Building Historical Consciousness in Young Children
Parents looking to begin historical studies with young children often ask me about the best age for introducing history into the homeschool curriculum. I don’t usually recommend beginning formal dedicated historical studies until 3rd or 4th grade. This is because younger elementary students are still developing their “historical consciousness.” The early elementary years (1st to 2nd grade) should be spent developing a child’s historical consciousness, which is a prerequisite to beginning the study of history as a formal subject. In this article, we’ll cover what historical consciousness is and how to build it in your children.
What is Historical Consciousness?
Childhood is a time of tremendous cognitive development as the brain grows from recognizing only particulars to more complex concepts and, eventually, abstractions. The transition from concrete to abstract thinking happens slowly between ages 7 and 12, with variations all over the spectrum. Some children can think abstractly by age 9, while others won’t grasp it until 12 or 13.
This process is why certain concepts cannot be introduced before certain cognitive milestones have been reached. Most children cannot grasp algebra, philosophy, or political science if they are too young. Their brains cannot understand the abstract concepts necessary to master these disciplines.
History is no different. Studying history requires a child to understand the abstract concepts of events stretching back into times before they existed—into ages increasingly remote the further back you are studying. This can be a challenging concept for a young child to grasp. Most children conceive time in a way that is extremely present-focused.
How Children Perceive History
Have you noticed how young children travel blissfully through time with little recollection of what they were doing yesterday? To the degree they do think of the past, it is initially confined to “when I was little” or sometimes to the lives of their parents. For example, when I was little and learned about Jesus, I remember asking my mom, “Was Jesus alive when you were little?” My concept of the past was restricted to my own life and that of my parents. I had no idea what it meant to say something happened 100, 500, or 1,000 years ago or how these ranges differed.
So, before children can populate their imagination with all the wonderful characters and stories of history, they need to develop a historical consciousness—the cognitive framework that enables a child to think chronologically about events before their own life, incorporate people and events into their own mental timeline, and grasp the general ideas of historical cause and effect (e.g., St. Joan of Arc rallied the French and as a result, the English were driven out of France).
Can we aid a young child in developing his or her historical consciousness? Absolutely! Here are three suggestions for working with your child to help them expand their understanding of this concept.
1. Make a Timeline
A timeline is a visual representation of a historical period where historical people or events are placed on a line, one side of the line representing things closer to the present and the other representing things further in the past. Use a poster board to create an illustrated timeline of the persons and events you are studying. The student decorates the timeline while you help them to place items in the correct sequence. Exact dates are not as important as getting the student acquainted with the concept of historical sequence—things happened in different times, and some happened further back than others. This helps kids understand historical sequence; George Washington and Jesus Christ were both in the past, but the visual representation helps kids see, “Oh…Jesus is way further back than Washington.”
One of the beauties of a timeline is that it lends itself to endless creativity. Your child can draw the events or characters and cut them out, or you can download templates from the Internet for your child to color or any variation you can imagine. They can even be three-dimensional using Legos or peg dolls. Anything works if it gets the point across!
2. Era Studies
An era study is where we focus on learning about the lifestyle of a certain era. We’re not studying events but how people lived in a given historical period. So, for example, if you are studying the colonial period, you and your child could prepare food from colonial recipes. You could make paper dolls illustrating colonial-era clothing. You may listen to 18th-century composers and learn Regency-era dances. Maybe you visit Colonial Williamsburg or some similar site near you if one is available. Maybe you watch Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (PG, 1994).
The benefits of an era study are twofold:
First, the child learns the fundamental concept that things were very different in the past. They learn, “Oh, they had to use horses to get around back then,” or “They had to make their butter from scratch,” or “Wow, they killed each other with swords.” On a basic level, era studies inculcate the idea of the flow of history—things were different for people in different eras, things being more drastically different the further back in time we go.
Second, the child begins to differentiate historical eras based on their aesthetic. He begins to associate knights and castles with the Middle Ages. Or pyramids and hieroglyphics with ancient Egypt. Or frock coats and tri-corner hats with the colonial era. They learn that different periods of history have different “looks,” denoting different moments in time. You need not worry about nailing down all the details of each era. We are only striving to identify different historical periods as identifiable from things like clothes, buildings, and art.
Elementary-age children respond extremely well to history when it is presented as a series of stories about the adventures of interesting men and women. The life of a young child is extremely “person-centric.” Parents, siblings, teachers, etc., are the most important constants in their daily experience. Children’s literature and entertainment are very character-driven for this very reason. It is easy for young children to identify with the experiences of a specific person.
History should be no different! Read your young child historical fiction stories about the lives of memorable men and women of the past. Choose characters whose experiences vividly paint a picture of that period. For the colonial era, someone like Betsy Ross or George Washington are fine examples, as they are people whose life experiences take us through all the most important stages of the epoch. These characters can serve as pillars around which to “anchor” the study of the period.
You don’t need a formal history “class” to enjoy history with your elementary-age children. Use the earliest grades just to explore the fun stories, recipes, costumes, and art of historical periods. This not only builds your child’s historical consciousness (preparing them for later historical studies), but also shows them from their earliest years that history can be fun and interesting!
If you’d like more tips on teaching history in your homeschool, get a copy of my book, The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History. And when your child does get to the point where you want to start history classes, check out the Homeschool Connections grade school unit study program. The grade school program uses all of these tools. It is on a four-year cycle covering Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and US History using the Story of Civilization books as a spine.