A visit to the “Old West” with my favorite six and seven-year old

Summer is the perfect time to indulge in little adventures and among my favorite are times shared with granddaughters Sophia and Karina. Even though I now work with young adults, I will always think like an early elementary teacher, and summer creates the perfect space to augment or strengthen the girls’ contextual learning in advance of their late August leap into the first and third grades.


Great excuse to visit the Autry National Center of the American West, also called “The Autry Museum,” but I wondered if it would offer anything of interest to them.

When I was their age my school years and formal education were filled with the language of Manifest Destiny and Conquest, rather skewed history fueled more by images from popular culture and television westerns than actual timelines and events.


Our trusted friend Wikipedia reminds, “A western television show is a television series which takes place in the Old West and involves cowboys, cattle ranchers, miners, farmers, Native Americans, Spaniards, swords, guns and horses. It was the most popular genre of TV show in the 1950s and 1960s, when several hundred were aired.” I watched more than a few. I doubt Sophia and Karina have seen even one.


The Autry opened in 1988, the vision and direction coming from Gene Autry, ‘America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy,’ and Monte Hale, American B-Western film star and country musician. With the focus on western heritage, the museum’s holdings fulfill Autry’s mission of showing how the West “influenced America and the world.”

We enjoyed a lively conversation as the girls wondered what it would be like to leave the comfort and familiarity of home to travel by covered wagon across the country to an unknown territory. We looked at saddle bags from the Pony Express era and asked the question,  “Do you think when the first Pony Express riders left Missouri for California they could imagine that 155 years later people would be sending messages and letters without paper?”

The girls indulged my questions and attempts to stimulate thinking, but in the end, they are two little city girls. A life-sized replica of a horse still puts a smile on their face. I’m so glad they aren’t too sophisticated for that!

I treaded lightly, but couldn’t completely side-step the questions about “robbers” and the general lawlessness of the new frontier!

They can read, so it didn’t take them long to figure out that the “wild, wild west” had its violence and I learned they didn’t know the word “outlaw,” but did relate to the word “criminal. ”

We shared a lively discussion about Billy the Kid and Black Bart, but without sharing the more sensational  details there wasn’t much interest, I don’t think, and I was also relieved they were more fascinated with standing behind bars than looking right behind them. They didn’t seem to notice the enlarged archival photo of the entire Dalton Gang dead and laid out in a row following a failed bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas, 1892.

The Autry has a very extensive firearms collection highlighting the history of pistols, shotguns and rifles, and although undoubtedly there is a lot we could learn about weaponry, my learning curve is too steep to even think about trying…


…and the girls have no firsthand exposure to firearms of any kind. I looked for anything we might talk about.

One of my laugh-outloud moments came while showing them the intricate tooling on leather holsters. They could see where the pistol would fit in the holster, but what were those loops along the belt?

There weren’t any bullets in the display cases but I coaxed them towards thinking “ammunition.”  After some thinking, Karina suggested the holster loops were for “lasers,” and Sophia guessed “bombs.” There are so many things to learn in life.

Since visiting the Autry, Sophia has developed quite an appetite for reading from a great series of books that teach children about what it would have been like to live in different historical periods. If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon” is just one title in a great series of books, providing excellent learning context.

And speaking of context, I was interested in this particular display.

We quickly passed by costumes worn by John Wayne, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, and then I stopped, interested in items of modern western wear once worn by Michael Jackson.

As I paused, behind me came the question, “Who’s Michael Jackson?”




33 thoughts on “A visit to the “Old West” with my favorite six and seven-year old

  1. Beth Gramling

    Love your outings with the girls!! And now I must get to the Autry!! Sophia looks much more older leaning to a ‘horse woman ship’ image -hmmm Has she taken riding lessons? But then in the jailhouse they both look very little & childlike! So good to see you have the blog up and running still!! You inspire me! Hugs- Beth

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Thank you, Beth. Neither of the girls is really around horses at all, quite frankly. They are at the age when one minute they are quite mature and “little adults” and the next minute totally little girls. Oh yes…I am still blogging away! In my abundant spare time. LOL! So glad to see you here as well. 🙂

  2. I do love that last question. Oh dear – how quickly we become legends who have to be explained. I think that’s a really fascinating and educational and worthwhile tour and for your granddaughters it must have been such an incredible experience. I’m so glad you were able to try passionfruit in Hawaii but I’m amazed they’re not grown in your country – they are a top favourite fruit of mine and I couldn’t live without them! xx

