Kindergarten students travel back in time to learn about American history |

Kindergarten students travel back in time to learn about American history

FRISCO – On Wednesday, Debbie Russell’s kindergarten students walked down Frisco’s Main Street into the past. In an effort to relive the pioneer days, the group wore traditional clothes, held class in the Old Schoolhouse and practiced their spelling on chalkboards.

The day was part of Russell’s American history curriculum. She teaches kindergarten at the Summit County Christian School in Frisco, and each year she and her students make a pilgrimage to the town’s historic park to learn history through experience.

The children already know a little bit about how people lived in the mid-1800s because they just finished reading “Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose writing was the inspiration for the 1970s television show “Little House on the Prairie.”

“Now this gives them a chance to see it and live it,” Russell said. “They fall in love with (the pioneer days) – they just love it. That’s how I know they learned something, by how they play.”

Russell and the girls wore bonnets, long skirts and aprons, and the boys wore old-time cowboy hats, in keeping with the era.

“We talk about what the pioneers wore and why they wore it,” Russell said. She told the children that women wore bonnets to keep the sun out of their eyes since no one had sunglasses back then and that the pioneers needed strong shoes for all the walking they did.

Rita Bartram, executive director of the Frisco Historical Society, showed the class around the park’s historic buildings. They toured the old chapel, the trapper’s cabin, a historic home and even saw the outhouse people once used.

During the tour, Russell emphasized what life was like in the 1800s and how children then didn’t have many of the toys and amenities her students now enjoy.

“It helps them appreciate what they have,” she said. “It’s funny. They’ll see the Victrola (record player) and say “Oh, look at that big CD.’ My children don’t know what a record is, so it’s neat for them to see how things have changed.”

After the tour, Russell and her students went to the Old Schoolhouse for class. The building was a saloon before it became the town’s schoolhouse in the 1890s, and Bartram created an old-time classroom there for the kindergarten students.

The kids rang the bell together and then began their spelling lessons at the old desks with chalkboards.

Re-enacting Laura Ingalls’ world and the pioneer days helps the children better understand history, Russell said.

“They learn from first-hand experience,” she said. “When they actually experience it, it’s going to stick with them.”

Wednesday wasn’t the only class during which Russell’s students relived the pioneer era. Earlier this week, the class held a barndance at a local ranch. The class made all the food they ate at the dance, including the butter.

Russell’s effort to recreate life in pioneer days went even better than she expected. She brought cream and a churn to the dance so the kids could make butter. But the road was so bumpy from construction work that the butter was almost ready by the time they arrived.

“And that’s exactly what happened in pioneer days,” Russell said. While some churned their butter at home, others put buckets of cream in their wagons because the bumpy ride helped churn the butter faster, she said.

In Ingalls’ book “Little House in the Big Woods,” a grandmother made molasses candy for the barn dance. The grandmother of one of Russell’s students volunteered for the role. The kids also bobbed for apples, husked corn and square-danced – a skill they learned earlier this year.

Pioneer days is only one method Russell uses to help her students delve into the subjects they are studying. When they studied Michelangelo, for example, Russell had the students lie on their backs and paint on the undersides of the tables, mimicking Michelangelo as he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Similarly, when the class studied Monet and Van Gogh, Russell asked students to recreate the pictures using the artists’ painting styles. When the students studied Gutenberg and printing presses, they also were learning about octopi for their zoology curriculum. Since octopi spray ink, the children were able to see not only how ink was used for printing but also where it came from.

“So many things just fit in together,” Russell said. “I didn’t plan it that way. Everything just happens to fall into place the way it should.”

To further illustrate printing presses and how they were used to make books, Russell read the children William Shakepeare’s “As You Like It.” She had the children act out the play to help them understand it.

Then Russell had the students write the book. Each child dictated his or her own version of the story to Russell, who wrote it down, and the children made illustrations for their books. Once complete, Russell used a book binder to put the children’s books together.

One particularly unusual aspect of Russell’s teaching style is that she doesn’t read children’s books to her kindergartners. Instead, she reads the books written for adults or young adults.

“We read “Bambi’ but we don’t read Disney’s “Bambi,'” she said. “We read the original “Bambi.'”

While many children their age are learning their letters and their sounds, Russell’s students already have learned cursive and are learning to spell.

“They’re doing all sorts of things you wouldn’t expect,” Russell said. “If you raise the expectations, they’re going to rise up and meet them.”

Lu Snyder can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or

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