Take the time to travel back

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
An imaginative history pack has helped transport thousands of pupils into the past. Julie Morrice joins their journey

When it comes to teaching history there is no better tool than imagination. And what better way to catalyse the imagination than by introducing children to historical characters of their own age, whose lives they can enter and enjoy?

Over the past 12 months, the Century of Childhood project has been doing just that for pupils in the Scottish Borders, and the response has been hugely enthusiastic. Seventy of the area's 72 primary schools have taken up the Century of Childhood teacher's pack, brimming with lesson plans for drama, art, dance and music. Ayrshire and Midlothian have invested in the pack for their schools, and many individual schools across the country have bought it.

As a result, thousands of pupils are now enthralled with the harsh life of a Victorian milltown seen through the eyes of Violet, youngest of 13 siblings; have entered the world of James, living and helping on a farm as horse-pulled ploughs give way to tractors; and experienced what it was like to grow up throughout the 20th century.

"Schools have used the pack in a huge variety of forms," says Nicola Toneri, one of the authors. "In some schools it has fed into environmental studies, in some it's been a great festival of expressive arts, and some have used the characters as a way into lots of cross-generational sharing, with local people coming into class to give their reminiscences to the children."

At Edenside primary in Kelso, the whole school has embraced a Century of Childhood. Along the main corridor runs a double time-line, stretching from 1900 to 2000. The top, adult level lists historical events, the lower, child's-eye line is to be filled in by the pupils with such major events as their dates of birth, or when they lost their first tooth. It is a great way of communicating the scale of history to children who are still struggling with the concept of weeks and months, let alone decades and centuries.

At the end of the corridor is a huge oak tree with large, silvery paper leaves. On the back of each the pupils have written their wish for the future. "We wanted every child to be involved and we wanted something that would look forward after all the looking back," says Susie Thomson, who teaches P3. "We're constantly picking the leaves off the floor, because people turn them over to read them as they go past."

I turn over a handful myself. Some of the wishes are persona: Rebecca R wishes for "a dalmatian puppy for myself"; others are more altruistic, "beautiful stars in the night", "world peace", "that people would not die", "that animals could talk".

The classrooms are full of historical references. In P3, lines of white flounced lacy washing stretch overhead as an introduction to turn-of-he-century costume and domestic chores.

In a corner are the gleanings from 20-odd attics: a butter-churn, a yarn-winder, numerous irons of varying antiquity, and a solitary platform boot.

"They all stand up and talk about the items they've brought in. It's been very good for their oral work," says Susie Thomson. She feels the personal connection and the physical objects from the past bring the whole subject to life for the children.

The class has developed its own character, Edna, who finds her mother's patchwork quilt in the attic. There is a memory attached to each square of material, like the one made from a piece of the dress she wore on Coronation Day. "They sometimes have trouble recognising the difference between make-believe and fact," laughs Thomson. "They asked me 'Miss, were you at the Coronation?'". Thomson's birthdate must be some time in the 1970s.

Shona Turnbull teaches P2 and is full of praise for Century of Childhood. "The art and drama lessons are so clear and precise. Everything you need is there."

A group of P7 pupils is organising a Century of Childhood fashion show, when the whole school, staff and pupils, will turn up dressed in historical costume.

"They've done the letters to the parents," says Thomson,"and they just love wandering about with clipboards."

Further along the corridor, Nicola Fleming's P4 class have been learning about life in the 1920s and 30s through the eyes of farmer's son James and his friendship with Jock the ploughman. A visit from a local man playing the part of Jock and answering the children's questions about farming life, went down a treat.

Now the class is showing off its skill in such games as whips and peeries, diabolos, peevers and French skipping. Apparently all are new to them. By happy coincidence, paint has just arrived for painting games on the playground. Peevers could make a comeback in Kelso.

Rosemary Berrett teaches P5 at Edenside but was seconded to help with writing the Century of Childhood pack. It is strange, she says, to teach around characters she has made up, particularly since one of them, Paolo, whose father is an Italian prisoner of war in Scotland, is based on her father. "The children think it is all true, and I have to stop myself saying, 'When I wrote this...'" Her class devised a dance performance based on the pack, a dance evoking the landscape of the Borders, hills, trees, dykes and rivers, and the sowing, reaping and celebrating the harvest.

It is clearly the highlight of their year. Back in the P3 classroom, the children are singing with gusto. The songs are Daisy, Daisy, Let's all go down the Strand and Coulter's Candy. Britney Spears, eat your heart out!

Century of Childhood pack available from Scottish Borders Education Department at pound;50. Contact Rosemary Milne on 01835 824000

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