Hundreds of New Jersey youngsters have been learning what it takes to choose one old building in their own communities and then research and document its past.
The innovative Adopt a Building program launched by the New Jersey Historical Society in 1981 has involved teachers, students, and sometimes even parents in the challenges of historic identification and preservation.
''As far as we know we were the first state in the country to work out a comprehensive program of this nature,'' says Elaine Fay, director of education of the society. ''We began with a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and an implementation grant from our own state office of historic preservation.''
With these funds the society was able to hire preservation consultant Donna Harris for one year to help work out a set of comprehensive guidelines on how to go about doing such an Adopt a Building project. Initially, she also worked with children, giving them step-by-step directions on how to choose a building. She helped them launch their study of its history and what its role had been in the life of the community.
Miss Harris showed students how they could conduct research at their county court house, county hall of records, the state library in Trenton, city halls, and at their local and state historical societies. She also taught them how to conduct an interview with people who could give primary or firsthand information and showed them how to take notes and use a tape recorder.
This unique educational program was developed for the Jerseymen History Club Association, which is made up of junior members (9 to 18 years old) of the New Jersey Historical Society. About 65 clubs, with 1,200 members in elementary and secondary schools, participated the first year.
Jerseymen programs for junior historians are not part of the curriculum but operate as supplements to classes in US or New Jersey history. Students pay $2 annual dues which entitles them to participate in all out-of-classroom projects, a magazine subscription, and invitations to the society convention and various outings.
''Adopted'' buildings have ranged from old factories, firehouses, and schoolhouses to pre-Revolutionary War houses, and even a Union City monastery that had been scheduled for demolition. As a result of publicity resulting from research done by the youthful historians, a court action has now halted destruction of the building.
A team of five high school seniors adopted an abandoned brownstone mill built in Little Falls, N.J., in the late 1850s and convinced its owner, Beattie Manufacturing Company, that the building could possibly qualify for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
The one-room schoolhouse that Noreen Risko and her Jerseymen adopted two years ago has been an ongoing project that has grown to include parents and the community. Mrs. Risko, a history teacher at Mount Olive High School, says her group has included students from 7th through l2th grades, and that it has varied in size, at different times, from 15 to 45.
After locating their rather forlorn little schoolhouse, they got permission from the Baptist church that owned it to clean the grounds and begin their research. To trace its history, they found and interviewed people who had gone to school there, recording their recollections and taking their pictures.
They discovered a gold mine of information and maps at the Morris County Library and soon learned that the original deed of one acre of land for a schoolhouse was given by James Heaton in 1768. A log cabin schoolhouse had stood on the site until 1820, when the present structure was built. The latter was called the ''Mt. Olive Academy'' when it was reinforced in 1837 after a wall collapsed. It was discontinued as a schoolhouse in 1926.
Last summer the students, with the help of parents, raised the $2,000 needed to put on a new roof with contributed labor. This summer they have held two car washes to help raise funds to rewire their adopted building. Their next hope is that the owner of the schoolhouse will deed it to the township to be used for a local history museum. In that event, some students are already looking for artifacts they can donate.
Elaine Fay says the New Jersey Historical Society has shared its Adopt a Building guideline materials with other state historical societies across the US. Others who may be interested in developing such a project for junior historians in their own areas can direct a request for guideline information to the Education Department, New Jersey Historical Society, 230 Broadway, Newark, N.J. 07104.