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Five tips to teach the First World War topic in a primary school

First world war primary school workshop

Teaching about the First World War in primary schools is problematic to say the least.  Not only is it a sombre topic in general, but it is also emotive, connected as it is with the sacrifice of those involved, often in horrific and tragic circumstances.


But this doesn't mean that you can't teach about WW1 in your primary school and the following common concerns can easily be addressed:

  • How do I deal with the brutal reality of trench fighting that the First World War is known for? (see tip 1)

  • How do I ensure that the whole school is included? (see tip 2)

  • How do I teach about the history of WW1 whilst still showing respect to those who died? (see tip 3)

  • How do I fill 6 or 12 lessons with a war where the main part is based on life in the trenches? (see tip 4)

When most people think of the First World War the first image that comes to mind is of soldiers in the trenches. However in fact it is a lesser known fact that 3/4 of a soldier's time was spent waiting for something to happen, with only a small proportion of time actually spent in the front line trenches waiting to 'go over the top' to fight.  


While this doesn't mean you should ignore the actual fighting, this 'day to day life' approach provides lots of opportunities for looking at the smaller details of what it was actually like to live in the trenches on a day to day basis.


For example, lesson ideas could include sending a letter to a soldier with a partner writing a reply; packing a parcel to send to a soldier, or simply writing a diary entry from the soldier's perspective.


In addition there was a lot more happening outside of the front line.  For example, for upper Key Stage Two why not look at the political alliances of each side? (Notable for the fact that there were many more countries on the winning side of the Allies). This can then be followed up with a geography activity which challenges pupils to find the countries on a world map.


This is perhaps one of the most difficult problems to address as the topic obviously doesn't lend itself easily to KS1, with EYFS being even more problematic.


The easiest and possibly the most immediate solution for this is by far in shared remembrance in school assemblies.  Why not ask every child in the school to make their own poppy with a message for a soldier?  EYFS and KS1 could draw a picture of a poppy after a little age-appropriate explanation of why they are important.  If you need help with this, the Royal British Legion have some excellent resources tailored for use in UK schools, which can be viewed here: Royal British Legion education packs.


In addition, much like Tip one, focussing on a soldier's life is also a good way to make the topic more accessible for younger pupils.  Why not try a little pretend marching (not to glorify soldiering, of course, but just to show pupils how the soldiers trained) or sing along to 'Pack up your troubles' with this youtube video of the original song?  (the actual 'pack up your troubles' line starts at 48 seconds).


As such, perhaps the following scaled approach might work well:


EYFS: participation in assemblies, drawing pictures of poppies / soldiers

KS1: as above, with a little more time devoted to the topic with marching and song singing

KS2: 6 or 12 week unit, focussing more (as the age range progresses) on the political causes, the alliances and the reality of life in the trenches


WW1 kit layout primary school workshop

Contents of our First World War soldier's kit bag, in our 'Soldier's day to day life' activity

As every primary school teacher knows, our role is to deliver content in a way that is tailored to the age of our pupils, which very often involves a fun, interactive and (therefore) memorable teaching activity.


However, this isn't as easy to do when it comes to teaching the First World War in primary schools, not only because the topic is so dark but also for fear it will somehow diminish the need for remembrance and respect for those who died.


There is a simple answer to this - DON'T WORRY AND KEEP IT AS LIGHT AS POSSIBLE!  It is a history topic after all and no different in that respect to the Egyptians, the Tudors, the Victorians, the Saxons, or any other history teaching topic.


The difference is of course, that we must pay respect as and when the need arises, so for example, when you are looking at the Battle of the Somme or trench warfare in general, the reading of 'In Flanders Fields' and a minute's silence is entirely appropriate.  As are shared school assemblies and remembrance poppy services.  In addition, if you have any war memorials nearby, why not pay a visit with your pupils to pay respects or perhaps even research some of the names of the local people from the memorial?


This said, the fighting in the trenches was only one aspect of WW1 and there are plenty of other opportunities for more lighter activities, as in the following examples:



Why not try hot seating a soldier, a mother and a child about what their life might have been like in the war?  Try to bring in aspects such as rationing (introduced in 1918 - more details here) and what it would have been like to have to managed on a limited amount of food, or looking from an entirely different perspective from someone like Princess Mary, who sent soldiers tins of Christmas items such as tobacco, sweets and a photograph of her and her father, the King?


KS1 / KS2 ART:

The 'trench art' of WW1 is an interesting topic to research for KS2 pupils, whereby soldiers often made practical and decorative items from old shell casings, bullets and other trench items.  This could then lead to pupils creating their own trench art from making materials such as papier mache or discarded food cartons.  In addition, KS1 pupils could draw a picture of a WW1 family, with mum and her children in civilian clothes and their father in uniform.



Key parts of our own WW1 workshop are the marching and singing activities, which provide a very nice route into the topic in a fun way that shows respect for the soldiers purely because the two activities were so difficult!


"At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them"

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Learning how to put on a soldier's 'puttees' in our 'Soldier's day to day life' activity

As with every topic that teachers plan for, the week to week planning of a longer, (almost certainly) KS2 WW1 topic needs to be broken up into a series of bite size weekly lessons which enables progression of learning for the pupils.


That said, the teaching of WW1 in a primary school lends itself perfectly to this approach due to its relatively short duration (when compared to e.g. Egyptians topic etc) that also fits in very well with the renewed emphasis on chronology within the primary history curriculum.


For example, this brief planning overview for  a six week scheme uses some key events of WW1 in an easily understandable chronological sequence:


WEEK ONE: 1914 and the outbreak of war - Franz Ferdinand is shot and the alliances are made

6 week KS2 planning example

(NOTE: easily extendable to 12 weeks - just use our timeline here for ideas - it has 13 chronologically arranged articles on it - for a free PDF VERSION OF THIS PLANNING UNIT CLICK HERE)



Read the story of Franz Ferdinand's assasination here / write an account from a bystander who has seen the assassination / find all the countries involved on a map / count up all the Allies' countries and all the Central Powers' countries - who had the most? What were their combined populations?

WEEK TWO: The Christmas truce



Read the story of the Christmas truce here / hot seat a German and a British soldier / look for online accounts of soldiers involved / reenact a game of football, with one side the Germans and one side the British / who won your match?  Discuss how (although the Germans were supposed to have won) why nobody evern mentions the result / design a football programme cover for the match (or even a full programme as a class!)

WEEK THREE: Zeppelin raids over England



Read the story of the Zeppelin raids here / reenact an 'air raid' (as per WW2 topic) with pupils hiding under desks when the siren wails (siren sound here on the BBC) / discuss how, unlike WW2, air raids were a new thing and the country was unprepared - hold a pretend 'war council' meeting with pupils playing the roles of ministers to discuss how the country needs to defend itself against air raids, then draw up a poster to inform the public about the dangers



The sinking of the Lusitania had a massive effect on people signing up to fight - read the full article here / discuss how you would have felt if you were a relative of someone who had died / draw a propaganda poster to recruit people to fight using the image of the Lusitania (there are many examples online, which a quick google search will pull up) / write a letter from the point of view of an American who wants to come to England to join the fight

WEEK FOUR: Remember the Lusitania!



Rationing began in 1918 - read the full article here / discuss how it must have felt to be so hungry / look at a map of the UK and try to work out where the German submarines would have operated to stop ships coming from A) USA B) Africa C) Australia (and any others you can think of) / it is estimated that between 60 and 70% of our foodstuffs and other products came from abroad in 1914 - how does this compare to today?  Can pupils research where our food comes from nowadays?  Make ration books in class and run a drama activity to show a queue of people in a butcher's shop or even create a semi-permanent grocer's shop role play area / look up WW2 rationing, when the Government was better prepared - how did this compare with WW1 rationing?

WEEK FIVE: Rationing



The First World War ended on the 11th November 1914 - read the full article here / hold a WW1 'end of the war' party in class / discuss what it would have felt like for all the people involved - hot seat with these characters / many soldiers were not 'demobbed' (i.e. discharged) until late 1919 - how would this have felt?  Hold a government meeting again and discuss how the country needs to prepare for the returning soldiers - they need good homes, jobs and a peaceful life / make poppies with a message for a soldier and visit a war memorial if possible

WEEK SIX: The end of the First World War