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Ways to foster a child's interest in history

Harrison Kellogg McKenna stands alongside a statue of

Harrison Kellogg McKenna stands alongside a statue of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in Virginia. (Credit: Newsday photo / Valerie Kellogg)

During the 4,200 miles of bad radio, terrible food and abominable directions from our GPS came an unexpected boon — finding out that my son Harrison is interested in history.

It turned out that of all the stops we made on our recent journey between Long Island and Dallas, Texas, the 9-year-old liked our tour of President Thomas Jefferson’s home best (and not just because Jefferson and I are supposed to be distant relatives, according to my family’s genealogical chart).

The trip to Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., seemed to fascinate Harrison, who answered our docent’s questions and asked a few, too. Back on the road, we played a presidential history trivia game we purchased at the gift shop and also had some long and lively talks about foreign affairs.

I hadn't seen that sparkle in his eye since he first popped Super Smash Bros. Brawl into his Wii -- I mean, this is big!

Now home, I turned to Jennifer Theo-Kupstas, a social studies teacher at Farmingdale High School, for advice on how parents can encourage a child’s interest in history:

-Introduce an interdisciplinary approach to learning. That means that when you are discussing history, don’t discuss just names, dates and events. “Look at what literature, art, music and architecture come out of it, or how people spent their leisure time,” says Theo-Kupstas. Trips like the one to Monticello provide great opportunities to do that.

-Read historical fiction books together. Choose titles on their grade level, and then try to see the real thing. After reading “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” for instance, take your child to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, where part of the book takes place, Theo-Kupstas recommends.

-Talk at the dinner table. “Kids really like to be able to engage in meaningful discourse,” Theo-Kupstas says. You might compare the French Revolution and Occupy Wall Street, or Machiavelli’s writing on taxes and the government's discourse over the fiscal cliff, or simply discuss foreign affairs. “Just get them talking,” she says. But keep your opinions out of it. “Ask your child questions -- get them to think deeper,” she says.

-Look for worthwhile tie-ins. The animated PBS series “Liberty’s Kids” teaches about the American Revolution and the Axis & Allies board games all about World War II. There also are online games and apps, including the Stack the States geography game. “Our kids are comfortable with visual media,” says Theo-Kupstas. “They’re used to seeing narratives delivered in a visual way.”

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