This is about teaching history to elementary aged children and how knowing more precise developmental cycles can help shape an approach.
When my son was 4 years old, I tried so hard to get him interested in human history. He was absolutely fascinated by space and dinosaurs. I found a documentary that explained the history of the entire universe starting from The Big Bang. My son, at 4-1/2 sat rapt watching it–all the way through the part about dinosaurs. However, literally, the second the history about humans was on, he became uninterested. I tried and tried and tried with no success.
This changed dramatically at 5 years, 5 months. I have been doing work on the new mental development that children go through (see a summary of my work and book series Misbehavior is Growth!). At 5 years, 5 months, my son became interested in history as related to humans–and how! It was so noticeable, as well as some other behaviors, that I called this new milestone, “Hero Worship and Inner Motivation.” I see his interest in heroic stories about men as “hero worship” and which coincides with his interest in history.
Read the work of the great thinkers on teaching elementary aged children, and they’ll tell you that elementary aged children want stories about real people. Montessori writes about this and so does Charlotte Mason. This is the first component to a great history curriculum at this age: Real stories. The second component is to understand that the story about how anything was discovered is just as important: Tell them how archaeologists discovered dinosaurs or how others discovered caves–it’s an exciting adventure. The third component to great history lessons is to provide a sense of time and scale.
I have been reading so much lately about how children need visceral experiences to round out their education. It’s not enough to explain the life cycle of frogs if a child hasn’t been able to be near a pond and see frogs and tadpoles. Dr. Nebel in Building a Foundation for Scientific Understanding describes that learning and experiences have a synergistic effect on each other. He gives the example of baseball. If you only played the game without learning the rules, you would be at a serious disadvantage. If you only learned the rules and never played, you wouldn’t have an intimate understanding of the rules. When I go on a real adventure with my child, I prepare them to go. Before we see a cave, we read a story about how a cave was discovered and learn “stalactite” and “stalagmite” before going. Then: We go and see real ones! I do not give any lessons during the field trip. I don’t want to interrupt the personal observations my children are making.
In a Montessori elementary classroom, children hear about the Five Great Lessons: about the Universe, Life, Human Beings, Language, and Math. A scroll with major events on a timeline is unrolled for the children. These lessons are repeated throughout the elementary years, once every year at least, as the children get something new out of them every time they hear it. If you are not Montessori trained, not history literate, or don’t have time to make scrolls, this approach might be cumbersome to put in place for you as a parent.
Towards this end, with modern productions and advancements, an even greater way to tell history is available to children now, and that is to read history books written in chronological order designed for children with the above three principles in mind. Happily, these books exist now! I am only intimately familiar with one series, which is The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer. This is the history material I will be referencing to explain some of the lessons I did and why I think this book is extraordinary, if flawed at times.
The Story of the World series is broken up into four volumes. The first covers ancient times; the second covers Medieval times; the third covers “early modern times”; and the fourth covers modern times.
My son, at around 5 years, 4/5 months, absolutely loved this series. He begged to read it at night. The first book starts off about a nomadic boy who has to catch a lizard so his mom can make lizard stew. This kind of highly relatable story is told for every major historic event. You learn about an ancient Chinese boy who has to pick weeds out of a freezing cold bog and how Julius Caesar was captured by pirates. Pirates! It is not a dumbed down history either; the major events of history are covered and Wise Bauer does not shy away from controversial issues (like beheadings).
There is sometimes debate over if children should be presented an overview of all history at such young ages or if they should be told stories about individual people to help them fall in love with and relate to these people. A material like Story of the World resolves this: An overview is presented with short, highly entertaining stories about historic events in a way that moves. A most powerful way to further resolve this issue is to use a timeline, which I’ll discuss shortly.
There is further genius in these books. What I like is how the stories are woven together. For instance, when learning about Greece, the cultures in Sparta and Athens are compared and contrasted. The Spartans were a warrior culture that didn’t value education. The Athenians highly valued education. This kind of comparison is not just nice but vital for learning. I do this in every part of how I teach, such as science. I loosely think of it as “The Three Little Bears Principle.” You can’t just teach “hot,” you need to teach “hot, warm, and cold” to teach a concept. In how Wise Bauer does this, the stories tell a bigger story. It does not feel choppy or isolated the way that many other “Story of … ” books do, much to my disappointment.
