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On the home front

Jerome Monahan explores an exhibition about children's wartime experiences

The all-encompassing nature of modern conflict looms large at the Children's War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London. Nothing captures the essence of total war more than its capacity to permeate games, books and toys, school rooms and homes. To modern young people, for whom battlefront events 60 years ago can seem impossibly distant, the shadow they cast over such familiar objects and places provides a powerful source of empathy and curiosity.

The exhibition has as its centrepiece a replica 1940s house. "It is a more child-oriented version of one we had on display in 2001 to coincide with a TV history reality show," explains the exhibition's curator Penny Ritchie Calder.

For Lauren, aged nine, a Year 5 pupil from St John's Primary School in Redhill, the black line painted in the bath to ensure no one took more than four inches of water was fascinating.

Eight-year-old Alex found the Morrison shelter on the ground floor "very scary". Thousands of these steel reinforced boxes provided protection for people living in flats or houses without gardens. They were designed to be a table by day and a shelter by night. "It looked like a giant rabbit hutch," says Alex.

St John's history teacher Adrian McGreavy was struck by the range of experiences his pupils had accumulated going around the exhibition: "The house was very popular - many were amazed at the absence of such things as dishwashers. A mock 1940s school room was also popular. Our pupils loved opening up the desks to see what they contained. " St John's pupils participated in every hands-on opportunity going, whether it be wearing a pair of ruby slippers to watch a scene from the wartime favourite The Wizard of Oz, or trying on a child's heavy wartime coat.

The interactive resources also held their attention, giving them a chance to listen to eye-witness accounts of bombing raids and reminiscences of the pains and pleasures of being sent away to the country.

For IWM education officer Helena Stride, the What In The World element of the interactive materials is particularly valuable. "It centres on the suffering of children across Europe. As well as the 7,736 British children under 16 who were killed due to enemy action, it is important to remember the 1.2 million Jewish children killed as part of the Holocaust and the thousands that died or were injured as a result of allied bombing raids on German cities. Also, at the end of the war, one in three German children was fatherless."

The exhibition is ideally suited for key stage 2 pupils doing the Britain Since 1930 study unit and, in particular, for those at KS1 and 2 following the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority Unit 9: "What was it like for children in the Second World War?"

It will also be of interest to KS3 and GCSE students studying the Home Front in the Second World War. There are also links with citizenship, especially at KS1 and 2 regarding the topic Children's Rights.

* The Children's War exhibition runs until 2008. For more information select Learning and Access on the IWM's website

Education department

Tel: 020 7416 53135444

* Exhibition micro-site

* School resources

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