Teach Kids the Meaning of Veterans Day and Remembrance through Travel and at Home

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On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, hostilities ceased on the Western Front as Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies ending the Great War. It was believed that this was “the war to end all wars” and the date was commemorated as Armistice Day. Following World War II, the day was renamed Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in the U.S. On November 11 Americans and Canadians pause to remember those who have served in the armed forces. Here are some ways to teach kids the meaning of Veterans Day and Remembrance Day via travel and at home.

Teaching Kids the Meaning of Veterans Day and Remembrance Day through Travel

Remembering is easy for my parents’ generation because many of them lived through WWII. My mother was just a small child when her older brother joined the Canadian forces in 1939 and went to Europe for the war’s duration. I grew up hearing her stories about the big brother who went off to war and came home years later to find that she was all grown up, heartbroken that he had missed her childhood. My mother kept a bundle of letters that he wrote to her during the war years tucked away in a desk drawer. She would take them out from time to time to read with me. I remember because of those letters.

It is more difficult to teach my own children about war history, war-time sacrifices, and paying respect to those who served because those conflicts seem so far removed from their daily experience. They memorize the facts from history text books without really understanding what took place and promptly forget everything they have learned once the testing is complete.

Most kids, and adults as well, retain more information when they can actually visit a memorial, museum or war site. My family attempts to incorporate these activities such as these into our travels to further our understanding of the major conflicts of the last century and ensure my children understand the significance of November 11.

USS Arizona Memorial Pearl Harbor Hawaii

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor (Photo credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

National War Memorials and Museums

A visit to one of the many war memorials or museums in the U.S. or in Canada is an invaluable way to help kids gain a better appreciation of historical war events. On a trip to Washington, D.C., families can visit the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the DC War Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, visitors learn about the holocaust, remember the victims, and reflect on the importance of preserving democratic values and cultivating a sense of moral responsibility. Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery may pay tribute to veterans and historic figures buried there as well as at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In Norfolk, Virginia, families can tour the world’s largest naval base to see aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines. Other significant attractions relating to the nation’s military history include the Armed Forces Memorial and the MacArthur Memorial. At Pearl Harbor in Oahu and the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, visitors remember the attack by Japan in the early hours of December 7, 1941 and honor the victims who were killed as a result.

In the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, the National War Memorial symbolizes “the sacrifice of all Canadians who have served Canada in time of war in the cause of peace and freedom” (Veterans Affairs Canada). Visitors can also pay respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Reconciliation is a monument that commemorates Canada’s role in international peacekeeping. The Canadian War Museum, also located in Ottawa, is the national museum dedicated to the education, preservation, and remembrance of Canada’s military history.

National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada

National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada (Photo credit: Lisa Goodmurphy)

We have visited many memorials and museums and I know that seeing these in-person often has a profound effect. I considered myself fairly well-versed in the history of the Vietnam War prior to my first trip to Washington. I had grown up watching television shows that took place during the war and I majored in Political Science at college, studying the conflict in detail. But nothing prepared me for the experience of seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

As I stared at that nearly 250 foot long wall and the 58,000 names inscribed upon it, I was struck by the extensive loss of life caused by that conflict and I was overcome with emotion. I am a Canadian with no connection to this conflict whatsoever and I sat on the ground in front of the memorial sobbing uncontrollably over the senselessness of war and the losses that so many families suffered as a result. It’s visual imagery like this which kids will remember for a lot longer than reading the statistics from a text-book.

Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: SDRandCo via Morguefile.com)

War Sites

Traveling abroad may provide an opportunity for families to get a first-hand look at some of the sites that we read about in history books. Most of Europe was gravely affected by the two World Wars and there are battle sites, museums and memorials to be visited in many countries including England, France, Germany, and Belgium.

On a family visit to Paris, we went on a D-Day tour of Normandy to learn more about the invasion of June 6, 1944. Our tour was focused on the Canadian D-Day sites but similar tours of the American sites are also available. We visited Juno Beach where Canadian troops came ashore as part of Operation Overlord. At the Juno Beach Centre museum and cultural center we learned about the war efforts made by Canadians, both at home and abroad during World War II. We toured the Canadian War Cemetery here, where more than 2,000 soldiers are buried.

