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Toy Stories

Students observe a family photograph from the early 1900s and compare toys visible in the photograph with toys that are popular today.

Photography, Toy Store Trains, 2 Jun 2007, Flickr CC

Teaching the youngest of students to think historically may seem like a daunting task, but lessons like this one can be very useful in breaking down the complex historical thinking process to some of its more fundamental parts. This lesson focuses on noticing similarities and differences between two time periods as a step towards understanding and analyzing historical context.

In this activity, students observe a photograph of a family from the early 1900s that contains a variety of children’s toys. They are encouraged not only to notice differences between toys in the photo and modern toys, but also to speculate as to why those differences might exist—for example, why the boy in the picture might be playing with a toy horse and cart, rather than with a toy car. This provides an excellent opportunity not only to introduce students to the idea of historical context, but also to help them begin drawing inferences based on historical evidence. The fact that the evidence in this case comes from a photograph, and is focused on a topic familiar to most children, will help to make these otherwise abstract skills more accessible to young students.

The two extension activities (under “Taking it Further”) provide additional opportunities for students to learn that the past and present differ and that historical artifacts help us understand that past. The first activity requires students make direct comparisons between a family photograph of their own and the one in the lesson, highlighting differences between eras. The second, in which students describe a modern toy to their classmates, who must then guess what it is, allows students further practice in drawing inferences based on limited information. Additionally, the cards available in the PDF file found here would provide an excellent extension activity. The cards contain pictures of both old and new toys that students could sort based on the time period in which they might have been used.


Use of this website requires registration, which is free. The photograph described in the lesson, along with a worksheet, are available here.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?


Includes historical background?


Requires students to read and write?

The worksheet available here contains sentence frames to help students write about what they see in the picture.

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence


Requires close reading and attention to source information?

The worksheet available here contains sentence frames to help students write about what they see in the picture.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?


Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

Discussion questions included in the lesson will help support students’ analysis of the photograph. Additionally, the worksheet scaffolds writing compare and contrast sentences about the toys in the photograph.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?

While no assessment is included, it would be easy for teachers to assess student understanding informally through listening to student talk, or to create a brief writing assignment (perhaps using the existing worksheet) as an assessment.

Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?


Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?