    1. The girls are always happy to accompany me to a museum and the only thing that distinguishes one from another is how long their interest will hold out! They did surprise me with the Autry, but it was full of plenty to see. Very simply, however, there was almost nothing at all they really knew anything about, which once there, didn’t surprise me. They are just too young but we had fun and it’s a start! Now Passion Fruit. I am sure there are some in the better stores and labeled “exotic fruit” so that it demands a high price, but I think we probably do get ours from Hawaii. Papaya and Pineapple come from Hawaii and at least in California we are close enough the shipping costs aren’t as exorbitant as they are in other parts of the country. I do envy you an actual Passion Fruit season! It really is delicious! 🙂

  3. Most of my education has come from reading and, of course, my own curiosity. Reading for pleasure and understanding seems like it is on the wane. I just hope we never get to the question: “What’s a book?”

    1. You may very well be right to say that reading for pleasure and understanding is on the wane, but I just can’t accept it–true though it may be! And I would never have believed how easily I have adopted a love of my Kindle. I thought that would never be me! I could imagine a time when books are in libraries and that’s that! I hope that happens after I’m gone. LOL!

  4. Haha that last part was hilarious! I do miss hearing these details in person, but glad to hear how much fun you’re all having! Sophia and Karina are truly blessed to have such a wonderful teacher as a grandma…look at those high cognitive skills-based questions you’re asking them! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Stacey. I do miss telling you my stories, too. 🙂 You know how it is once you’ve been an educator…hard to turn it off sometimes. At least I try to be sensitive. My daughter and son laugh remembering the time one of their grandmothers took them around the Mission in San Juan Capistrano and before long they had a huge crowd following. My mother-in-law was doing so much “teaching” to the children that the crowd thought she was an official docent. The children were aghast! LOL! Miss you! ox

    1. So true, Kate. Same for Miley Cyrus and a few others, I think! 🙂 If I had given it any thought beforehand I would certainly have known that Michael Jackson wasn’t a name they’d recognize, but it kind of shocked me. I’m frequently amazed at the cultural icons unfamiliar with the college students. When one of them told me they didn’t know Simon and Garfunkel I felt like a dinosaur! 🙂

      1. A long time ago, maybe 1970ish, I worked with a younger woman only about 5 years younger than me. It was Paul Anka she didn’t know. He was huge when I was a pre-teen and high school age. I was blown away and I was young! Even my mother knew who he was!

  5. Go you! Your outing (complete with outlaws) sparked interest in reading about covered wagons, etc. That’s the best way to make history come alive.

    Loved the last question!!!

    1. Thank you, Nancy. I have been very surprised at Sophia’s interest in these recent books, but I’ve been so glad! It must be so hard for children to learn if they aren’t given some added measure of experiential learning. I think it’s important to do what we can to augment the girls’ education and fortunately for me, they’ll let me tag along. 🙂

  6. I have a cowgirl suit: bandana patterned blouse, vest, skirt, and boots. My grandmother brought it back from Arizona more than 60 years ago. I wore it, our daughter Jennifer wore it for Halloween once, and it is still in pretty good condition. I took it out for Kezzie and she wasn’t interested in the least bit. 🙂
    I love your interactions with the girls, Debra, and their darling questions. Sophia and Karina look so cute on the horses. “whoa, girl”.
    I would enjoy this museum. We watched westerns, including Gene Autry, all the time. How times have changed and how fortunate that we see such things in museums. Wait. I’m talking about things in my life now in museums. Ha!

  7. That’s hilarious, Penny! Yes! There were books and games from my childhood in the museum, too. That’s a reality check, isn’t it? How wonderful to have a “real” cowgirl outfit! I can sure remember when these were so popular. And Kezzie probably can’t relate to it in any way! I know S & K wouldn’t either. When I told their mommy about the “bomb” and “laser” response about gun ammunition I had to really ask her if she thought they were teasing me! I was just so surprised by that, but Aimee was sure they were sincere. We just had to think about the fact that they have hardly seen images of guns, let alone guns with bullets. And when we were young we watched those westerns with guns “blazing” and the big controversy was the sanitized death scenes–dying in a hail of bullets but no blood! LOL! And yes…our childhood playthings are now in museums. Ha!

