Living and Breathing History: project based learning

When we embark upon a history project we like to really get INto it. Fuelled by the girls vivid imaginations and Bod7’s obsession with narrative we tend to live and breathe whatever period we’re studying – becoming completely engrossed by it and squeezing a lot of fun out of it on the way.


We tend not to study history as a linear progression, starting at the dawn of time and continuing from there in chronological order (which would be the most logical way to do things perhaps) but, from personal choice (and maybe because I’m not a very logical person), in a rather higgledy piggledy fashion, studying whichever period grips and inspires us, or relates to other areas of interest, moving on to another when we feel ready. There are arguments, of course, for and against this approach, but at the moment it works for us and I find that the learning just flows if the girls are intrinsically motivated and interested in a topic. We do of course use a timeline (we love the What on Earth? wallbooks) to slot eras into place, which helps us build links and keep things in perspective, and we create our own timelines of periods, with salient events and information which is of importance to us and our project – these tend to be continually evolving posters which are put up on the wall and by the time we’ve finished scribbling on them they are a bit grubby and ripped up, not very presentable, but they have served their purpose!

We don’t follow any set curriculum for history either, it’s all “project based learning” with a hodgepodge of resources gleaned from a variety of places, rather an eclectic mix of bits and bobs! And we focus predominantly on British history (although not exclusively) – a tad one sided I know, but the girls get inspired by the things around them, the places we visit, the things we read, do and see – and as it’s their enthusiasm and interest that drives our learning, they respond to the stuff at their fingertips and off we go!

What they love to learn about is social history, learning how people lived and what life was like way back when. And this makes history come alive for them – no longer a series of dreary facts and dates (though we throw some of those in, just for good measure 😉 ), you can live and breathe this kind of history. It emerges in their play – I’ll never forget a couple of years ago when I turned to Bod7 and asked “right – what shall we play together?” and her response was “oh let’s play Victorian Orphans Get Measles In The Workhouse”. Well, that was a jolly afternoon! At least it wasn’t tuberculosis or diphtheria…

Our recent history project has been the Middle Ages, which I decided (in my infinite wisdom) would for us cover the period from 410AD (roughly when the Romans left Britain) to 1485 (Battle of Bosworth and the beginning of the Tudors). A vast era – thank heavens it’s also known as “The Dark Ages” is all I can say. Plenty of fun stuff to be found though – this period takes you through (among other highlights) the Anlgo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Danes, Alfred the Great, the Battle of Hastings, the Domesday book, the murder of Thomas Becket, the Magna Carta, the Black Death, the Peasant’s Revolt, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, medieval pageantry, the feudal system….the list goes on and on! Needless to say, this project has occupied us for several months, culminating in some great field trips and a medieval feast.

Our history projects always centre around certain key resources and activities:

  • Books: I always put together a topic book basket to accompany each project. This is usually a mix of reference books (often Usbourne or DK) that I have found/bought/acquired/begged/borrowed/stolen. We were also given a “build your own cardboard medieval castle” with accompanying book, which kept Bod7 busy for an afternoon. These books are there for general consumption, to be dipped into as and when, and also are read together when the occasion arises. I’ll always find a family reading book to accompany each project to help bring the period alive in their imaginations – we read a children’s version of The Canterbury Tales, and also stories of medieval folklore.
  • Audios: it’s always lovely to have some audios to listen to – we’ve been enjoying Kings and Queens of Britain which, although I found myself crying out “but how do we actually know that?” a few times, gives a handy and accessible overview of British history in terms of its monarchy and is quite funny to boot. We also enjoyed listening to readings of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English, which sparked some great discussions on etymology, the English language and pronunciation.
  • Documentaries: we really enjoyed watching the Secrets of the Castle series with our favourite Ruth Goodman (an Historian we discovered through watching other BBC series) – a documentary that charts the building of a castle in France using authentic techniques and materials and explaining all the way how it was done and what life was like at the time. Fascinating! Terry Jones’ series “Medieval Lives” was also a great watch – each episode takes a character from medieval life and delves deeper…
  • Field trips: probably my favourite bit! We’re lucky enough to live fairly close to Kent Life who run fabulous history days for primary school aged children. We’ve been to several themed days there and they are great fun. The children move through different buildings encountering different characters and learning about life at whatever time period that day is devoted to. Our Anglo-Saxon day there included sessions on medieval farming, medieval games, spinning wool, story-telling, trading, food, and Alfred the Great.


We spent a wonderful day in Canterbury, visiting the Canterbury Tales exhibition and Canterbury Cathedral, where the girls climbed the worn steps on their hands and knees imagining that they were pilgrims visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket. They were enthralled by the simple candle marking the original location of his shrine and blown away by the tombs and incredible stained glass windows. We also returned for evensong, which was exquisite and magical.



We visited Battle Abbey (dragging my dear old ex-history-teacher-Dad along for the ride). He was brilliant, expounding at length in his great booming voice about this and that – what it must have been like to be a Norman soldier charging up Senlac Hill, what it must have been like to be an Anglo-Saxon soldier standing at the top as part of the shield wall, significant errors of judgement that were made prior to the battle which could, or could not, have influenced the outcome etc etc. He was also very patient while the girls pranced across the battle field in imitation of this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There was also a fabulous little “medieval playground” (who knew?!) with a push along millstone (!), a treadmill and a climbing frame made out of beer barrels 🙂



We visited Dover Castle to learn about life in a medieval castle and interrogate the very knowledgeable and obliging English Heritage employees on the history of this fascinating stronghold. There were lots of things to touch and feel on display in the castle which Bod7 loved, in fact it was a wonderful sensory experience – the temperature (jolly cold, even in late April), the thick, damp walls, the strong smells, the huge fire burning in the gigantic fire-place and the cavernous rooms all brought the era to life in a very real way.



  • Creative learning: we always, naturally, link our history project into other aspects of our learning – it just flows that way. For this particular project this included activities such as writing our own Canterbury Tale and descriptive pieces where the girls imagined they were pilgrims writing a diary of their journey, designing and painting our own stained glass windows, exploring a medieval calculation system, listening to medieval music and exploring the instruments of the time, watching and having a go at medieval dancing, exploring medieval clothing and dressing up, and cooking a medieval feast. We always like to finish our projects with a feast, it’s a great way to to round things off – we’ve enjoyed meals cooked from strict WW2 rationing (tough when you’re vegan!), Greek feasts, Victorian and Georgian dinners – it’s a wonderful way to celebrate all the learning you have done. This time we made pottage, and baked our own bread of course, and drank mead (honey-wine) which the girls had made with my mum, from wooden goblets. Cheers!


Our projects always dovetail as I’ve commented before – they never really “finish” and wrap up neatly, because learning isn’t really neat like that! We’re already headlong into our next history project, jumping forward a couple of hundred years now to Shakespeare and Elizabethan England (so at least we’ll be able to have potatoes at our feast – the humble turnip didn’t go down so well!) – and we’re living and breathing that too, with Bod7&3 currently engaged in a rather involved game of “Cesario and Viola” – it sounds exhausting…..and complicated!!!!! I think I’ll leave them to it 😉

Cathy xxxx



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