Sorry sir, Just a Bayonet Charge: The Use of Play in the History Classroom

Every year, I do a lesson that makes teachers and administrators cringe.

Around the start of my unit on the American Revolution, I begin with a lesson on the intricacies of 18th century warfare.  The students are lined up in ranks, with meter sticks on their shoulders to simulate their flintlock muskets.  In step to a military cadence playing from my iPod, my little regiment marches in place to face an invisible enemy on the battlefield—which happens to end at the back bulletin board.

After a quick lesson on loading, carrying and firing a musket, I direct the students to fire in ranks, all the while tapping the unfortunate dead and wounded on the shoulder.  True to form, they fall over themselves in writhing “pain.” 

As the survivors make their last volley, I instruct the regiment to “fix bayonets”, and lead them headlong into a charge towards the back of the room, screaming and howling.  By the time an administrator shows up to complain about the noise, there are heaps of wounded on one side of the room, and rabid infantry tearing up the word wall with their pig-stickers on the other.

“Sorry sir.  Bayonet charge.”  It’s a miracle I haven’t been fired yet.

The French and Indian War gets even more fun.  I plant a Native war party all around the room to shoot at the soldiers from any angle in pitch darkness.  The screams and confusion could rival the real slaughterhouses of Fort Duquesne, Crown Point and Fort William Henry.

The teachers can’t stand it.  The administrators shake their heads in disgust.  Yet when they start to write about the Revolution, they use their “battlefield” experiences to their fullest.  When they leave for middle school, it’s one of the few lessons the students actually remember.

They learned history by doing—a rare feat in a field so often associated with dusty old books and dustier old teachers.

Learning through play is often a taboo subject in today’s classrooms, where the relentless drive to get the test scores up can turn classrooms into Dickensian workhouses.  History, with its current devaluation in the NCLB universe, is in an even more perilous state, as teachers scrambling for time will resort to the tried-and-true textbook to cover the basics so that he/she can say with all sincerity that social studies is taught in that classroom.

The lack of play is a symptom of the mechanical nature of Western education, according to noted British education professor Sir Ken Robinson.  In a famous talk at the 2006 TED Conference, he argued that current educational models stifle creativity to the point that Western nations will no longer be the source for new and innovative ideas, and children will be ill-prepared for a world where traditional education will matter less and less.  In a 2009 article for CNN.com, Robinson stated that

“…we’re all born with immense natural talents but our institutions, especially education, tend to stifle many of them and as a result we are fomenting a human and an economic disaster.  In education, this vast waste of talent involves a combination of factors. They include a narrow emphasis on certain sorts of academic work; the exile of arts, humanities and physical education programs from schools; arid approaches to teaching math and sciences; an obsessive culture of standardized testing and tight financial pressures to teach to the tests.”

The use of play, therefore, is an important tool in providing a rich, expansive education, especially in history.  Students today have an extreme disconnect with the past, and often cannot understand that people hundreds of years ago have many of the same concerns as people today.

There are times when the linear method of digesting pages of textbook material will not ensure a deep understanding of the past.  So why not explore the past for yourself?  Make a point to involve play as much as possible in your history lessons. 

Role-play events in history and have students create “what-if” scenarios to emphasize the importance of human action.  Stop the talking history and make it a walking, talking, breathing, smelling and seeing history.

Act out how people used tools and weapons: at the very worst, it’ll unload some aggression on kids that desperately want to stick a bayonet into the belly of their worst enemy.

Use the primary sources of history in creative ways: use a “tableau” and act out the characters in a painting or print.  Put famous documents through the writing process to see if their arguments could be improved.

So don’t be afraid to play in your classroom, especially for history lessons.  The more students get to use their brains in creative play, the better they will be at complex, real-life situations that involve critical thinking and analysis. 

In short, play makes sure kids turn into adults.  Make sure your history lessons involve some play and creativity.

Just make sure you shut the door when you signal the bayonet charge.

1 Comment

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One response to “Sorry sir, Just a Bayonet Charge: The Use of Play in the History Classroom

  1. Outstanding methodology. I found that bringing in war relics (with grudging administration approval) also fascinated the students and riveted their attention. At the end of the year, one class presented me with a .50 shell casing that they had engraved in metal shop. I still treasure it today.

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