  8. How fortunate your granddaughters are to have a grandmother who’s not only smart, but also a big kid herself! The Michael Jackson glove was a complete surprise for an Old West museum — but your granddaughter’s question was a reminder of how important it is for us elders to share the past. I gone through this every so often — when I’ve spoken to young people about AIDS in those early years or 9/11, ancient history now for so many young people. And then there was the moment when I watched a girl try to use a rotary phone by pushing the numbers. 🙂

  9. Thank you, Kevin, for the very kind comment. I am definitely more of a big kid when I spend time with Sophia and Karina than any other time in my life. I think they’re keeping me young…or youngish. Ha! I think that the younger generations, and that includes kids in college today, can select their media so a la carte that they aren’t necessarily tuned in to the cultural references of their parents or grandparents, or anything really that doesn’t sound interesting to them. I think perhaps we benefited from having more limited choices and being “forced” to tune in to more adult fare. How did we make it without Youtube?

  10. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I take little ones to see ‘history’ or outside stuff (without playground type equipment) and they respond joyfully at the discovery. I think it has a lot to do with how we share these things. It’s not a “have” to thing. It’s a “get” to thing. And kids love to “get” to do things. 🙂

    1. I try to make the whole day fun, Colleen–including lunch out, if possible. They are such good sports! Summer is just moving much too quickly and I had so many other ideas in early June! 🙂

      1. I hear you. I am so happy when the kids respond to something other than routine play. I like the fun stuff that also encourages imagination and learning. Play is necessary and great. But I want more! 🙂

  11. I always have to remind myself how little the kids know of things that were so commonplace for me. It does make for great learning experiences. I had to laugh…on one of our family trips out west as a kid, my pick of places to visit were the pony express station in NB and Billy the Kid’s grave in NM. I was a tad obsessed in the Wild West! I would have no doubt loved this museum and likely still would!

  12. Anonymous

    I Love hearing about your adventures with your Grandkids I think once a Teacher always a teacher in your heart! And yes summer is moving too fast! Love Deb

  13. You’re the best grandma ever! Your granddaughters must have had such a great time. I did cringe when I realized we’ve actually reached a point where there’s a generation who doesn’t know the iconic Michael Jackson…boy, did that make me feel old! 😉

  14. Oh no! Perhaps with his later history it’s as well for them not to know too much. He was a strange guy in a strange world, Deb. I hope he’s remembered for the right reasons (though apparently not! 🙂 🙂 )
    Yes- it must be fun to go to a museum with you. Hi ho Silver and away!

  15. How wonderful to share fun yet educational moments with your granddaughters–they are some pretty lucky girls to have such an amazing grandmother like you Debra. Enjoy the rest of your summer with your little adventurous partners.

    1. Thank you so much, Cristina. I feel very fortunate to have my grandchildren living so close to me. I have many friends that miss their grandchildren’s milestones, and I know I’m very blessed to have the opportunities. We do have a great time together. And I like to think they keep me young. 🙂

  16. I fave’d this a while ago but couldn’t think of the right comment at the time. This museum makes me think of Saturday Morning Matinees where as kids we got to watch Cowboys slaying Indians as if they were going out of fashion… Of course, as I grew older I got to understand that it was a glamourisation of the reality – Cowboys good Indians bad 😦

    Putting that aside, I think the two best John Wayne films are Rio Bravo and Chisum – you’ll meet William Bonney again in that one along with Pat Garrett. As for Rio Bravo…Dean Martin playing a drunk… 😉

    1. I was certainly raised on a heavy diet of old westerns, too, Martin, and in the United States a huge proportion of early television was devoted to westerns that still remain popular in reruns. The stereotypes that these early shows promoted are almost uncomfortable to watch now, but then, most of the history I was raised with in my early years was far from reality.

      I think I’d enjoy seeing some John Wayne films again. It’s been decades since I’ve seen any one of them. You’ve inspired that thought. Thank you!

  17. My, my, Debra… You can surely scoot around! You must be a patient driver coping with the 5 – especially near that stretch.

    Your point about them not knowing about the hoops for bullets clicked. About five/six years ago, I attended an Angels game. They played three songs over the PA with the answers as to who was associated with that melody flashed on the screen later. When they played the melody to “Back in the Saddle Again”, a large majority had no clue it was Gene Autry, the former owner.

    Have you read the forensic study of who potentially could be Billy the Kid’s son?

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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