Juno Beach Centre Normandy France

Juno Beach Centre in Normandy, France (Photo credit: L. Goodmurphy)

Our day in Normandy was an emotional one. We spent our day reflecting on the events that took place more than 65 years earlier, paying respects to those who sacrificed their lives, and shedding tears at the enormity of the loss.

Standing in the fog on Juno Beach, we could imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers coming ashore knowing that they probably would not survive the day. Later walking among the grave-markers at the Canadian War Cemetery, we felt the full impact of how many did not. At the cemetery, I could no longer hold back the tears that had been threatening all day as I read the names engraved on the headstones and realized how many of the young fallen men were not much older than my own teenager. I’m not sure that my daughter remembers anything that she learned in her tenth grade history class that year, but I know she remembers what she learned and how she felt during our day trip to Normandy.

Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy, France

Reflecting on sacrifice at Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy (Photo credit: Lisa Goodmurphy)

Local Memorials

Many families don’t have an opportunity to visit the battlefields of Europe, or even to plan a trip to Washington or Ottawa to visit memorials and museums. But even at home there are things we can do to ensure our kids have a better understanding of what November 11 is all about.

We can start by visiting a local war memorial; most communities have one for local residents lost in battle. Families can also take the time to attend a Veterans Day/Remembrance Day service. Children who witness veterans standing at attention with tears rolling down their cheeks as wreaths are laid and the Last Post played will remember.

Old City Hall Cenotaph Toronto

Old City Hall Cenotaph in Toronto (Photo credit: Danielle Scott, Flickr)

My uncle George is 93, one of a dwindling number of WWII veterans still able to attend November 11 services. We owe it to our veterans to ensure that our children understand, appreciate and remember the sacrifices made to protect our freedom. We owe it to our children to teach them about the impact of war so there will be fewer wars, more peace and no need to build more war memorials.

Have you visited war memorials or museums with your children? How did it impact your family? Let us know in the comments below.

About Lisa Goodmurphy, The Spunky Travel Mama

Lisa Goodmurphy is a lawyer turned family travel writer and a mom of two daughters. She grew up in small town Northern Ontario and now resides near Toronto, Canada. Badly bitten by the travel bug years ago, she considers herself fortunate that her family is equally enthusiastic about her mission to explore the world—one trip at a time. Lisa shares her travel adventures on the blog that she founded in 2011 and now contributes to many online media publications as well. You can read about her family’s travels on her blog, Gone with the Family, on Google+ or on Twitter as @GoneWithFamily.

  1. This is great. Such an impactful way of teaching the children.

  2. very nice post
    the great way of your blog information to suggest and tell the meaning of veterans-day.
    thanks for sharing

  3. This is the most emotional post I have ever read. My uncle sent a record he made in England while serving in WW II and I would request hearing it time and time again to hear him say he was alright. He came home uninjured.

    • Lisa Goodmurphy, the Spunky Travel Mama says

      Thank you, Ellen! I think it’s so hard for most of us to even imagine what it must have been like for these young men to go off to war for years with their loved ones relying on sporadic correspondence as assurance that they were doing okay. I get teary just thinking about what it must have been like for my grandmother and all mothers to send their sons off to battle not knowing if they would ever see them again.

  4. I am dying to do the D-Day tour in Normandy – the American version I guess. The WWII memorial in DC is really nice. My kids loved it, though I’m not sure they loved it for the meaning. It was just beautiful and fun to climb.

    • Lisa Goodmurphy, the Spunky Travel Mama says

      A D-Day tour of Normandy is an excellent way for older kids, teens and adults to further their understanding of WWII history – worthwhile for anyone visiting the area, I think.

  5. Lesley Peterson says

    Great post, Lisa. I recently heard some young people talking on a Toronto bus. One said “Why should I wear a poppy for some white man’s war?” If I’d had a chance (the kids were exiting back door), I would have pointed out that WWII was a war against ethnic cleansing, racism and the persecution of anyone different. While it’s true that Canada needs some new national holidays that commemorate our cultural and scientific achievements and not just military events, a lot of kids don’t get that Remembrance Day is not about ‘celebrating’ war, it’s about ‘never again’.

    • Lisa Goodmurphy, the Spunky Travel Mama says

      Thank you, Lesley! You make an excellent point about the meaning of Remembrance Day. There seem to be far too many people lately that do think it is about celebrating war. I’ve even heard of schools cancelling Remembrance Day activities because they think it’s too sad for the children. I think we, as a society, need to do a better job of teaching kids the “never again” message.

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