History for the Young Child

Medieval warrior queen.

Medieval warrior queen.

Leila has a post up about the kind of history we do. She explains it thusly, and her description is apt as to the basic outline:

This is how it goes: Start a young child — in Kindergarten, say — with something like “cradle of civilization” (another name for what we used to call “pre-history” to “ancient history”). Divide the eras up roughly into four, and continue with each era. In fourth grade, start again, sort of spiraling up in complexity for your older child, but efficiently bringing your new Kindergartener along for the ride. Continue in this way until you are done, incorporating each child somewhere in the cycle.

She’s not a fan, to say the least. While I generally love Leila’s down to earth approach and I bow to her greater experience, I don’t think she really speaks to my own experience as I embark on my third year of this plan. True, I’m only at the beginning and I don’t have the experience of having completed the course. But it’s been working fine for us thus far and thus far I see no reasons to change nor do I think Leila offers a compelling argument for why I should do anything different.

However, I do think that many of her objections raise very good points worthy of consideration and I’d like to address them one by one. Though I will say at the outset that I think she doesn’t really understand what it is we are doing and why we are doing it. All of her objections are factors I considered when choosing this curriculum and are in fact part of the very reason that I chose the curriculum I did.

I obviously can’t speak for all homeschooling mothers who choose this approach. All I can do is explain my own choices and hope that they resonate with others. And I’m hoping to generate a useful conversation. So please feel free to chime in and please do disagree. I promise I’ll be civil, though I do enjoy a good meaty discussion.

First, Leila’s disclaimer is the most fascinating part of her post and I really wish she’d developed this a bit more. She writes:

Disclaimer: I learned this very late, after a long struggle with my own failed education in history. So I can’t say that my older children, at least, benefitted a ton from these musings… at least, not from the more focused aspects of them. Still, there is room for “what I would do knowing what I know now” in the advice business.

Sadly, this is all she says about her own experience teaching history. I would love to know what it was she did do and how and why she felt it failed. What books or materials did she use? How did the children respond? Did she, as teacher, dislike the materials she was teaching as she went along?

I rather feel like I’d prefer to know the method that she followed and where it went wrong rather than her critique of a method that, well, it’s not clear if she’s tried it this way or not.

Next, Leila argues:

It doesn’t take into consideration the young child’s innocence of experience. By using this method, you are attempting to jump-start his understanding of events using those literally furthest from his time and place (unless you happen to live in Mesopotamia, in which case, go for it once you have fulfilled the other conditions).

It’s my strong belief, and I am happily backed up by Aristotle (yes, he is happy to back me up, that helpful old Greek fellow), that we should begin with what the child knows. What he knows is his family and his town. The latter only a little bit.

A commenter on her blog makes an excellent rebuttal:

To a first or second grader the way people lived in the US colonial period or the Civil War is just as foreign to them as the Ancient Egyptians or knights of the Middle Ages. To a child growing up in CA, the tobacco fields and plantations of VA are as mysterious as Mesopotamia. Aristotle’s idea of moving from the more know to the less know is proper to the study of natural knowledge, because it’s always based in sense. [. . .] History is based on records of the past; it’s not something you come to through reasoning or the senses. It builds upon men’s discovery of the past and the causes of events start way in the past and move forward, not backward. [. . .] The study of history is more than just an accumulation of dates and VIP’s, it’s also an understanding of our culture and the how’s and why’s. The grammar stage is not up to the deeper ideas, but it is important for them to become familiar with characters of history so they will become part of their cultural memory and help them with their studies later on. The cyclical approach makes a lot of sense.

I’m a little insulted by this because I most certainly did take the child’s innocence of experience into account when I set out on this path. And so does the Story of the World series. It is written precisely for the fist grader who is encountering the distant past for the first time as a story. It is true that Mesopotamia and Egypt and Greece and Rome are somewhat insubstantial to a child, but… so what? They are populated with people who are just like the people he knows. I also read them Bible stories, which are scarcely more real.