The third genius is that Wise Bauer also tells the story about how the discoveries were made. We hear about how the explorers found King Tut’s tomb, and how excited and nervous they were given the supposed curses surrounding the tomb. We learn about how a pilot was flying over South American and found the impressive ancient Nazca drawings.
I do feel obligated to give a warning about the bias of the books. Wise Bauer is very much opposed to imbalances of power and is on the side of the “little guy” at most times. For instance, in the story about Theseus going to fight the Minotaur (a mythical beast which ate 7 boys and 7 girls from Athens routinely), we hear the people chide Theseus (paraphrase), “Of course you don’t know what the Minotaur is. You’re a prince. Your name never gets put in the running to be drawn.” Most other renditions of this story do not say this. For the most part, I found this “social justice” part of her books to be tolerable. I even found I learned more about different cultures, and I found I had a lot more empathy and respect for certain people or cultures that are often considered less advanced, but if you look closer, are rich in stories, struggles, and successes.
But the worst offense from Wise Bauer, which I can’t totally forgive, is her treatment of industrialists, in particular Andrew Carnegie. In this section of Volume IV, she asks the child to imagine they make candy for $0.25 by hand but someone with a machine automates it and makes it for $0.10. She asks the child how they would feel losing business to this man. She actively puts the child in the losing position. She describes industrialists as only spending their money on yachts and such, not giving out wage increases. She describes Andrew Carnegie as an “outlaw.” This is a rather socialist perspective. I have no problem with explaining the plight of various people but I could do without the wholesale damning of an entire group of people based on their profession (industrialists). I gave my son my own commentary on it to counter it, and I will discuss this exact problem in this article. He actually liked the idea that a man could make candy for $0.10 for him instead of $0.25 and he wondered what it would be like to be “the richest man in the world.” Unfortunately, the language is so thick in emotional provocation that he also described destroying the machines that automated making candy. I feel obliged to tell my readers this, given that this will be controversial for many.
But this is otherwise an excellent read. Other materials may exist but I simply haven’t reviewed any yet. I am going to be using this as the base history material in my explanation but feel free to substitute your own.
Comprehension Ability by Age
In the research I have been doing, I have been noting what kind of things children can learn at what ages. In learning history, you can expect to present history material–material that covers the exact same events if not the same exact material–many times over the course of your child’s education. As a loose approximation, if done well, you can expect to present some type of history material at least 4 or 5 times during the elementary years (up to the age of 9). As I write this, we are on our second round of reviewing history material. What I want to note is the difference in how the material is received given the age of the child. I have three stages noted so far: Uncritical, Critical, Mentors.
There is major mental growth around 5 years, 6 months, 2 weeks. This might shift by 1-3 weeks for you and the growth takes a while so I’ll use 5 years, 7 months as the age of this major milestone. Up until this milestone, children have what Montessori called an “absorbent” mind. I refer to it in my three elementary aged stages as an “Uncritical” mind. A child does learn everything easily up until this age–but also uncritically. Any idea that they hear is taken as absolute truth. They do not have the ability to differentiate fact from myth or truth from lies. As such, while it is an amazing time and one to take advantage of, it is also a time to use discretion and caution as far as what the child hears. At 5 years, 7 months, they become highly critical of ideas. I originally wanted to call it the “Starts to Doubt Santa” milestone. They love to argue and they are capable of differentiating lies from truths–something of which presents itself as the child dabbling in lying for the sake of lying at first. This is the idea behind my book series “Misbehavior is Growth” in that children often experiment with bad behavior when they first become capable of it, but that this is enormous mental growth, “Misbehavior is Growth.” (My book on toddlers is now available.) This is huge and how you treat history material before and after this can change dramatically.
At 5 years, 5 months, the child becomes interested in stories about humans and history is the perfect lesson. I want to say also that in presenting history at this age and even older is unlikely to result in a comprehensive understanding of all historical events, remembering all of the facts and dates. The skills developed however are highly valuable.
