museum Ballenberg consists of a series of hamlets and farmsteads brought from across Switzerland to show traditional rural and village life. Observe demonstrations of revived old crafts such as woodcarving; silk ribbon weaving; and making barrels, rope, lace, straw hats and cheese. Seeing all the buildings and exhibits in this 124-acre museum could easily take an entire day.


Several living history museums reside in Norway, including Old Bergen Museum, an entire neighborhood of 55 wooden houses. Costumed characters share Bergen’s history, while performances enliven the town square several times daily. The Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo exhibits life from the Middle Ages to the present. Along with an astonishing stave church built in 1212, the village offers experiences for children from washing laundry in an old-fashioned tub to trying their hand at simple carpentry.


Skansen, in Stockholm, preserves more than 150 pre-1900 houses and buildings from all parts of Sweden. Craftspeople demonstrate glassblowing, basketmaking, metal working, weaving and wood carving; and colorfully costumed folk dancers and musicians entertain throughout the day. Children can meet live reindeer along with moose, brown bears and seals at the zoo.


Throughout summer and fall, Europe abounds with Medieval and Renaissance festivals, re-enactments and events, complete with jousting matches, period costumes, traditional foods and craftspeople demonstrating skills from the Middle Ages. Several castles, such as Warwick and Leeds in England, have regular displays of jousting and historic activities children can participate in.


Or take the kids back even further to the days of Ancient Rome, with gladiator classes at the Colosseum or workshops on how to be a Roman soldier at Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England. In Chester, England, the newly opened Deva Roman Discovery Centre is set in the ruins of a Roman fort and filled with activities that include firing a catapult, trying on Roman armor and creating mosaics.


Look for interactive and open-air museums wherever you go. On Japan’s island of Shikoku, Shikoku-Mura collects more than 30 traditional Japanese buildings, from humble cabins to elegant homes and a historic Kabuki theater. A highlight for kids is the replica of an Iya Valley vine bridge. (Reinforced with cables, it is quite safe.)


In Namibia, in southern Africa, the Living Museum of the Mbunza offers both an authentic insight into the pre-colonial culture of the Kavango people and a sustain- able project to preserve those traditions. The museum is built entirely from natural materials and is staffed by local actors dressed in clothes made from leather tanned with Mangetti nut oil. The interactive programs include demonstrations of fishing, land cultivation, traditional cuisine and pottery, fire building, basket weaving and drum making.


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