This objection rests on a false premise: that the kind of history we are trying to teach them at this stage is the kind of history we will teach them at later stages. But that is not the case at all. My aim at this stage is precisely to allow my children to encounter history as story, it’s about people and places that are exciting and exotic. And yet no more so than fairy tales and fables. Is Mesopotamia any more strange than Brambley Hedge or Narnia or 19th century England? Is Odysseus stranger than talking cars? At least in the case of Bella, I’ve found she has a taste for the exotic. She gobbles up these stories and when I let it slide too long, she brings the book to me and begs me to read more.

What I’m trying to do at this point is to build the foundation of a relationship. Charlotte Mason says that education is the science of relationships. The whole goal of education is not to drill a child with facts, but to help him form connections with the world around him. But Leila asserts he cannot feel connection with the past. Well, all I have to offer is my own experience of watching Bella make lively connections with the idea of the past. She loves history. She loves Egypt. Does she understand them as an older child would? Of course not. But when we come back to them in a few years I do not doubt that affection will linger and color the way she experiences history at a higher level.

In the same way I help my baby to make the Sign of the Cross and to say the name of Jesus, not because I think she’s capable of understanding the Godhead in full but because I want her to have a relationship to her Creator, to Jesus her friend, and to the Spirit who already dwells within her. My goal is to introduce her to the past in a gentle way, with stories that now, it is true, seem no different than fables. Just as God may seem insubstantial at this point too. And so too her grandparents who live far away and visit only yearly. But her slight knowledge now will give her a familiarity when she meets them again. It will be like meeting that childhood friend and though you are both adults– and perhaps even radically different people– still there is the memory of that friendship, that warmth of affection that can rekindle a spark and make the adults move toward friendship much more quickly than two strangers.

And maybe Bella is a special case. Perhaps her connection with Egypt is really founded on that picture book of Egyptian life that she used to spend hours poring over when she was three and giving up her nap while I desperately needed to collapse with Sophie and Ben. That book was her favorite not because she understood it but because it was pretty. And when we finally got to read it in context with her history text, well, it came alive. She received that book as a great gift, gold poured out into her lap. She rejoiced to finally know the real story and not the stories she’d been spinning. Had she not had those stories as a foundation, would she have been so excited? I don’t know. Maybe she’s just an odd kid, the exception who can make connections with things far away in the same way she got obsessed with penguins, of all things, as a five year old, even though they live far, far away at the end of the earth.

All I know is we do our best to make history come alive. It’s the stories we are introducing them to at this stage not the facts and not the whys and wherefores. Just the interesting stories of people who are different than us but also similar too.

Building a relationship with football. Anther parental enthusiasm she has embraced, much to my chagrin.

Building a relationship with football. Anther parental enthusiasm she has embraced, much to my chagrin.

But back to Leila:

It’s much better to help the child begin an inquiry into events that have taken place as near to him as you possibly can, than to wrestle with his undeveloped consciousness of vast expanses of years and of ways of living, so substantially different from anything he’s ever encountered as to resemble fiction. Boring fiction.

As I’ve said, yes it appears as fiction. But I just don’t see that as a fault. And why does she say it’s boring? I’d love to know how this played out in her house. What stories were they reading? What versions of history? Was Leila bored? Is that why her kids failed to make a connection? Me, I was fascinated and I’ve found my children to be fascinated too They have never yet complained about a history reading being boring. They like fiction. They like stories about Pooh and Rabbit and talking mice and pharaohs and nomads and knights and princesses and genies and all sorts of things. So I wonder. If it’s boring, are you just using the wrong books? Or is mom bored and communicating that boredom to her kids in subtle or not so subtle ways? I agree that if a teacher is bored, then she’s not going to help the subject come alive to the students. She’d be better off for now looking for some other introduction that will capture her imagination as well as her child’s.

Living books, enjoyed outside on a sunny day. Delight not boredom.

Living books, enjoyed outside on a sunny day. Delight not boredom.

He can be made to assimilate facts about ancient cultures, flooding rivers, early forms of communication, and primitive tools, but they won’t be differentiated in his mind from things that are actually unreal.

But who ever said they would be? Or should be? This objection seems so very odd to me. Of course they seem like stories. But we use stories all the time with children to engage their attention in all sorts of ways. It’s how they learn. Really, it’s how all of us learn. We make connections. We tell ourselves stories about the world. So what if the line between reality and fiction is a little blurry. That’s precisely why you revisit the subject in four years when the child is ready to begin to discern fact from fiction. As long as you help him at that stage to understand, where is the harm in a little blurriness early on?

