From turning your home into a history lab to capturing stories with photography, Hands-On History activities help young learners engage in the work of historians – at home!  Hands-On History is published quarterly in our COLUMBIA Magazine; scroll through to download the previously published activities, and check back for new activities each quarter. See more family activities here.


    Historians and other museum professionals (including the team at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma) use items from collections to learn about the past. To better understand history, we carefully review artifacts, ephemera, images, diaries, and maps through a process known as Object Analysis. Download the PDF to learn how to turn your home into a history lab and start practicing object analysis!

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    Hands-On History

    If you lived during the days of covered wagon travel, you would have kept time by noting where the sun was located in the sky. High noon varied from place to place as the earth revolved around the sun, and a flexible approach to time didn’t make much difference to people who often rose at sunrise and retired at sunset. But when railroads came to the West, it literally changed the face of time. Find out how, and make your own water clock in this activity!

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    Hands-On History 1

    Each city, town, and community in Washington has its own unique history. Many communities recognize moments or people from their history with monuments, plaques, and markers. Some historical markers share only one perspective and leave out others. Find your community’s historical markers and decide for yourself if they accurately depict your community’s history. Then, consider how you might recognize that history differently by designing your own marker or monument.

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    Hands-On History 2

    Indigenous peoples have stewarded the land of the Pacific Northwest since time immemorial. Indigenous peoples used their knowledge of the land to enhance natural systems. Companion gardening—in which the individual plants help each other to grow—was an agriculture technique that made its way westward. A common example is a Three Sisters garden comprised of corn, beans, and squash. You can grow your own Three Sisters garden! Find out how.

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    Gathering basket, southern NorthWest Coast culture area, Puget Sound Salish, circa 1890s-1920s. WSHS Catalog ID: 2019.0.147

    Every single bit of history was once someone’s daily life. So how can we capture that? One way is through oral history. When you do the work of oral history, you interview someone about their experiences and record their answers. It’s a great way to make sure that ordinary people have a voice in the histories we pass on to future generations. What story would you want to share with future generations? Fortunately, oral history work is something you can do at home!

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    1970s vintage microphone

    Quilts are a unique and cozy way to share history. You may even have a quilt in your home that shares family memories and keeps you warm. The image on a quilt square—the design made from different pieces of fabric—could represent a lot of things. Because quilts are often given as gifts, or passed down through families, those memories can be shared with future generations. Try making your own quilt square!

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    Hands-On History A “crazy quilt” pattern is typically made of many irregularly shaped pieces or scraps of fabric. This crazy quilt was pieced by Clara Littlejohn (1890-1910) in Tacoma, WA. The quilt features 42 colorful blocks and measures 6 feet wide by 7 feet long. Clara added embroidered designs of leaves, flowers, and a butterfly. She made this quilt while lying on her back during an illness. WSHS 1957.29.1.

    What is the last picture you took? When we take a picture, we know who or what is in it, what is happening, and why the picture was taken. When we look at a photograph taken by someone else, we can try to guess the answers to those questions. Photos can help us record and understand the present and learn about the past. The next time you take a picture or look at a photo, ask yourself: What story does this photo tell? Learn about The Fourth Grade Project in this PDF. You can also explore historic portraits in our online collections.

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    Judy Gelles portrait of a fourth grade student from St. Lucia Portrait, St. Lucia, Public School, 2015; digital print on Diabond; 40 x 30 inches, Courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia

Contribute to the Washington State Historical Society Collections

Make a learning activity of contributing to the Washington State Historical Society’s collections. We’ve been collecting artifacts, ephemera, and stories related to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, and you can add your story too.

Click here for more information about contributing COVID-19 stories. Thank you!

Get “Hands-On History” in your mail box!

  • WSHS members receive COLUMBIA free as a member benefit, mailed to their homes four times a year!
  • COLUMBIA Magazine subscriptions are available, and make a great gift for the students and history lovers in your life.