At this age, I strongly recommend reading any material for fun only. If you do “test” the child on their knowledge (which is necessary not to quiz the child but at some point asking the child to recall the information is necessary for the information to be retained), the questions should be simple and the answers obvious. However, I think you will find the child is so enamored by the stories that questions are a distraction. I at all times followed my child’s lead to see what was enjoyable and what was not.
We did many activities related to our reading. Some of these were at my suggestion but many of them were because my son spontaneously showed an interest in doing them. Let me also add that I absolutely hate doing things that are messy or extravagant. It’s a really special day if I get out glue or paint. I prefer activities that are somewhat clean, use small sized materials, but have high educational value. In reading through Story of the World for fun, here are some of the activities we did between the ages of 5 years, 5 months and 5 years, 7 months:
- Built “catacombs” out of Crazy Forts (balls and sticks that interlock to make cubes) which led from one room to another which served as the historical example of Christians running away from Roman persecution.
- Made up a game also with secret signs of who is a Christian and who is a Roman. If you revealed your sign and you were a Christian and the other a Roman, you had to stay quiet. If you were both Christians, you could talk quietly. If you were both Romans, you could talk loudly.
- Reenacted the war of the First Crusades by building a walled city out of wood blocks and using Army men to recreate the scene
- On his own, my son, who loved Julius Caesar, wrote a “book” about the story of him being captured by pirates and told it to me with enthusiasm and accuracy
- Traced the route of merchants and sailors (e.g., Christopher Columbus) on a globe (which had raised areas for mountains which was helpful) as those stories were described. My son read off the names of the countries often.
- Put together GeoPuzzle maps based on the stories we read, in which we re-read the relevant chapter, pointing to the relevant countries: my son drew a map of South American on his own initiative
- Pretended to be an ancient Chinese boy picking weeds out of a cold bog by doing it in a bathtub with ice water. I, his loving ancient Chinese mother, gave him hot chocolate and a warm blanket when he was done 🙂
- Explained Gutenberg’s invention by trying to draw butterflies then stamping them with stamps of butterflies and an ink pad
I will warn you, despite this intense education and activity set, when we re-read Story of the World, at 5 years, 10 months, it seemed as though my son forgot most of the details from our read the first time–even about Julius Caesar, his favorite. He remembered some basics like “Rome was strong” but not a lot of detail. At 5 years, 10 months, I noticed markedly that his short term and long term memory seemed to go to crap. So, a full and detailed understanding of history this did not produce. But if you look at the activities we did, he was practicing writing, making books, doing logic games (such as the Roman/Christian game), engaged and interested in maps and globes, building sets for plays, and so on. My favorite part of this is that he was being exposed to so many words. In addition to “regular” words, he was also being exposed to words like samurai, Crete, and The Renaissance. By the time we finished reading the Story of the World series, and my son was about 5 years, 10 months, he was willingly trying to read chapter books (and did pretty well). There are very few words that my son comes across that he doesn’t know. He is not intimidated by “big” words.
What I liked also is that reading these stories gave my son a great sense of what is real and what is fake. He repeatedly read real stories and he came to expect them. Some writers have said that children entering first grades have wild ideas about what is myth and what is fact. I found this was untrue of my son. He was very adamant, starting in the Critical phase, that some things, like make believe stories, were fake.
I wonder if there was more I could have done to make more of the information stick. I think this is worthy of more investigation. But at the same time, my son, at 5 years old, sat rapt through four long chapter books all dealing with the history of the world. I can’t complain.
I worry also that giving information in a biased and emotionally provocative way, such as that industrialists are “outlaws” is a danger when the child is not capable of evaluating ideas critically yet. However, as noted, my son didn’t really remember many of the details. So am not terribly worried about it. Your own commentary and values will resonate much more strongly with your child than what is written. I am committed at older ages to reviewing material from other books, to serve as a lesson in and of itself that not everything we read in books is true and should be treated with healthy suspicious. I actually see it as a positive lesson that this book had information counter to our values and how we should round out other people’s work with our own knowledge.