Look mom, Alexander the Great! Queen Elizabeth! Rome! Russia! Can we get it? Please?

Look mom, Alexander the Great! Queen Elizabeth! Rome! Russia! Can we get it? Please?

That is, you might want to tell me about a preschooler of yours who truly loved hieroglyphics or spouted off about hanging gardens, but I maintain that to him, such things are no different from Legos or army guys. His imagination is working in a certain way, appropriate to his age, that doesn’t include a strong distinction between real and unreal.

Yes! That is precisely how my children interact with history at this age. It’s grist for the imaginative play. It’s paper dolls and army men and dress up clothes and Lego castles and Lego pueblos and Lego churches and Lego Pyramids. It’s appropriate for their age to seek out interesting stories that turn into play. And why not feed their imagination with rich, deep beautiful material that also happens to be true and real? Why should it be populated only by myth and fairies and talking animals? Why not Odysseus and Jason and the Argonauts and Beowulf and Richard the Lionheart? Let his imagination run free!

Medieval castle with knights

Medieval castle with knights

Most importantly, he won’t grasp the significance of these things — that man has everywhere and always made laws — laws that we find recognizable, that ancient cultures formed in a certain particular place, that the origins of civilization uniquely prepared the world for its turning point of the birth of Christ — until about the third go-round.

Yes. He probably won’t understand the fullness of that until the third go round. But as his eager little pattern-seeking mind tries to paint a picture of how the world works, knowing the history of the world seems to my mind to give him the tools to lay the foundation. Already my 8 year-old Bella and I are discussing the whys of Protestantism and separate churches. Already the stories she’s absorbed have begun to give her a framework for understanding the world. One I truly wish I’d had long before I hit that high school stage when I encountered many of these stories and ideas for the very first time. I had to try to piece together the story of the world in high school, the first time I’d ever encountered a narrative of World History. And that was the whole history of the world crammed into two semesters of study. We only scratched the surface in our dry, boring text book. And I had little connection with what I was reading about. I was in college before I realized that the Bible was full of real, historical stories. That we know where and when many of them took place. That archaeologists have dug up these places. That we know for sure where Jesus walked. That the Bible stories fit into a narrative of history along with all the other “real” history in text books. So yes, this is very much the curriculum I wish I’d had in school That’s why I leapt at it when I first read about it. My heart went pitter-pat: yes! This! This is how I wish I’d learned history!

Bella is already understanding in part what I didn’t understand till adulthood. That they all form a single narrative, Bible stories and ancient history and modern history. She’s looked at the Dead Sea Scrolls in person, touched a stone from the wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, seen artifacts of ancient Hebrew culture. (Thank you, Museum of Science!) She’s examined lions from Babylon, pottery and gold from Assyria. Ceramics from Greece. Statues and coins and sarcophagi from Rome. Medieval paintings and sculptures. They are real, tangible connections with the past. And some day I hope when she comes to the narrative of history at a mature level they will be there as vivid touchstones in her memory for her to really make the connections and understand the whys and the wherefores and the laws and the pattern with Christ at the center. And I hope it will all be much more real than a fairy story, which is what it was for me when I didn’t have the foundation she is getting. The foundation of history as a ripping good story.

Block church with altar, cross, pews, kneelers. This is how children build relationships to the abstract, through play.

Block church with altar, cross, pews, kneelers. This is how children build relationships to the abstract, through play.

So, mostly a waste of time, and certainly a bit frustrating, in most cases, for you.

Is this the voice of personal experience? If so, it rather seems like projection. So far it hasn’t felt like time wasted nor frustrating for any of us involved. So we’ll just keep on keeping on. But, again, I’ll agree with Leila. If you try this method and are bored stiff instead of fascinated by the stories, if you and your child see history as a chore to be dealt with, if it’s frustrating, then by all means skip it. I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. At this level it’s not necessary except as a means to create enthusiasm and love for the subject and if that is lacking, if you don’t enjoy it, it is most certainly a waste of your time.

Reading The Tempest with Granddad.

