Farmer Ancestors: Family History Pretend Play for Kids
This post is part of the #FHforChildren Linkup, “Learning Family History Through Play.”
My children love to dress up and pretend, so I’ve been brainstorming ways to teach them about the past as they pretend. Role playing is a fun way to learn how people work. From doctors to train conductors, kids love imitating the occupations of grown ups.
I thought this would be a good way to teach them about our farming ancestors. Were any of your ancestors farmers? It seems like almost everyone descends from farmers. Agriculture was the way of life for almost everyone 200 years ago.
Before playing with the kids, I learned more about our ancestors’ farms by transcribing agricultural censuses. Then I gathered farm toys and dress up clothes to pretend with. We transformed our vintage puppet theater into a store front for selling butter and produce from the “farm.” My kids enjoyed playing farmer for several days. It was a hit!
Here’s how I created this learning play time for my children.
Step One: Prepare by Reviewing Agricultural Censuses
I looked up several of our ancestors in the United States Census Agricultural Schedules. They are available for 1850, 1860, 1880, and state censuses who took an 1885 census. Read more about them here: FamilySearch Wiki Article about Agricultural Schedules.
A good place to start searching is the following Ancestry.com collection: U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880. I chose one of our ancestors who shares our last name, to help the children establish a connection with their oldest known Dyer ancestor. His name is John Robert Dyer and he lived in Hawkins County, Tennessee. I searched the Ancestry collection and found him in the 1870 agricultural schedule.
I also searched for my ancestor John C. Harris, who lived in Milam County, Texas. We found him on the 1880 Agriculture Census Schedule.
My oldest is 7 years old, so I asked for his help transcribing the records. I printed a form from the National Archives website. Scroll to the Nonpopulation Census Forms section, and under the Agricultural section, you’ll see forms for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1885.
As I read the information, he transcribed it. We talked about each response. He thought it was pretty interesting to learn how many horses, mules and asses, working oxen, milch cows, and other animals were on the farm. He got tired of filling out the form when we were done with John C. Harris, so I transcribed John Robert Dyer myself.
I wanted to be prepared to talk with my children about what farm life was like for our ancestors when we played later. I noticed several fun facts:
John R. Dyer, 1870
-John R. Dyer owned 80 improved acres and 110 woodland acres
-The cash value of his farm was $1000, and $10 worth of farming implements and machinery
-He owned 2 horses, 2 milch cows, 2 working oxen, 5 cattle, 5 sheep, and 16 swine
-In 1870, produced 86 bushels winter wheat and 300 bushels Indian Corn
-John C. Harris, 1880
-John C. Harris rented his farm
-18 acres of it were tilled
-280 acre were mown grass lands
-He owned 6 horses and 2 mules and asses, 2 working oxen, 20 milch cows, 30 other cattle
-Movement of cattle in 1879: 20 calves were dropped, 30 cows were sold living, 2 cows were slaughtered, 10 cows died, strayed or were stolen and not recovered.
-He owned $125 of farming implements and machinery and $497 of livestock
-He owned 20 barnyard poultry and produced 100 dozen eggs during 1879
-He made 200 pounds of butter on farm in 1879
Next I found some pictures of our farmer ancestors to see what clothing we needed for dress up. We found these great photos of our Shults ancestors wearing overalls. What a perfect dress up item! I love the photo of Allie Harris on the far left below with her overalls and knee pads and sun hat.
Step Two: Prepare by Gathering Items to Pretend
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My kids had overalls when they were little, but grew out of them. I found some overalls on Amazon here: Dickies Little Boys’ Denim Bib Overall for my 7-year-old boy and OshKosh B’Gosh Girls’ Overalls for my 4-year-old girl. They were excited! My son had a cowboy hat from a cowboy costume but I needed a sun hat for my daughter. Like Allie Harris above, we found a straw looking sun hat: Furtalk Straw Hat.
At several children’s museums we have been to, they have really cute felt vegetables and gardens. I found a set on Etsy and bought it for a surprise for the kids. The seller I bought it from doesn’t have any more, but you can find similar sets here: Felt Garden by Stories and Sayings at Etsy and Wool Felt Garden Play Set at Amazon.
We have a Little People Farm Set, so I got that out. If you don’t have one, here’s one: Fisher-Price Little People Caring for Animals Farm Set. I also got out some baskets and canisters that we use for pretend kitchen play.
We also pretended to make butter after milking the cows. We used white craft pom poms. It was fun to talk about how our ancestors made butter and sold it. After gathering all the white pom poms into our bucket, we pretended to churn it into butter. Of course, it would be fun to actually make real butter, but it’s also fun for the kids to be able to pretend and play on their own without me supervising!
Step Three: Play Farmer
After gathering everything together, we planted some pretend seeds, harvested vegetables, milked the cows, made butter, put the butter into bowls, and brought it all to our “store.” Then the kids set up the store and I came to barter with them.
My two-year-old loved singing “Old MacDonald” and my 7-year-old enjoyed looking at the photos and trying to recreate the clothing. He studied this photo of Great Grandpa Shults for a while, then went into his room and came back with black pants, his white button up shirt, and a cowboy hat and boots.
My four-year-old daughter had the most fun. She loved pretending to make butter and arrange everything in store. She liked wearing her overalls, but she also created her own costume after looking at photos of our ancestors by putting on her pioneer skirt, straw hat, and gloves. As we talked about all the animals our ancestors had on their farms, the kids went and gathered all their stuffed animals.
We enjoyed learning about our farmer ancestors through play. Play is the best way for young children to learn. They enjoy it and they ask more questions. They also remember what they learn and have fun! I hope you have fun with it too!
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This is part of a blog hop. Check out the other #FHforChildren ideas here: Learning Family History Through Play