Children’s understanding of historical time

iStock_000001028732XSmallA recent study indicates that elementary children have a significant understanding of historical time, although they don’t categorize in the same way as adults or use the same terminology. Even very young children can make distinctions between things that happen now and things that happened long ago.

Researchers Keith C. Barton, Northern Kentucky University, and Linda S. Levstik, University of Kentucky, used a series of pictures depicting nine different periods in United States history to investigate kindergarten-through-fifth-grade children’s ability to differentiate and sequence periods in U.S. history.

Children’s sense of history

The youngest children — kindergartners through second-graders — used their knowledge of material culture and the patterns of everyday life to identify the pictures as either around now or long ago. Dates played a very small and often confusing part in young children’s notion of historical time.

Students younger than third grade did not understand the numerical meaning of dates, but even third- and fourth-graders who understood their numerical basis had trouble associating specific dates with historical images. General categories predominated in children’s distinctions until students were able to use dates accurately.

Only by fifth grade did most students use specific eras such as colonial times, Civil War era, etc. to describe pictures. Despite their lack of facility with dates, children demonstrated an impressive body of historical knowledge and understanding. However, there was not a strict age-related developmental sequence. At all grade levels there were children who differed significantly from the general pattern of development. One kindergartner, for example, divided the nine pictures into seven distinct categories, while one sixth-grader lumped all pictures from 1899 to 1950 together into one period.

Understanding of patterns of life and culture

These in-depth interviews with elementary students revealed how young children understand historical time. At all ages, most could correctly sequence and talk about the pictures depicting colonial times, the West, the 1920’s, the 1950’s and modern pictures.

This indicates a substantial body of shared historical knowledge. Although they were often imprecise in describing periods in history or in assigning dates to pictures, they demonstrated a lot of information about patterns of life and popular culture during different times in history. This kind of historical information appears to be the most accessible to young students, which supports placing greater instructional emphasis on history lessons that can be seen and discussions of how common people have lived at different times.

These interviews highlighted common misunderstandings, as well. In particular, these researchers suggest that special care be taken not to present history as a single story. Instruction should include visual comparisons between local, national and international events, with comparative time lines which illustrate that cities and rural areas as well as preindustrial economies coexist in the same time period.

Editor’s Note: Since fifth grade is often the first time students use a history textbook, it is unclear whether third- and fourth-graders’ lack of facility with dates was due to lack of exposure or developmental readiness.

“Back When God Was Around and Everything: Elementary Children’s Understanding of Historical Time” American Educational Research Journal Volume 33 Number 2 Summer 1996 pp. 419-454.

Published in ERN November/December 1996 Volume 9 Number 5

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