Reading The Tempest with Granddad.

Instead, I encourage you to tell the young child stories about the place you live and the people who lived there. Help him to see the timeline of his own life and that of your family. Have him delve into the tales of “olden days” that his grandparents can tell him. Have him make maps of your block.

Instead. Instead? No, no, I’m simply not seeing this as an either-or proposition. You can map the neighborhood one day and then look at a map of Egypt the next. (And then peruse at a Google Earth satellite pictures of contemporary Egypt the next.) You can tell him stories about the grandparents at breakfast and then read about Rome at lunch and then take a walk around the block and learn about the history of the town in the afternoon. You don’t have to choose one instead of the other!

We’ve chosen to do both/and. We’ve visited local archaeology sites and learned about what was happening right here, visited graveyards and historical sites and local shrines and churches and the Cathedral, and done nature walks and toured old houses. When we went to Virginia we toured George Washington’s boyhood farm and the hook was the archaeological dig and the garden. But Bella then acquired a connection to Washington which has helped her to make more hooks in the chain as we’ve read story books that refer to the Revolution. We’re getting the local and the ancient and they work together and not in opposition. The local helps her to understand the ancient and vice versa. We’ve gone to the art museum to look at the ancient art collections, then gone home to read piles and piles of picture books about the things we looked at. We’ve looked at images of art online, read children’s versions of great literature like the Children’s Homer and Beowulf for Children, which were loved by all my kids. It’s all a great tapestry of connections. It’s relationships. It’s enthusiasm. Maybe even geekery. Is this all because Bella is an exceptional child or I’m an exceptional teacher? It’s possible. But I think Leila is selling kids short. I think they can make connections to the distant past. Real ones. And I’ve found that even first graders are starting to try to sort out what is fact and what is fiction. They don’t have it down, but they do have the mental categories.

Building a relationship with Mary.

Building a relationship with Mary.

By third grade you can introduce the larger themes of eras and great movements — always tied as much as possible to stories about people who made them.

Yes, that’s our methodology. Looking at the stories, noting the themes of eras and movements, knowing well that they will mostly go over her head, but they are there, luring her on. And now in third grade she’s already able to look backward at what she’s already learned to see some of the themes, to see the movements. The time wasn’t wasted because she made the material her own and it dwells in her memory and she can pull it out and reexamine it in new ways. And hopefully will continue to do so for a lifetime.

Now certainly this spiraling cycle method could be done badly. Parents could put undue emphasis on testing memory of facts and dates. That would certainly be wrongheaded at an early age. I do not endorse doing all the Story of the World activities or administering tests or doing worksheets or really anything but reading stories. My kids have never taken a test or been quizzed on what we’ve read or memorized anything more challenging than a poem. In fact, Bella didn’t even categorize history as “school” until I explained it to her at some point this past summer when I was explaining that I’d rather like it if Sophie joined us for our reading now that she’s officially school age.

At this stage I don’t treat history as a subject the same way I will do for middle schoolers or high schoolers. It’s just fun stories we enjoy as a family. It’s a key to understanding those artifacts in the museum, it’s a lark, not a dull, boring chore. And perhaps that delight is what Leila has failed to grasp. I wish I understood why.

35 Responses to History for the Young Child

  1. Heather September 20, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    Thanks for writing this, Melanie! I actually thought of your posts about history learning when I read Leila’s post, so I’m glad you responded. I haven’t decided on a formal “approach” to history yet, and maybe we are doing something in between what she suggests and the four year cycle. We’re lucky to live in northern Virginia and have access to so much national history as local history! My four year old loves to visit Mt. Vernon and his imaginary play often involves the Revolutionary War. We read Peter Spier’s The Star-Spangled Banner recently then went to the National American History Museum and saw the actual flag that flew over Fort McHenry. Now we are planning a trip to the actual Fort, and my son is totally enthused about it! We’re just reading, visiting and enjoying learning together.

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 21, 2014 at 12:42 am #

      Leila has this right: learning is about making connections. I love making those connections to local history and hope to do more of it this year as we get into the age of exploration and colonialization and the revolutionary war and all. Massachusetts is rich in history and we don’t take advantage of it enough. Of course being an extreme introvert with five very small kids means I need to ration my energies and we won’t get to everything there is to do this year. Fortunately, there’s always next year and the next.

      I like the four year cycle as a loose structure to keep me moving forward and to keep my own attention engaged. But I don’t feel bound to stick to it so tightly that we can’t enjoy the history at our feet. When we visited Virginia this summer we really enjoyed going to Washington’s Ferry Farm and getting a bit of local history in.

  2. Ellie September 20, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Melanie, this is great. I don’t have the mental wherewithal to write a full response right now, but — yes! I, too, had a hard time relating to Leila’s post …..

    So much of what you write here maps on to my own approach, and experience, to discovering History with my own kids. Teaching them, learning with them …. They both, now at 12 & 15, are just as passionate about history as they ever were 🙂

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 21, 2014 at 12:44 am #

      Ellie, I have been so inspired by you and other homeschooling veterans who are so kind as to share your experience. I am so grateful to hear about a variety of learning styles and to see how much they vary from family to family so that I can more clearly pick out the elements that will work for us and discard what doesn’t. Reading about your older kids definitely encourages me to keep going.

  3. Charlotte September 20, 2014 at 10:08 am #

    Coming from my perspective (not done yet but close to it with the oldest) I can see both sides. My oldest son was my history lover. He was the only 4 year old I know who wanted a P40 Warhawk cake for his birthday, who checked out the Warbirds of World War II documentary from our library and who asked to go to the Flight Museum as a special treat. Even today, he loves pouring over a book called Greece and Rome at War and studying ancient armor, looking at medieval armaments, reading articles about the unearthed bones of Richard III and lost civilizations newly discovered. But unlike your Bella, he never lead the way when it came to his siblings. My girls are more ho-hum about history. When they discovered American Girls, their interest fired up a bit and my Sunshine still prefers reading historical fiction to any other kind of story although Rain will take fantasy/adventure over historical fiction any day. That is what sort of surprises me about Auntie Leila’s take on history being someone who supports reading and reading great works of fiction for children… so much great fiction is historical fiction.

    But back to my experience… Sunshine was never a follower of The Professors’s. In fact, having for all intents and purposes, an oldest son and an oldest daughter, they were kind of naturally prone to butt heads. (Still do… shhhhhh!) His interests and fascinations never affected her or influenced her. She was very much her own person and by the time Rain came along, the girls clung to each other for camaraderie and The Professor was perfectly content to be the solitary figure in the group. He still prefers plenty of alone time. Now, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t play together. They certainly did. But there were no rousing games of “let’s play Ancient Egypt” together. When we went to the Flight Museum, the girls could take it or leave it. It didn’t speak to them. They all like each other fine and are actually drawing closer to each other now as they’ve gotten older, but personality and birth order do have some affect on family dynamics… or at least they seemed to have in my family.

    Now that I read back over this, I feel the need to also stipulate that we never encouraged any kind of separation between them. We always expected them to respect each other. “Boys will be boys and girls will be girls” was never an allowable excuse in our house. They were never divided into boys and girls groups except in so far as their personal interests naturally divided them. The Professor has never knitted and Sunshine never took fencing not because one is a boy and the other a girl but just because those were their natural interests. I have had the opportunity to see many other families like yours where the two oldest were of the same gender and I think it sets a different tone for the rest of the family. I think that, in combination with your Bella’s personality and natural inclinations, is working in your favor.

    But, I agree… I wish Leila would expound more on what didn’t work for her. Enquiring minds want to know. My husband, being a history major, loves history and believes like you that history is first and foremost… his story. The story of man and his relationships with each other and God. One of his favorite movies by the way is The Truman Show because of the scene when Truman finally speaks with the God-like figure in the sky. He asks two questions… who are you and who am I? Maybe Leila never made the connection between inspiring stories and inspiring a love of history. Maybe her children had a different family dynamic. If her oldest child didn’t have that natural passion for stories and history like ours do, perhaps it was harder to instill it? I’ve had both to deal with ( the natural passion for history and the reluctant to embrace history) so I think I can kind of understand.

