40+ Ways to Teach History Without a Textbook

History is my biggest passion; I love history! I am a firm believer teaching history should never be boring. And yet, I really don’t like textbooks. More often than not, they’re boring, and they make it hard to retain information in the long run. (Thus, you’re not really learning.) As an alternative, here are 30+ ways to teach history without a textbook, from books to cooking, and more!
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Textbooks primarily have main events and boring dates, and occasionally a short biography of a person you already know. Dates alone are nothing more than numbers. Reading boring facts like “America invaded France in June 1944.” is nothing compared to reading a journal entry by a paratrooper who experienced the beaches of Normandy during that turning point during WWII.

All resources require going in-depth into a time period – so you may want to take a week or longer for each period. When going in-depth and looking beyond facts, boring names become faces and those faces become real people you begin to imagine in your head. Plus, the more in-depth you go with the more resources you use, the less biased it becomes and the more interesting it is!

40+ Ways to Teach History Without a Textbook

1. Read memoirs/journals.

Memoirs are probably the best way to gain firsthand knowledge of historical events.

2. Read biographies.

A few of my favorite non-fiction, fun short stories filled with little-known history:

3. Read historical fiction.
Here are my top 100 favorite historical books for kids.

People are attracted to stories; we love to remember stories, hear stories, tell stories.

Historical fiction brings the story to life – with characters, plot, and dialogue. Remembering real-life history through a story, even if that story is fiction-based-on-fact, is so much easier to remember long-term. After reading a fictional book, it is always good to look up dates, locations, and other things to weed out the “truth” from the fiction.
Some people ask me why would I do this, especially because it may confuse kids. As long as your child is understanding the difference between fiction and nonfiction, I see no problem with a fun mnemonic.

Historical fiction, specifically I Am David by Anne Holm, introduced me to Europe, World War II, and it made me love history. I became so interested in the time period and wanted to know more. It inspired this blog, and resulted in hundreds (or thousands maybe?) of hours of WWII research! All from one completely fictional book.

4. Read fictional books based on real people.

It can be hard to pick out a rich biography. A great alternative is fictional books based on real people. These will be labeled as fiction in your library. For the most part, they don’t “stir up drama” like Hollywood, but they do have fictional details that “most likely happened” or thoughts that the person “must have thought.”

This way, the story reads like a fiction story, therefore being more interesting. An example of this is the Holocaust novel Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz, one of my favorite books for middle-schoolers. Although it is labeled as fiction, about 90% of the characters and events are true.

5. Watch documentaries.

There are many great documentaries out there, especially from PBS and the History Channel!

6. Watch historical movies.

They may not be 100% accurate, but historical movies work as a springboard for diving deeper into a topic! (read more about why I love history with movies) Check out my list for Historical Movies For Kids and Historical Movies for Middle and High School.

I also have a ton of movie guides to go along with them. (You can also find them on Teachers Pay Teachers.)

7. Watch docudramas.

I love watching “based on a true story” movies because although this-and-that might have been exaggerated, we always love to lookup more about the person/event. Docudramas are pretty close to life but are re-enacted to be more interesting. History vs. Hollywood is my go-to site after I watch a “true story” movie.

8. Read historical picture books.

Like fiction for older readers, picture books are a solid way of introducing history to young learners, or to visually help reinforce history for older learners! Ask your librarian for the non-fiction historical picture books.

9. Listen to podcasts or history videos on YouTube.

10. Visit historical landmarks.

11. Go to a museum.

From famous national museums to virtual tours, museums are a unique way to see history up close!

12. Have a play and re-enact a historical event.

13. Meet someone who lived during that time.

This may be impossible for your Colonial study, but can be done for many of the recent events in the 20th century from 9/11 to JFK’s assassination.

14. Try to recreate the time period and really “go back in time.”

Eat food inspired by America’s rations during World War II, recreate a Victorian-era tea party, host a roaring ’20s costume party – have fun!

15. Listen to music from the time.

From classical music to the 1940s big bang music, the music of a time period can tell you a lot about it!

16. Research and make food from the time.

American Girl has cookbooks for each of their American girls, with authentic recipes from the time period!

17. Read magazines or newspaper articles from the time.

18. Look at advertisements from the time period.

19. Look at fashion from the time period.

You can tell a lot about the time period by the way the women dressed! (Pinterest is a great resource!)

Here are some Pinterest boards perfect for this:

20. Look at toys and games from the time period.

What did kids do without electronics or modern conveniences?

21. Stir up your visual memory by looking at photographs from the time.

Pinterest is a great resource! (Pulitzer winning prizes are true historical gems, although some may not be appropriate for younger children because of violence.)

