The power of learning through the interaction with material culture items is often overlooked in formal educational environments. Hands-on learning is too often relegated to field trips or to museums and historic sites; the places the have all the "old stuff." But, with little to no expense, educators can make history more fun for their students by including historic items into almost any educational format.
Many items are available in inexpensive reproduction form. Reproductions are good because it doesn't matter so much if they get roughed up a bit in transporting them or in handling them. Reproduction items are also often available from museums and historic sites in the form of leaning kits or traveling trunks. These are made specifically to loan out to educators. Also, many museums or historic organizations have programs where educators and curators will come out with certain items and do programs; a sort of professional "show and tell."
With those ideas in mind I would like to provide some ways that you might incorporate artifacts into your lessons or even your personal learning.
1. Let the hands do the learning - Hands-on learning should be so much more than just letting students touch the items; although that is highly encouraged. Can they learn how to make the item? For example, when teaching about the cotton gin, bring in a cotton plant and show what was necessary to get the cotton from the plant. Then give each student a cotton boll and have them attempt to extract the seeds by hand. Then explain how a machine made this so much easier and faster and how that machine then in turn impacted the rise of slavery and thus changes the American economy, politics, and culture. Or, have students try to card wool, dip candles, or show how a flint and steel made fire. If these activities are done before a visit to a museum or historic site, it will make the visit so much more special because they will know what goes into making some of the artifacts that they will be seeing.
2. How was this used back in day? - I have had lots of students ask this when showing an artifact. Curiosity is a great thing to inspire learning. If they don't know what an artifact is, they probably won't know how it was used. A little explanation and back-and-forth questioning goes a long way in figuring it our for themselves; and that's where real learning begins. Why was this item used in say the 19th century and not today? What has replaced it? Why? What had to happen to make what we have available to us today? Try this with an old sad iron.
3. Where did it come from? - What is this artifact's original environment? Sure, they are in a museum or historic house now, but where did these slave badges come from? Why were they used in that particular place? Were they used elsewhere? The same can be used for any number of artifacts. For example, shovels or pitchforks. Some children many not know all the places where shovels and pitchforks were used. Some may think they were only used on farms, but shovels and pitchforks were also used in towns to pick up horse droppings and in gardens for vegetable cultivation. As times change so do the places where items originate.
Hands on learning can prove to be some of the most memorable and influential educational opportunities for people of all ages, but especially children. Look for more ways to incorporate hands on learning for yourself as well. Go to antique stores and flea markets; there is a world of learning environments waiting to be explored.