The time game

10th November 1995 at 00:00
Footsteps, By Sally Hewitt and Ruth Thomson, The Greeks 0 7496 1875 2, The Vikings 0 7496 1874 4, The Romans 0 7496 1875 2, The Egyptians 0 7496 1875 2, Watts Books Pounds 7.99 each, Age range 8 - 10. The Time Trekkers, Visit the Dinosaurs, By Kate Rignell. 0 7496 2109 5. Visit the Romans, By Antony Mason. 0 796 21869 , Watts Pounds 7.99 each Age range 6 - 8

Children ask thoughtful questions and deserve serious answers. Yet both of these series seem to bend over backwards to ingratiate and motivate. In doing so they ignore the truly interesting aspects of history; the speculation, the uncertainty about how things were used, by whom and why, about what it might have been like to live at another time and how and why it might have been different from today.

The text in both series is factual and descriptive. A double-page on school, in The Greeks tells us merely that "only boys went to school. They wrote by scratching letters onto wooden tablets covered in melted wax," followed by a suggestion that you do some scratching with coloured wax crayons. This is anachronistic! What did these tablets look like? How did they work? What might boys write? Why boys?

In The Time Trekkers children decide to leave Rome in their time machine shouting: "Thanks for everything Cassio but we'd better go . . . let's see, 300 years should be enough". But it was not. They touched down in the middle of an invasion. Their "Gizmo" told them "it is 410 AD and the Vizigoths are sacking Rome. After this the Empire falls apart." The illustrations in both series are banal and coarse in line and colour. Why oh why, since images are so important to young children, do these expensive hardbacks not merit the work of one of our many magical children's illustrators?

However, there are differences between the series. The Footsteps books seem intended for six to eight-year-olds. The front cover promises Activities, Crafts, History, in this order. The back cover explains that "the exciting activities reinforce information". A sceptic might wonder whether the beautifully photographed bent corrugated card boat does reinforce the information that "in Ancient Egypt river boats were made from papyrus reeds lashed together in long bundles". What is papyrus and what did they use the boats for? How do we know? Does a six-year-old's necklace of Thor's hammer, made in self-hardening clay encourage him to remember and speculate about Viking beliefs? How will the fiercely snarling child pictured with his completed gold-card Roman shield, employ it next? There are excellent opportunities for stories, research and skilfully supported play. Unfortunately active learning in history is still too often seen as making replicas and models but not as using them as a basis for developing speculation, hypotheses and imagination. Used to support such enquiries these books are splendid, but there is a danger that they will be seized upon simply to make classrooms bright and busy - too much pleasure and paint, as one politician has said.

The Time Trekkers series seems intended for eight to 10-year-olds. The format has Blyton-like overtones. The Famous Four, Lucy "the oldest who can be a bit bossy", Jools "who has a pet frog", Eddie "who knows about history", and Sam, a female machine-fixing boffin use a "Gizmo", a kind of hand-held computer menu which gives answers to their speech bubble questions as they travel by time-machine into a virtual-reality past. In the hands of a skilful teacher this could introduce some children to an interest in the past. We accept that we must start with the children's existing interests and that learning styles differ. Yet I wonder if we sometimes try too hard to insinuate ourselves into children's culture and not hard enough to take them beyond it. You are now entering the Zone of Proximal Development . . .

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