Tracing your past
Author: Jennifer Van Buren

First you hear, “Class, open your history books to page 160,” then comes the more subtle sound of minds disconnecting. There are people who consider sitting down with a history book a hobby: Civil War buffs, fanatics of the Renaissance and folks who absorb every piece of local history available. However, most of us need a little encouragement to digest and even enjoy learning about the past.

It’s difficult for children to imagine what life was like long ago. It can be difficult for them to believe that people had to stand up to change channels! We hear stories about Susan B. Anthony and Benjamin Franklin, but can we appreciate these “characters” as real people who still influence our lives? In order to turn tales into a tangible reality, we have to give children a concrete tie to the past.

➊ Encourage empathy and imagination. There are many local opportunities for children to put themselves right into the past. The Smith Rock Shelter is a natural limestone overhang in McKinney Falls State Park. Native Americans used this shelter from 500 BC until the 18th century. Standing on the same stones people have traversed for over 2000 years may be too much to comprehend, but with imagination, even adults can get the sense of being a single traveler along a timeless road.

Nearby stands a 60-foot tall bald cypress tree estimated to be 500 years old. Encourage your child to put his hands right on the tree and feel the history. Ask, “What was happening 500 years ago when this tree was a sapling? How many other boys sat under its shade?”

You can also learn about the more recent history of the park by visiting the remains of the Thomas F. McKinney home and imagine what it was like to be one of Stephen F. Austin’s first 300 colonists. This state park is one of countless opportunities to experience the history of our region. If you show excitement and interest in the history of the paths you walk, your children may just catch on as well.

➋ Explore family history. Over the December holidays, children often have a chance to visit with older members of the family. Take this opportunity to make a giant family timeline. The 1980s may seem like yesterday to some of us, but for kids, it is ancient history. See how far you can go back! Let everyone participate by adding events in their own lifetime.

Have fun looking at old family photos and giggle about the hairstyles and funky wardrobes. Can you find Aunt Janet in a poodle skirt? Uncle John with a pompadour? Uncle Wilber in his Army uniform in World War II? Encourage family members to tell a short story about what was going on in the world during the photos. Careful not to encourage an epic tale – you’ll lose your audience!

Your child may be surprised to see the number of graves of young children. Reading names and epitaphs can change perspectives on life and present an opportunity to practice empathy and gratitude. “Save Austin’s Cemeteries” is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving historic cemeteries. Check out their website ( for information and upcoming events.

➍ What did this used to be? Visiting historic buildings can give you a feel for the past. Just north of Austin, the city of Georgetown claims to be “The Most Beautiful Square in Texas.” You can walk the historic square and shop in a former jailhouse, buy toys in a building with exposed 1800s Texas stone walls, eat a burger in the building that was a store in 1840, then stop by the Williamson Museum and try on some pioneer clothes. You can even download a downtown walking tour guide at:

➎ Photographic memory. When visiting historic sites, try to locate photos of what the site used to look like long ago when horse and buggies drove down Main Street or cattle ran the Chisholm Trail. Picturing life way-back-when will give your kids an appreciation of how far we’ve come. Refer back to section one above about connecting with a location where people have walked in the past. Seeing buildings when they were new and comparing them to present-day will be a real eye-opener for kids.

➏ Your own backyard! Even if you live in a new home, the ground underneath your house has been there since the planet was formed. See how far back you can trace the history. Was it a ranch? Were there any battles fought nearby? Can you imagine the whole part of Texas under water? Did dinosaurs stomp across your backyard?

➐ Follow your child’s natural interest. You can always tie your child’s interest to history and make connections to other events that were happening at the same time, and every child finds something in history interesting. The Austin History Center has online exhibits anyone can peruse from the comfort of their own homes. Is your child a University of Texas football fanatic? Did you know the UT football team played, and won, its first game on Thanksgiving Day, 1893? You can see a photo of the first team, along with their whacky uniforms and other interesting Austin firsts at

➑ History is served! How far back would you like to travel on a culinary journey? Pick a time period and you can find authentic recipes on the Internet or your library. Colonial Williamsburg has an easy-to-navigate recipe collection at

➒ Take a dip? Skip your neighborhood pool and hit Barton Springs or Deep Eddy. Before you go, look at old photos of the sites. Did you know that there used to be a diving horse, a zip line and a Ferris wheel? When you arrive, try to imagine what it would have been like 100 years ago. Make sure you take a look at historic swimwear!

Did you know for thousands of years the Barton Springs was a gathering place for Native Americans? Spanish explorers reported seeing wild horses at the springs.

Sawmills and flourmills used its waterpower. A dip in the cool water will be more meaningful when you ask your child to pretend to be a Tonkawa boy or the daughter of a mill worker cooling off in the same spring.

➓ Gain perspective by playing historical games. Try to imagine life without Netflix, computer games and smart-phones. Take a break from electronics this month and get in touch with children from long ago. Stickball, marbles, Jacob’s ladder, jacks, tops, hoop and stick and pick-up sticks are some toys children can still enjoy, and perhaps even make. You can research the earliest of games and the origin of today’s popular sports.

Read historical fiction. While reading a textbook may be so dull that time itself seems to stand still, good historical fiction can breathe life back into the past. When a child has an emotional investment in a character or story, the history lessons come naturally and can remain with him his whole life.

So get out there, let learning be natural, ask a lot of questions (even when you do not know the answer) and when your kids have questions, help them find the answers. Be playful, curious and let your imagination run wild. You can grumble about a reading assignment, but you cannot escape history; it is a part of us.

Jennifer VanBuren lives in Georgetown and is an educator, writer and mother of three.

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