I also think the timeline I did in the “Critical” phase might be done at this phase, which I will discuss next, but, again, if it distracts the child, don’t do it. I found however that the timeline was a huge hit. (I just didn’t try it at a younger age to know if it would be the same huge hit.)
There is a major milestone at 5 years, 7 months in what a child become critical of ideas. I named it “Evaluates and Explains” ideas and marked it, tentatively, as Early Elementary Milestone 5. I actually noticed it strongly because of our history reading. At this age, 5 years, 7 months, we read about Galileo describing the earth as revolving around the sun. My son used his hands to explain to me in detail the two different thoughts on this–letting me know he could explain ideas. He also became highly critical of ideas. When we read about one dictator in our reading, who said he was “Here to help the people,” my son blurted out, “That’s a lie!” It was a shockingly new ability for him. And I want to point out that leading up to these cognitive abilities, he himself blatantly lied often. I write about this to show that this “misbehavior” of lying has a purpose: the child is sorting and hashing things out. You will see in my descriptions that it is not something to worry about but rather amazing new skills await!
One of the best activities that we did on our second reading of Story of the World was to put up a timeline of the events. Here is a snapshot of ours:
This timeline was a huge hit. I simply cut one inch strips out of construction paper to make the timeline. I had 13 rows, each row was 36″ long, and I ticked off 25 years every 2 inches. It covers from 3500 BCE to the present day. It was color coded based on the four books in the Story of the World series: Orange for ancient times, blue for medieval, green for “early modern,” and red for modern times. The first thing we put on was a picture of my son when he was born.
He absolutely loves to read the numbers, starting from either the end or beginning and reading every date from one end to the other. I printed out pictures with their name and date based on several of the historic events we read about it. He loved, loved, loved to find the date on the timeline and tape it on. It’s a great reading activity as well, and he learned about BCE/CE. On his own initiative, he would often fix a picture if he recognized he made a mistake about the date when it happened. So I didn’t correct him if the put the pictures on the wrong date.
When we read The Story of the Word, when Wise Bauer reminds the reader of a past event, my son would jump up and say, “Yes I remember that!” and run to the timeline to point to it.
I found it was better to have the pictures ready and put them up before reading about the event. Then when you read it, you can linger on the picture and ponder the event and doing this seems to crystallize the events in everyone’s (including my) mind. There is something about reading about something and then being given a picture or even just a word printed out to help it cement in one’s head, especially if you do something with it, such as taping it to the wall. Having to read the name and the date and do something with the picture is a nice healthy hands-on activity to help the information “stick.” There are many resources online that provide figures related this very book series but I preferred to make my own pictures. I enjoyed reading about each event as I decided which picture I liked the best. You can incorporate art into your lesson too: After putting the picture of someone on the timeline, show a painting with that person in it. Art cards are a nice way to do this. Simple cartoon videos about history are a great extension as well: The very pictures on your timeline might be used in the videos. I liked Kid’s Animated History with Pipo, which is available on Amazon.
It was so so so wonderful to have these events laid out in such a clear and organized way on our timeline. He knows more at five years old about history, or at least has a fighting chance to know more about history, than I ever did throughout nearly all of school: The Egyptians were before the Romans, Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians, silk was founded by the Chinese using silk worm cocoons, among many other events. These were all on our timeline. I used to hesitate to put pictures on the timeline, trying to keep it uncluttered such that only major events were on the timeline, but he kept up with it so well, I felt that using only minimal pictures was underestimating him. He insists that every row on the timeline have at least one picture! He told me if we go on vacation we need to pack this up in our suitcase and display it on the wall of wherever we stay!
I wonder if I could have used this in the “Uncritical” phase–and I think I could have. I named Early Elementary Milestone 2 “Algebraic Thought.” By this I mean the child understands how things change over a continuum, for instance your shadow changes size as you move away from a light source. The timeline is exactly this: How things change over time. Doing this timeline on our first read might have been fun and a nice aid. However, I want to stress that that first reading should be highly fun and nothing should compromise that. I am curious to know if you try it and what your experience is!
