How to Help Kids Understand the Great Chicago Fire

Chicago History Museum’s new exhibit offers hands-on learning and projects to do at home.

For some kids, this will be the first time they have even heard of the calamity that was the Great Chicago Fire. Other children may have ancestors whose survival has become the stuff of family legend. But all visitors to the Chicago History Museum’s new exhibit on the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 will come away with a deep sense of the tragedy – and creative ideas for related projects to help sear that knowledge into true understanding.

Children will especially relate to Justin, a boy who escaped the flames with his family (and pet goat) as he describes in a letter that begins, “Dear Chum.”

“Half past one Monday morning we were awakened by a loud knocking at the front door. We were awake in an instant and dressing ourselves. We looked about and saw a perfect shower of sparks flying over our house,” Justin reported. “Mother caught on fire once but we put it out.”

Justin, believed to be about 10 at the time, was one of the 100,000 people left homeless by the fire that burned relentlessly for three October days 150 years ago. It left a swath of destruction four miles long and a half-mile wide.

Kid-friendly ideas

The museum is offering up a variety of kid-friendly projects and crafts to supplement the exhibit both on-site or at home.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” says School Programs Manager Heidi Moisan, who notes that many meetings and collaborative sessions were held via Zoom during COVID restrictions to get everything just right. “We have several educators as part of our exhibit team, and it was really fun to brainstorm with colleagues.”

The museum expects many schools to visit on field trips (local history is usually taught in the third grade) but hopes to see lots of families come through as well. One way it is sparking excitement is with family activity bags being distributed throughout Chicago’s public library system. The bags include four activities, all available in English and Spanish, related to the exhibit:

  • Kids can test their detecting skills by trying to identify items that were melted beyond recognition by the flames. “Some of them are pretty mysterious and kids can really use their observation skills to guess what they were,” says Moisan. “Then they can use clay or Play-Doh to create their own melted artifact.”
  • Children can wear their own Chicago Firefighter helmet after coloring and cutting out a template.
  • A copy of Justin’s letter and a picture he drew of his escape serves as the impetus to get children to document their own family history. “They can write or draw about a challenging time or a family celebration,” says Moisan.
  • A reprinted map of the mammoth burn zone lets kids understand exactly where the fire occurred and how it relates to the city today. Children can also map out places that are important to them on a contemporary map of Chicago.

“Children will definitely learn about the challenges of a disaster and the opportunities for rebuilding through these activities,” Moisan says. “They will learn that they can interpret, analyze and actively do history – this is not just me leading them on a tour or giving them a lecture. They also learn that kids like Justin are very important in history, and that their own family history is important to the city.”

Kids envision a future Chicago

Another project addresses the city’s rebuilding – and the many lost opportunities for economic equity and racial justice that challenge Chicago to this day. “There was a real chance after the fire to rebuild the city. Physically that did happen but we could have also reinvented the city socially and created a more healthy and equitable city?” Moisan says.

“We ask kids, ‘what do you want your future Chicago to be?’ They can write a story, song or poem or draw a picture to express their ideas.”

Children will also learn about firefighters and the other helpers who arrive when something bad happens. “There are lots of examples in the art of the time showing how people helped each other. Obviously fire is a scary thing, but kids will know from the start that the real people like Justin they encounter in the exhibits were all safe,” Moisan says, adding that the museum worked with professionals from the Center for Childhood Resilience to ensure exhibits were kid-friendly. “Another way to reassure kids is to have them really think of all the advances in fire safety, and to have them make a family fire safety plan.”

Learn more about City on Fire: Chicago 1871 and find free PDF downloads of these projects at chicago1871.org.

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