Archaeologist and teacher John Crossland, describes how you can use an historic site with Foundation Stage children.

Within the Foundation Stage guidance and in the National Curriculum programme of study for history at Key Stage 1 there are many challenges. How do we teach young children to understand the passage of time and identify the way in which things have changed over the years? How do we help young children to interpret what happened in the past and why? What are the best ways of studying the people who lived in their area in the past?

Nottingham Castle has formed the backdrop to a series of historical experiences that I have arranged for KS1 children from the city. Although the visits were aimed at gifted and talented children and coordinated by Katy Ball, City of Nottingham gifted and talented coordinator, the methodology we used will work equally well with children of all abilities and all ages. We have used it with pre-school and reception children.

For the visit to work it must be an exercise in collaboration. I am a freelance archaeologist and teacher and I have organised a wide range of historical activities for children of all ages and abilities but I can do nothing without support from the schools, the local authority and, in the case of Nottingham Castle, the staff at the Castle Museum. Ann Coyne, education officer at the museum, has assembled and trained a team of freelance educators who bring with them a range of skills including story-telling and interpretation.

The castle

Nottingham Castle poses a real problem for all its visitors. Although the first castle on the site was begun on the orders of William the Conqueror in 1068 there is very little left of the original structure. Despite its associations with Richard the Lionheart, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham very little has survived and what is there needs the eye of an archaeologist to interpret it. Most of it was demolished at the time of the English Civil War and in 1674 a large mansion was erected where once the royal keep stood. However, the problems of interpreting Nottingham Castle present an interesting challenge for young children and provide an opportunity for them to understand better the processes and methods of history and archaeology.

Starting with our senses

We start our visit by using all our senses. At the foot of Castle Rock is a place where the foundations of the medieval castle are built directly on to the Bunter Sandstone which lies beneath Nottingham. I get the children to put their hands on to the old stones while I tell them the story of the castle and then ask them to compare the rough blackened medieval stone with the smooth creamy stone of the modern rebuild. It is a very clear example of historical sequence and the idea can be reinforced several times during the visit to the castle. For example, as we march like a troop of medieval soldiers up to the main gateway we can clearly see and touch those parts that are old and those parts that are new. Similarly the children can also see the modern additions to the ancient drawbridge that guards the way to the middle bailey of the castle.

Without necessarily having it spelled out they begin to understand the archaeological principle that older structures always lie beneath the later ones. In the middle bailey itself is the outline of the foundations of the 15th- century building that archaeologists have excavated; they are set into the grass of Castle Green and provide an opportunity to think about the role of archaeology in understanding a castle that has disappeared.

Caves and tunnels

One of the highlights of my visits to the castle has been a trip into some of the caves and tunnels in Castle Rock. Although insurance issues forbid the youngest children going down it is a very valuable experience for the slightly older ones. The place is ideal for story telling about the people who once lived in these dungeons, including King David of Scotland in the 14th century and Robin Hood. A place like this encourages the children to trust their feelings as well as their senses and some very atmospheric stories can be told. These can be retold by the children later on.

Why here?

Finally we emerge on to the top of the rock and look out over the valley of the River Trent and by using their eyes and their common sense the children can deduce the reasons why this site was chosen for a castle and why it was so hard to capture it. I have been constantly amazed at the sophistication of some of the ideas expressed on our visits. One boy asked what had happened to all the stone that had been taken from the old castle and he was then able to work out that most of it was reused in other buildings.

Story tellers

A visit like this provides the children with many ideas for stories and it is useful to bring their ideas together while they are still fresh, expressing themselves orally, in pictures and in writing. I have been fortunate in being able to use the skills of Carly, a freelance story-teller recommended by Ann Coyne. The children are encouraged to think of themselves as someone from the past of the castle and they then take their ideas back to be completed at school.

Final words

The process that I have used at Nottingham Castle can be applied anywhere. All that is needed is a site and teachers who want to use its full potential. Because I am freelance I can work and give advice anywhere but there are also other experts up and down the country who can be consulted. Such a visit has real social as well as educational value. But the real lesson from my own experience is that even children as young as four can benefit from coming into contact with the physical remains of the past.

John Crossland, Past below Ground, freelance archaeologist and teacher associated with the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit.