Cowtown. Gullytown. Paris of the Plains. Jazz Capital of the World. BBQ Capital of the World. Kansas City has quite the variety of nicknames, each reflecting our city’s multifaceted and colorful history!
I didn’t grow up in Kansas City, but as I’m raising a family here I find myself wanting to know more about what makes our city tick, and to help my kids understand some of the forces that have shaped the place we call home. After all, we are each products of – and participants in – the historical narrative of Kansas City, and this narrative influences our daily lives perhaps more than we realize.
But where to begin? There are so many layers of history to discover in a metro area like ours, and getting started can feel overwhelming. Here are a few ideas for engaging yourself and your kids in city history:
1. Visit the library.
I am always impressed by the wealth of information available at my local library! The Kansas City Public Library offers fantastic resources for helping kids engage with Kansas City history, including:
- Kansas City history slideshow and tour of Central library: Central library offers a presentation about Kansas City history for students, aimed at a fifth grade level. See photos of early skyscrapers, learn why Kansas City was once called “Gullytown,” and find out how rivers and trains influenced our city’s early development. Then, take a tour of Central Library, including the former bank vault in the basement. To schedule a tour, call the library tour booking line at (816) 701-3447. Booking in groups is preferred.
- The Kansas City Story for Kids by Monroe Dodd and Daniel Serta: This book provides an overview of KC history from its earliest days through the end of the 20th century, covering everything from building projects to political events to our sports teams! I learned so much from this book, and my toddler loved the pictures. I also appreciate that the book celebrates Kansas City while also refusing to overlook the difficult parts of our city’s history, such as poverty and racism.
- Missouri Valley Special Collection: The Missouri Valley Special Collection consists of local history and genealogical resources. The collection is housed in Central Library, or you can access resources online. The collection provides great learning tools for parents and older children, including maps or biographies of famous Kansas Citians.
2. Visit Kansas City’s museums.
Many of our city’s museums and historic sites are great for kids. Consider starting with the list below:
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: The museum invites visitors of all ages to grow in their understanding of our city and nation’s racial history; specifically, as it was manifested in sports. Although the exhibits require quite a bit of reading, various movies and baseball memorabilia along the way will keep your children entertained. I recently visited with my two-year old, and he cannot stop talking about the “baseball field” in the middle of the museum!
- American Jazz Museum: Located adjacent to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (I’d recommend getting the combo ticket and visiting both museums at once – you can easily see them in one morning), here you can learn about how jazz flourished and developed in our city. Interactive exhibits allow you to play jazz music on your own, and on the first Friday of every month, the museum hosts free jazz storytelling for kids.
- Shawnee Indian Mission: The mission is a former training school attended by boys and girls from Shawnee, Delaware, and other Indian nations. Kids can learn the stories of other children their age who lived there and explore how Native American cultures have influenced our area.
Other museums with offerings for families include the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall, the John Wornall and Alexander Majors Houses, The World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Find a full list of area museums and historic sites here.
3. Take a tour of Kansas City.
Whether you hop in the car or go out on foot, plan a day of city landmark sight-seeing! From more well-known Kansas City icons such as Union Station to somewhat lesser known sites such as the mural at 31st and Troost or the Union Hill cemetery, tours of Kansas City are a great way to give your kids a taste of our city’s past and present. Plan your own tour, or take a walking or bus tour offered by Historic Kansas City.
4. Think small – engage in neighborhood history!
I often forget how much you can learn by starting where you live! I’ve learned fascinating stories about our neighborhood’s history while just hanging out at informal BBQs, by keeping up with our neighborhood’s online networking site, or by attending local events happening in my own area, such as Troostfest. Children can do their own local history project by interviewing someone who has lived in the neighborhood for a long time, or by researching the history of a local building. You can also use Missouri Valley Special Collection resources to research the history of your own house!
No matter where you begin, there is plenty of rich Kansas City history for you and your kids to explore. Try out one of these resources as a family activity this summer, and then comment here with other family-friendly ways to learn about the city’s history!