22. Look at art/drawings from the time.

Art can provide great insight into how people thought and felt at the time.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly is a collection of children’s drawings and poems while in the Terezin concentration camp.

Anholt’s picture book series involve kids meeting famous artists such as Degas, van Gogh, and Picasso.

23. Try to find some radio broadcasts from the time.

24. Create a timeline of notable events for a certain period.

25. Create a timeline for a person.

26. Create a timeline for a certain event.

Create timelines for events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the 12 plagues of Egypt. Be sure to include little-known facts!

27. Write a short story/poem about a notable event from the point of view of a notable person.

Try to describe what the person might have said, felt, heard, etc.

28. Write a fictional short story/poem about a notable time in history.

29. For older students, create an argument for the opposite side that you are on.

For example, look into pro-slavery arguments. Then, instead of saying “I do not support slavery because it is wrong,” you can support your argument better and debate why your current side is morally/scientifically right.

30. Do a craft relating to the time period.

I’ve heard Story of the World and A Book In Time are great resources. Other great resources include:

31. Create a movie trailer for a person in history.

32. Do the kids think history is boring? Try Horrible Histories.

The book series will show the most “horrible” parts of history. (their main target is boys who don’t really like history)

33. Try Mission Us.

Mission Us is an interactive and historical online “video game” focused on American history. It’s aimed at grades 5-8, although I have not tried it yet.

34. Focus on little known events.

I find it easiest (especially for WWII) to focus on a specific event, or family/person and researching all you can about that event/person. Whether it be a top-secret mission or Belgian Resistance Fighters during WWII, research the lesser-known events in history.

35. Use unit studies.

Unit studies are a way to focus deeply on one event, instead of briefly scrolling through it in a textbook. Here are some of my favorite historical unit studies.

With this, you learn about the big events everyone else learns about, plus a real family/person/smaller event!

36. Play an Oregon Trail simulation.

Remember the old computer game Oregon Trail? Use it to learn more about the Oregon trail, and to grow critical thinking skills.

37. Check out the PBS “House” series.

PBS had a “House” series where modern-day people get to go back in time for certain events for a few months, like the new West, the 1940s, the Colonial period, etc.

My favorite was 1940s House, since the family really made an effort to get a feel for WWII life. (The Colonial one was probably the worst, considering no one made an effort to get into the time period.)

38. Combine history and geography.

To better understand world history, combine it with geography!

39. Learn history through board games.

Constitution Quest is a board game that can be used in a classroom, or in place of history lessons for the day! (Here are some free printable board games.)

Check out this list of history games.

40. Learn history through trivia.

Whether it with flashcards or Jeopardy, use these resources to spark conversations about history.

41. Memorize the Presidents with the Memory Palace system.

I memorized the periodic table with a method called the Memory Palace. Use the same principle to memorize our presidents – using your house! (Animaniacs also has a great song to use with it.)

Extra Historical Resources

Historical Movies for Kids– I also have a ton of movie guides at my store and Teachers Pay Teachers.

100 Historical Movies for Middle and High School (under R)

Teach History with Musicals

For more history resources, visit learnincolor.com/history.

More Ways to Teach Without a Textbook

30+ Ways to Teach Math Without a Textbook
30+ Ways to Teach Art Without a Textbook
30+ Ways to Teach Science Without a Textbook
30+ Ways to Teach Geography Without a Textbook

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Samantha Shank has been an entrepreneur all her life. She started an educational blog and store, Learn in Color, at 14 years old. Within 3 years, she was making a full time income as a freelance graphic designer and marketer as Learn in Color grew. Samantha holds a MSEd in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Gifted Education.


  1. Love where you wrote: “History is my thing.. I practically breathe history”. So I’m not the only one! I don’t like history text books either. Sure they will say oh yeah theres this thing called WW2 where a lot of Jews were killed and America was bombed without warning and oh yes, be sure to read Anne Frank.
    I mean come on there is so much more to history than that!!!

    Oh and here is the link to the blog I was telling you about:http://i-rememberww2.blogspot.com

    THis post was awesome!

  2. I wouldn’t have even known that there were ANY good Germans in the nazi era if I had not researched it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the White Rose group, Helmuth Hubener…I mean why not teach about them? Their stories are amazing!


  3. I’m new to homeschooling and trying to find a history lesson plan for my 4th grader but I don’t want to teach her the same untruths I learned as a child nor do I want us both stuck with another boring textbook. I am excited to try this approach. I just now have to decide if it’s best to start with early world history or early American history. Any thoughts?