Nonetheless, having this timeline was critical for the “Critical” phase. We didn’t just read the story at our second go of it, we talked about major moral themes in depth. In particular we talked about codes of ethics and which one of these codes was right or wrong. You may notice that Early Elementary Milestone 7 is “Moral Reasoning.” These history lessons are fertile ground for such discussions. For instance, we talked about Hammurabi’s rules. Hammurabi was ruthless. A doctor who committed malpractice had his hand cut off. I countered this with “Mommy Code.” I made this up on the spot and described “In Mommy Code, we see when each other is hurt and we help each other. We don’t get mad at each other for making mistakes.” I asked which he liked better and he said Mommy Code. Later we read about The Ten Commandments. I described to him these rules: Don’t lie, don’t steal, etc., and I said “These are meant to help you in your life and make you better, unlike Hammurabi’s rules.” It was stunning to see the kind of conversations we had.
We talked about Plato who said the population should be educated otherwise they would fall for a tyrant. Wise Bauer explains this by asking you to imagine an older kid demands you give them your lunch money because that’s the law. If you were ignorant of the law, you might do this. When we got to this part, my son asked me to read him the 10 Commandments again. After I did he said, “I would not give the girl my money, because that is not one of the laws!” It was stunning to see how understanding these rules gave him a sense of his rights. He was better able to hold on to these ideas in his brain, I think, because of our timeline in which these events were displayed and he could use the picture to hold on to and reason about the ideas. He sometimes would stand in front of the timeline with a pen, chewing on it, then pointing to the timeline, asking “When did the Romans start? Ok now where did they end?” I love the intellectual clarity that this brought.
We similarly discussed Cyrus the Great who was raised by a shepherd. The shepherd was told to kill the baby and instead killed a goat. I told my son, “He had to choose between lying and killing.” My son said, “These rules are sure frustrating”–meaning, how could you be a good person when you had to choose between lying and killing? I praised him excessively for understanding such a moral dilemma. He said about this, “I’m still learning how to be a good boy.” These conversations were rich and deep. In the end, it won’t matter that much how much formal history or facts and dates he remembers, not even Hammurabi. (The brain dumps information that isn’t used. It happens.)
Many movies coincide with this historical reading and again using the movies can help compare and contrast authors viewpoints:
- Mulan: Ancient Chinese girl fights off barbarians
- Pocahontas: Native American girl marries white settler for further peace between these people
- Robin Hood: Note the difference in how King Richard is treated in the cartoon movie versus the book
- Moana: About the Mauris
- 10 Commandments
- Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving about the Mayflower. My son perked up his ears when reading because he was already familiar with the characters
There are of course many other movies like 300 or The Last Samurai but they are not age appropriate. By the way, I had no problem teaching my children about history even when violent. I find they can hear violence but they can’t watch it well. It was a thrill to learn about the strategies of the Spanish versus the English in the Spanish English war and which one would win. My son is a highly compassionate and empathetic boy. This stuff does not cause any propensity towards violence.
This is where we are at now. My son loves to teach his younger brother and sister things. We’re still exploring this phase. I know the very best way to learn something is to teach it. The next phase of my son’s development is going to be composition and grammar, i.e., explaining ideas. Charlotte Mason advocates a “narration” technique. After you are done reading something, you ask the child to repeat back to you what they read. Then you get on idea of what they found important. They get their first practice at explaining an idea. My son sometimes did this on his own but asking him to do it formally usually didn’t work. He told me he didn’t want to do it. I am looking for projects he can do where he investigates and then explains his favorite historic events. He doesn’t write much but he can verbally express himself so that is where I might start. He loves using his iPad so I might have him make a video or make a slow motion recreation of an event. What he does love is to be asked about the information he read and prove he’s the smartest at recalling it.
For our next go of history material–yes I plan on doing this routinely–I’ll pick a new curriculum, if any exist. I am more than excited to present the story of science in this way. I have reviewed a few books but some did seem pretty choppy. If you have a recommendation, let me know!
Come follow me at The Observant Mom on Facebook. Check out my book series Misbehavior is Growth, which is about how understanding child development at precise ages allows us to develop highly effective–and fun–educational approaches.