Even visitors as young as 3 to 6 years old can explore the history of our nation and its fifth president through fun and memorable activities as the folks at the James Monroe Museum host an engaging and interactive program dubbed “Petite Patriots.”

Each season, this free program highlights one aspect of James Monroe’s life and service to our country and includes a read-aloud story, a take-home craft, and a discussion focusing on an artifact. The February activities will feature the White House. Materials—such as construction paper, pom-poms, frozen-pop sticks and pipe cleaners—will be provided and each participant will create a model of a White House that they envision.

“I was looking for ways to show that the museum isn’t just a place where you come in and stare at the artifacts, and I wanted to appeal to the interests of our younger audience,” said public programs coordinator Lindsey Crawford. “This program is a way to ‘remove the glass’ from our exhibits and enable the children interact with the artifacts and learn something new in a fun and engaging way. It’s important to engage the younger children with history. They are the generation that we will entrust our legacy to in the future.”

Crawford says that the program has received a very positive response and typically attracts a full house, so early registration is strongly encouraged.

In the past, Petite Patriots has focused on the White House china (giving participants an opportunity to design their own plates) as well as the Crossing of the Delaware (for which children made a take-home tri-cornered hat). “The children were very excited and engaged. I remember one little girl donning her hat and proclaiming, ‘I look like a president!’” said Crawford. “Even the parents are enthusiastic about the information presented in the programs. The event is a way for parents to bond with their kids over history and their time together can become a family memory. We are a small museum but we like to have a big impact.”

In addition to the program’s activities, the museum’s exhibits and artifacts include objects that engage the interest of young people, such as a miniature china set that belonged to the Monroe’s daughters Eliza and Maria, their dolls, which are exhibited periodically, a pianoforte that Maria played and her ice skates.

The James Monroe Museum also features an ongoing “Young Patriots Corner,” with books that parents can read to their children and handouts, including word searches and crossword puzzles. In addition, young guests can receive a scavenger hunt list at the front desk with information about various objects they can look for throughout the exhibits to complete their search and receive a prize. A dress-up area offers an opportunity for children to don the hats of from the period, as well as mounted cut-outs of figures and quilts to which they can attach items of clothing and the designs of their choice.

“We are always looking for interactive, engaging programs that we can offer for visitors of all ages to build an awareness of the culture in which we live,” said executive director of UMW museums Scott Harris. “We hope our programs, activities and exhibits can also present a sense of what it means to be a citizen and a community member—whether that is your local community or state or nation or the world. James Monroe’s career is an example of public service that spanned all levels. Beginning with his military service in the Revolutionary War, he progressed through local, state, national and diplomatic posts that had major impact on the issues and events of his time.”

The museum’s assistant director and curator, Jarod Kearney (who is also a potter), is also an advocate of a hands-on exploration of history, so much so that he created examples of earthenware and porcelain objects for visitors to examine when he hosted a presentation on 18th-century ceramics.

“I think a hands-on approach encourages active participation and helps children retain the information. The interactive approach is essential—especially at that age—to stimulate interest and it allows the child to have a fun experience while learning at the same time,” he said.

Kearney has also found how providing detailed information can engage visitors and connect them with historical figures. “Monroe was just 17 when he was at the Battle of Trenton. He was shot in the shoulder and carried the bullet within him his entire life,” he said. “When we talk about that with high school students, they’re interested because they are the same age he was when he fought and was wounded. That is a powerful way for them to connect,” he said.

“We hope that children and their parents will have fun and be excited by the experience of Petite Patriots,” said Harris, “and we hope that experience will spark an interest in exploring the past and learning from it that will stay with them throughout their lives.”

Collette Caprara is a local writer and artist.

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