High flyers

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Living history days let children hear the sounds of World War Two, marvel at the size of the planes and feel the fear. Angela Youngman reports from the Imperial War Museum in Duxford

How big is a Spitfire? What sound does a gas rattle make? How easy is it to work a stirrup pump? How much dust does a tank throw up? What does a bomber sound like when it takes off? A visit to the Imperial War Museum's Duxford site near Cambridge gives children the opportunity to find out for themselves.

Each year, Duxford holds living history days that help children understand the impact and scale of World War Two. Bombers and other period aircraft can be seen - some in flight. Only when the children see these for themselves do they realise just how big they are.

Then there are the re-enactors scattered around the site. The spiv, a blackmarketeer, offers watches and nylons for sale. The Women's Volunteer Service lady talks sadly about her work finding homes for evacuees and children who have lost parents in the war. The charlady and land girl talk about their work, and so do various military personnel. A policeman cycles by and stops to chat about his war time problems.

Horrified looks become common as children find out how hard life was - a 60-hour week plus war work plus gardening for Victory.

Children try out wartime delicacies, learn to pick and weigh peas, dance to 1940s music, experiment with old fashions and make-up, learn morse code or relax with playground games.

Up by the Land Warfare Hall, moving tanks throw up choking clouds of dust. Nearby, children attempt to march in time as soldiers bawl out instructions. Others find it hard work trying to pack a soldiers rucksack with equipment, uniform and sundry kit.

Some activities are pre-bookable, such as the air raid warden's talk. Children sit entranced watching a grainy information film about what to do in the event of war. The reality of it hits them when the warden waves his gas rattle. The ear-piercing sound sets teeth on edge, while the portable air-raid siren has everyone covering their ears. Then there are the gas masks, even for babies. Children quickly find out it is not easy fitting a gas mask on a life size doll, or trying to keep the baby breathing filtered air when you have to pump the filter 40 times a minute. Mr Spooner the Warden tells them that seven or eight-year-old children were responsible for such tasks while the mother was fitting gas masks on younger siblings, making meals and so on.

Children and teachers are encouraged to dress the part. Duxford provide plans to make a gas mask and carrying box, as well as an identity card. Rebecca Morris of Wood Lane primary school, Stowmarket, brought a group of Year 3 and 4 pupils. "It has made the Second World War more realistic for the kids," she said. "It's our topic for the term. Being able to dress up and feel part of things has brought the period alive."

Duxford is also home to around 180 aircraft and seven acres of indoor displays ranging from The American Air Museum to the Battle of Britain exhibition. Aircraft on display include a Messerschmitt 109, a Hurricane, a B-52 Stratocruiser, an A010 Tankbuster and a U-2 spy plane. The 50 tanks include a Challenger and a Soviet T72. There is a section of the Berlin Wall, Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery's mobile tactical headquarters, part of the infamous Iraqi Supergun and a cruise missile.

"Children take away a sense of empathy and scale when they come here. It's the 'wow' factor," says education officer Sue Chippington.

It is not just history on offer. Sixth formers have been involved in building a full size hovercraft out of foam and board, while children of all ages (including pre-school) enjoy the challenge of attempting to put together a plane.

"We have sought to demystify planes," says Ms Chippington. "Children learn through hands on experience. So we have designed a child size model. Made up of a collection of bits, they have to put it together. When finished, they have to see if it will fly or not. If it doesn't, then they have to work out why."

Duxford is part of Techlinks 2001 - a joint venture with Mid-Anglia Science amp; Technology Regional organisation, the Input Initiative, Homerton College and the Neighbourhood Engineers. So the museum can offer problem-solving activities in science and technology for pupils from key stage 1 to A-level. Oscar the Robot helps out as children attempt to create a self-righting buoy, design packaging for emergency supplies, or make and test gliders.

"In all our activities we try not to duplicate what schools can do themselves. Instead we offer hands on experience of artefacts. We try and link activities like the Second World War days to the children's everyday experience, because that is how they make sense of the world," says Ms Chippington.

ContactImperial War Museum, Duxford, Cambridgeshire CB2 4QR. Tel: 01223 499341.Email: duxford@iwm.org.uk Web: www.iwm.org.uk Admission free for pupils in school parties and one adult for every seven children.Similar attractions Imperial War Museum, London. Tel: 020 74165313. Museum of Army Transport, Beverley. Tel: 01482 860445. National War Museum of Scotland. Tel: 0131 225 7534

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