    • Thanks Jeniffer!
      I would highly recommend using Sonlight.com (a curriculum, but you can easily use their website for resources to make your own) as a guide/textbook spine. Sonlight is a Christian book-only curriculum that has a very high-quality but interesting reading list. I highly applaud their mission statements and book qualifications. For fourth grade, Sonlight has American History 2/2. Hope this helps!

  4. I ditched the history textbook this year and I am replacing it with various historical fiction and nonfiction books for my sons (10 and 8). You have some great ideas listed. Thanks!

  5. […] Textbooks often only have main events and boring dates, occasionally a short biography of a person you already know. In my opinion, dates are nothing more than numbers. Numbers are math and math is boring. Reading boring facts like “America invaded France in June 1944.” ohhh, now THAT makes me want to study it more! is nothing compared to reading a journal entry by someone who has lived it!  Come see how this homeschooled teen  has learned to love history without a textbooks at Le  Chaim on the Right.  […]

  6. so as a fellow history lover (and in fact a former history teacher)–for homeschooling moms–Use the library of congress website!! http://www.loc.gov. It has a lot of really neat printable primary resources that will interest kids from 3rd or 4th grade and up-seriously, there’s a whole section of historical baseball card images and posters. I think a lot of baseball playing younger kids would be hooked. There are also a lot of old photos-some of kids dressed in very strange outfits!
    I also have to say that I love memoirs (although I don’t think kids younger than 14 or so will find them interesting, unless they’re particularly bookish) it’s the same kind of amazing “here’s how people really lived” stuff you get from historical fiction, but a lot of the time the truth is crazier than fiction. If you’re into the holocaust, Primo Levi is amazing to read. There’s another interesting one I read recently I think called “resistance” that’s the journal of a member of the French resistance. On another topic, ” life and death in Shanghai” is by a woman who was held in prison by the communist regime in China for essentially no reason for years. It’s actually one of my favorite books- highly recommend it.

      • Awesome:) One more good-for-homeschooling series I just remembered- the “If you lived at x time” series.I have a homeschooling friend whose 8 year old son only likes to read nonfiction. I bought him a bunch of these and we didn’t see him for hours:) the authors do a great job of thinking about what interests kids in history- lots of details about, like, what toys were like during the American Revolution. They can work as read alouds for kids younger than 2nd grade, or for independent readers.

      • Hallo Samantha. Its a great idea to teach History with others source. I am a history teacher at Bandung- Indonesia. I have a little English but i love history and i try to do your ideas. Thank you. Aa

  7. Wow, how fun and inspiring to read!! Just wanted to recommend another option for an outline in studying History. Veritas Press has been a wonderful resource for us as we have studied history chronologically. One of my sons would’ve been happy to study Egypt/ Greece/ Roman history only, but Veritas Press helped us keep moving. It has wonderful songs for each era that really stick with you to help remember those pesky dates and cards that give basic information on major happenings within the given time period. These cards list resources to use to go as wide and deep as you want on any topic.
    Keep up the great blog Samantha!!

  8. Thanks for the great reminder about making history fun! We are just about to start a new school year here in Australia and I needed to remember how much fun History was when my kids were little. I totally agree with your points. We visited Normandy last September so my sons could stand on the D day beaches….it was an unforgettable experience for our 15 yr old WWII obsessed son as was sitting in foxholes in the Ardenne forest in Belgium where the Battle of the Bulge took place. As a once in a lifetime trip it was so so worth the money and time.

  9. When I was younger, one series of fiction books that I loved was the “Dear America” series. They were set during different events, like the Civil War, and they were written like a child’s diary. It was so interesting to read!!

  10. I know this is an old post but I just found it on pinterest. Your talk about the PBS “House” series, which I loved all but Colonial House, is nothing compared to the BBC “Farm” series. Oh so awesome. Watch Tudor Monestary Farm on youtube. All 6 episodes are there. The same historian and architects have done several of these series. I’m currently watching Secrets of the Castle. Eventually I will get to the others. I have 45 episodes to watch at an hour each. Watch. You will love.

  11. This is such a wonderful list of resources, thank you very much! You mentioned listening to history podcasts and I was wondering if you knew of any specific ones geared towards children? Or maybe any history apps? I’ve been trying to find a “this day in history app” for kids. Would you know of any?
    Thank you again for this wonderful list!

  12. For those who are concerned about their children confusing truth for fiction in historical fiction — that’s an excellent way to practice! Have them look up and figure out which details are historical record and which are added by the author. (In general. Obviously it could get a bit overwhelming to try to look up every single detail in a novel like this.)
    Thanks to the Gods and Kings series I can finally remember what happened during Hezekiah’s time, in the Bible. (This is not for younger readers, though; there are some adult themes.) And really, it brought to life things I’d never thought about before, regarding how the Law affected their everyday lives.


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