Getting bogged down in the details of historically-accurate materials, fully-researched stories and interesting characters can sometimes mean that the seemingly smaller details can be overlooked. Although they may seem insignificant, they can have a huge impact on the lesson and undo all the hard work you have already put into the more exciting and obvious elements you’ve prepared for the lesson.
This is where a ladder and a box come in handy.
Whilst working in schools, museums and heritage sites I like to use props. I am a very visual learner and I like using something solid and tactile to demonstrate my points or help me tell a story. When I am Robin Hood, this can include Medieval arrowheads, when I am William Shakespeare, this can be a quill, etc. These are obviously hugely important in teaching new information and will dramatically increase a child’s ability to remember and relate to whatever it is that you are talking about. I bought a suede-look, brown bag which housed a lot of these props and costumes and I would carry it on my back whilst doing tours of Sherwood Forest or going from classroom to classroom.
However, sometimes there would be a problem. I encourage interactions, questions and participation throughout each of my sessions, but sometimes a child will ask a question which requires a prop right at the bottom of my bag. This then leads me to riff whilst I fumble around in my bag for this item. This is often quickly resolved, but I wanted to find a greater solution to this issue without breaking the rhythm of the story-telling.
I saw a wooden toy box being advertised online and used this as my starting point. It was bright white and looked very clean and new. Not ideal for most of my history topics. Using some sandpaper, chisels, wood stains and some old hinges, I aged it to the point at which it looked like it could be hundreds of years old. The lid was hinged and swung 180 degrees to open. The lid itself was very big, which led me to consider what it could be used for. I attached chains so that the lid would stop at the point that it was leaning back just slightly, then added a very distressed print of a sixteenth century map and attached an adapted apothecary kit I bought from Etsy. This became a display board which allowed conversations about geography and witchcraft (the apothecary kit can be easily removed if irrelevant). I then started building compartments within the box itself to house important items like a ceramic model of a human skull (disturbingly realistic) as well as parchment, quills, and any other relevant props. I then also created a structure to house large plywood boards. These boards contain diagrams and written information which cannot be easily shown in another way – eg: the various spellings of William Shakespeare’s signed name. These boards can easily be painted over and changed or simply swapped out for other boards when required.
Then there is the ladder.
Once the items have come out of the box, they are typically shown to the class by myself or another member of the team and occasionally passed around for the children to look at. Then when they come back, we move on in the story or I need my hands free to demonstrate something else, they go back into the box. This is a shame, as I know that keeping props visible and being able to easily refer to them in the future is really useful when teaching. It just isn’t possible to hold all the props at the same time, and putting them on the floor limits movement and increases the chances of (probably me) standing on them and breaking them.
The ladder was an elegant solution to this. At 5ft tall, it offers multiple rungs which can display solid props, it can also display the plywood boards and be used to hang costume and props. These are all at a good height for children to see and for me to grab when mid-flow of a story or a child wants to ask a question about a previous piece of information.
Working alongside the box, the ladder is both incredibly practical as well as intriguing for children entering the space. I’ve trialled them both in various spaces and they have worked even better than I expected – enhancing the lessons and giving me greater confidence in knowing where all my props are and knowing that they are easily accessible at all times. They have been adapted and transformed over the past twelve months, slowly gaining their own history, some real dings and scratches and even more practical applications in educational environments as they are used more and more frequently.
Both of these resources were reasonably cheap and have a lot of versatility. Searching ‘blanket/toy box’ and ‘wooden step ladder’ on Facebook Marketplace should give you a few fairly cheap options. I bought the box for £20 and the ladder for £10.
The box also required some additional wood to make compartments/boards, some items for decoration and some casters so it can be easily moved. Honestly, it took a lot of hours to make it look as good and be as practical as it is now. I’m sure somebody better at DIY would be able to do it a lot better and quicker than I did, but it’s entirely customisable to suit your teaching methods and topics. The ladder required a bit of maintenance as it was a bit rickety. So I added some extra nails and sanded down some rougher areas, but generally it was good to go! I may add some lips to the rungs just to prevent items from slipping off it, but for now it feels very solid and has served me really well so far.
These resources are bound to last for years and can easily become those items that get your class excited about history when you wheel the box out of your store cupboard or have the ladder loaded with costumes as the children walk into the classroom.