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 21, 2014 at 12:53 am #

      Charlotte,

      That makes sense to me. Family dynamics and personalities definitely play a huge role in what is going to work for any given family. I think there are probably many valid reasons for not picking the four year cycle style of history, I’m just not sure the ones Leila lists are the best objections that can be made.

      And who know I may indeed find that what works for Bella doesn’t work for her younger siblings and I may modify my plans accordingly. Above all, I think everyone has to do what works best for their own families. And if Leila had laid out why a particular course of study didn’t work for her family, I’d have written a different sort of response post.

      Mainly, I found her objections strangely off base and irrelevant to our lived experience and to the reasons I’ve chosen the course we’re following. I’ve come to be leery of prescriptive homeschooling articles because they too often universalize the particular. I much prefer reading about what works for individual families and why. Then I can see more clearly what may or may not be applicable to my own family. Theory is all very well in small doses, but I much prefer practical nuts and bolts explanations of what happens in the day to day life of living with a particular curriculum.

      I don’t like dispensing advice. If pressed, I’d say: if the cycle/spiral approach doesn’t work for your family, then pick a different one. But discard it because it doesn’t appeal to you or to your kids, don’t try to appeal to a universal rule about how in general it just doesn’t work for kids of a certain age.

  4. Catherine September 20, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    We follow the 4-year cycle and use The Story of the World. The first or second “go-around” feeds their imagination. History has never been boring for my kids! We tried to use a timeline, but I found that at age 6 & 7 the passage of time was hard for them to understand. They could put a sticker in a book of centuries, but it didn’t mean much to them. I know my oldest child, 11, cannot now recall most of the details of the Story of the World vol 1. But, when we encounter the ancients again next school year, I suspect a lot of it will come back to him.

    What has not worked for us as well as I thought is that the Story of the World (the books themselves and the actual events) becomes inappropriate for young children in levels 3 & 4. So, the possibility of doing history as a family becomes just a little more complicated. We’ve always listened to the audios in the car; now my oldest son has to read it on his own. I’m not going to go into the details of the world wars with even my second child, who is almost 9. He will get some history through our family read-alouds, but things will be simpler when we go back to Year 1 next year!

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 21, 2014 at 1:03 am #

      I can’t remember where but I know somewhere along the line and probably from a variety of sources I absorbed the advice that timelines are really much more appropriate for the middle school years so I haven’t even bothered to do one yet with Bella. Also, much as I’d like to in theory in practice it just never came together. So I’m saving that for the second go-round.

      One thing I like about the spiral approach is that it eases my natural perfectionism and need to do all the things now. If we don’t get to a particular book or cover a topic as well as I’d like, I always remind myself that we can do it next time when it comes round again. It’s wonderfully reassuring to know that they don’t have to get it all now or even the second time around. It’s a reminder that learning is always a process of making a connection and then coming back to the place where you started and seeing it again as if for the first time. Recognition vies with strangeness for we aren’t the same people when we come back to it and so it seems like a totally new world to explore.

      I’m still really on the fence about Story of the World Volume 4. Right now I’m wondering if I might not stretch 3 to cover a year and a half and present a highly edited version of 4, skipping some of the bits that won’t work as well for the younger set. Modern history is so much more tricky, as you say. Then again, many of our hero saints come from that era and it would be a shame to skip them. I’m still pondering and discerning and I love hearing how you handle it in your family.

      • Ellie September 21, 2014 at 10:11 am #

        Melanie, timelines can be a wonderful learning tool for a variety of ages — don’t be afraid of implementing the concept ‘earlier’ than some might suggest! Especially for visual learners (adults and children alike), they can be a terrific tool.

        I have always favored a “scroll” approach, as this saves space! Roll it up and tuck it away when not in active use. I know some homeschooling families really love having a long long wall poster type style of timeline, but I’ve never lived in a house where that was practical!

        Other families like the ‘book of centuries’ style. This can be a nice option too and needed be expensive! A three ring binder filled with printer paper works great. Just add or shift pages as needed, down through the years.

        The concept of time is one that most children get a handle on fairly young in the sense that they are away of the seasons, birthdays, holidays and so on. They understand ‘before’ and ‘after’.

