Small hands — though not as small as those of the figurines they observed — worked excitedly to create miniature room boxes depicting changes between the past and the present Wednesday. Marci Bennett’s second-grade students from Toliver Elementary worked tirelessly on their social studies project, putting down glue and scissors only to return to the materials table to collect extra blocks of wood, strips of bright wallpaper and colorful fabric to enhance their dioramas. The classroom at The Great American Dollhouse Museum buzzed with activity for two concentrated hours while the children completed their projects.
Bennett and her classroom volunteer, Carrie Farmer, contacted the museum to arrange a special history lesson for the students. Following Kentucky Core Content guidelines, the class is entering into a social studies examination of the changes from past to present, and the implications for the future.
“Helping young children to learn history is challenging,” said museum curator Lori Kagan-Moore. “Elementary school children have a hard time conceptualizing the distant past in a textbook format. They are better able to understand the past through living history museums, stories about people like them who lived in the past, and hands-on projects that get them thinking while creating.”
Knowing the dollhouse museum’s exhibits focus specifically on United States history recreated in miniature, Bennett and Farmer asked the museum to offer a special learning project that would provide an engaging, fun and useful tool to help the children focus on the difference between past and present. Kagan-Moore designed an educational visit to include observing, writing, thinking and creating.
“I like to create the worksheets and projects myself,” she said, “because teachers are already very busy. I find out what they are teaching and offer them some possible projects. Then I make the worksheets and provide the materials and instruction so they don’t have the job of preparing the materials.”
The result of this week’s planning was a 31⁄2 hour visit to the museum and some amazing room boxes to take back to Toliver.
The visit started with a tour of the museum, during which children were allowed to roam and enjoy whichever displays appealed to them, from the Old West town and the lavish mansion district to the poorer rooming houses and the factory district near the railroad tracks.
After their free time in the museum, it was down to work. Kagan-Moore wrote a worksheet that guided each small group and its teacher from one display to another, asking the children to make note of clothing, tools and lifestyles from the past and the present. The children noted that in colonial days people cooked in fireplaces. In the Old West town, a man guards the miniature bank with a rifle. Students noticed bonnets, long dresses and men in short pants with stockings and buckled shoes. At the “nowadays” end of the timeline stands a large brick house with a hot tub, telescope, remote controls, cell phones and even a Wii.
Following a lunch in the museum classroom, the students began their real work in earnest. Working with divided shoeboxes provided by the museum, each small group chose one tool, appliance or concept from the past to build in the left-hand portion of their boxes.
On the right side, they created the “now” version of the same thing. Many students needed one last look in the museum to refresh their memories.
“We decided we were going to make a sewing machine,” said Sofie Farmer, granddaughter to classroom volunteer Carrie Farmer, “and we were, like, ‘How are we going to do that?’ So we went in the museum and looked for modern and old-fashioned sewing machines.”
Dante Haydon and Nikolas Ruzic made gas stations from past and present. “The past gas pumps have tanks that give you the gas,” said Nikolas. “You had to crank it and squirt gas out of the handle.”
Dante was in charge of the modern version: “Pumps today doesn’t have a handle to crank and it has numbers so you can pay with a credit card,” he reported.
Bennett asked the students to pause for educational teachings from time to time. “What does the word ‘proportionate’ mean?” she asked them, requiring them to clap it out syllable by syllable, and explaining how the sizes of items in the room boxes should make sense in relation to one another.
Matthew Vuolo and Curtis Roller built jail cells from the Old West and from modern days. Explaining enthusiastically, the boys showed how the modern jail has a toilet and the early one only a bucket; they gave their new prisoner a blanket, and the facility, a security camera. David Vanhook and Adriana Delangel created a new washing machine and an early washboard and tub. “The new ones spin,” they pointed out, “but the old one doesn’t. You just scrape the clothes on it back and forth.”
Other student projects demonstrated old and new stoves, clothing from early and recent days, and a new and early television. During transitions, the children enjoyed a little time in the play area, a miniature village for hands-on activity that includes several dollhouses, a miniature shopping mall and a horse stable/barn complex.
Kagan-Moore says she uses the play area to facilitate transitions. If some groups finish their worksheets more quickly than others, they can spend quality time in the play area, rather than standing around waiting for the next activity.
Bennett assured the students everyone would have an opportunity to have time in the play area, but students were so engaged in the building of their historical masterpieces Wednesday, they were surprised at their work when she announced 1 p.m. had arrived and it was time to return to school.
“This was the best day of my life,” a boy’s voice piped up from the line as the group headed out the door.