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Military museums sneak history into preschoolers' safety lessons

The Military Museums in Calgary has designed a program connecting helmet safety to Canada's role in international conflict and peacekeeping.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

As any parent knows, preschoolers have short attention spans. That's why few would normally expect four- to six-year-olds to be an enthusiastic group of museum-goers, especially Canadian military history museum-goers.

But The Military Museums of Calgary have designed an ingenious program that teaches kids about the importance of protecting their heads, all while sneaking in the story of Canada's role in international conflict and peacekeeping, which has the preschool set riveted.

"I like seeing all the different kinds of hats," explains 5-year-old Thea Sali, who was among a group of youngsters who recently followed the adventures of a green steel hat named Tommy on a romp around the museum.

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The 30-minute program dubbed the Travel Tales of Tommy is based on the headgear combat soldiers wore in the Second World War, but it never actually mentions the word war, though the signs of it are all around. Children scamper from a full-scale display of men on foot patrol with a tank to a room featuring a modern-day soldier holding an automatic rifle. The closest the program comes to talking about conflict is describing a fight among Tommy and friends to determine the best looking hat.

"We want kids to understand that helmets protect your head," said Lorna Gutsche, the education manager at the museum, who carries around a huge story book as she takes youngsters on the whirlwind tour, "Why does a solider wear a helmet? It is protective gear. It protects the head."

The program is designed specifically to engage young children, a group the museum has never targeted before. It also was created to align with Alberta's school curriculum in order for teachers to justify field trips. In this case, it uses a Tommy Hat as a way to talk about bike helmets, which is part of health and wellness education. But really it's about exposing youngsters to Canada's past.

"They've learned history here and they don't even know it," said Ms. Gutsche, "The hidden curriculum is getting kids to wear bike helmets."

Kris Chung, a Grade 2 teacher at Ralph McCall School in Airdrie, a bedroom community north of Calgary, has been taking students to the museum for four years. In addition to history, she's tied the museum's Boats, Bells, and Banners program to science (buoyancy), math (shapes and symmetry via marine signal flags), and art (part of the tour is a hands-on project).

As Remembrance Day approaches, she will be taking students to the Tommy exhibit, hoping students absorb history more than bike safety.

"We thought it might be good to understand why Canadians wore it," Ms. Chung said, "Not necessarily [for]the war, but more the peacekeeping role."

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Indeed, while adults might have trouble wrapping their heads around the connection between bike helmets and military history, for children it clicks.

During the tour, children are introduced to handfuls of hats ranging from top hats to cowboy hats to pillboxes, as they are taught that while some hats are decorative, a Tommy Hat was a helmet with a very special purpose.

"It protects," shouts 4-year-old Hugh Ferguson.

The children pass around an authentic Tommy Hat. They feel its surprisingly heavy weight and giggle as they try it on.

When the children are asked if they have a helmet, 5-year-old Ekko Blix answers without hesitation: "A bike helmet."

Five-year-old Maeve Delaney was quick to point out why: "So you don't crack your head open."

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Maeve's father, Martin Delaney, is a reservist but he also does fundraising and development for the museum's educational programs. He shrugs off any criticism by saying he wouldn't send his daughter through the museum's program if he didn't think it was suitable for her age.

"We don't glamorize anything," he said, "The kids take from it what they want to take out of it and filter out the rest."

The initiative makes sense to Canadian military historian Norman Leach, who applauds the effort and argues that it's never too young to start showing kids how so much of Canada's present is tied to its military past.

"The museum has created a way to teach kids in a way that doesn't glorify war, but makes it real, makes it touchable," he explains.

"The kids absorb it because we're not glorifying it. Never underestimate kids. They're often smarter than you and I."

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