        So a timeline can begin with what the child already knows. “This was before Mama was born”, “this was after the time of Christ”, “this was before the Vikings” — fill in the blank, really, for the before and after concept, but kids of varying ages can definitely understand that. It’s not about drilling and memorizing the dates (not for me, I mean, not when they’re young: my 12 and 15 year olds are more reliable about the era and dates now, but not at 6 and 9 🙂 ).

        Timeline pages in a binder or notations on a scroll can be a detailed or as simple as you like. A saint’s coloring page, or Egyptian hieroglyphs, hot air balloons, Alexander the Great, the printing press etc etc! Have the dates listed absolutely, but just as an addendum when they’re young, no pressure. Keep things in order in terms of the passage of time. Over the course of years, it all comes together very nicely for the kids: interesting people and events and discoveries and inventions etc etc each get their own page or notation, and their dates.

        Then, by the time they are 11, 12, etc it all starts to come together really nicely, as they’ve been building on the concept for years.

        • Melanie Bettinelli September 21, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

          I suppose I should have explained that I was relieved when I found someone saying that they didn’t advocate doing timelines until older because I felt it let me off the hook for doing something I didn’t feel up to at the time.

          The biggest reason I haven’t done a timeline is I haven’t ever got organized enough to do one. Bella’s first grade year was when I was pregnant with Lucy. I was doing the bare minimum, reading the books and not much else. The idea of adding a timeline, much as I’d have liked to, was overwhelming. Like you, we don’t have a wall big enough. The idea of a Book of Centuries is a bit intimidating and the scroll idea hadn’t even occurred to me.

          I do think Bella would enjoy it, but I’m not quite up to organizing it just now and she’s not really capable of doing it on her own yet. I’m hoping in a few years she’ll be able to make it a more independent project, able to write and color and organize things herself.

          As I said, the nice thing about a spiral method is that the opportunity will come around again. And next time the little ones can enjoy the timeline too.

          • Ellie September 21, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

            I think part of what I was trying to express was that, for me, maintaining some version of a timeline is just another learning tool much like an art sketch book, a daily composition journal, nature notebooks, maths books and so on …. It’s an always there and ongoing sort learning resource, not tied to one method or another of studying History (spirals, cycles, unit studies etc), or to one year or grade level in a child’s life versus another. There is a lovely flexibility to it, and it can be expanded or contracted according to the family’s needs, and interests and depth of study; and can incorporate so many other areas of study, not just history — art, literature, science and technology, family history and genealogy …

            🙂 I guess I am fonder of timelines than I realized!! 🙂

            • Karen Edmisten September 23, 2014 at 7:40 am #

              I’m fond of timelines, too, but yes, Melanie, there’s always time and always another cycle, and I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules about it either way. I started a timeline (a wall one, which grew, and which was eventually moved to the basement when the piano claimed the timeline’s wall/home) the first year we were homeschooling, and it worked well for us, as my oldest was very visual and I was mainly doing it for her. But it’s not a must for that age, just another tool with the usual caveat — if it works for you, go for it. 🙂

              • Melanie Bettinelli September 23, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

                I think if we’d had the wall space I’d have gone for it. But a wall timeline seems to me somehow easier and less deliberate than a Book of Centuries approach or even a scroll you have to store carefully and dig out every time you want to add to it. Maybe it’s a sour grapes sort of thing? If I can’t have the wall timeline I want, I just won’t do it (at least for now!)? Really I’m just insanely jealous of anyone who has plenty of wall space to dedicate to timelines and maps and such. Feeling cramped and unsatisfied in my house is the constant burden of my complaint.

                • Karen Edmisten September 24, 2014 at 8:23 am #

                  I agree about the wall being a great place, at least for us. When it was up on the wall, we could just run over to it, take a look, slap a new picture or write a new note on it. We’ve started Books of Centuries, but never totally stuck with them. And since we got a piano a few years back and it took up the only wall space I had for the timeline (in the dining room), our timeline has been sent to the basement, and that makes me a little sad. 🙂

                  It’s hard when you don’t feel like you have the space to do what you want to do. I understand! We’ve long lived in a small house and often find ways to make do. I’ve never really had the space to prominently display a lot of maps, etc. I still keep a globe handy for Ramona to pick out whatever place we’re talking about, and then we look on a map, too, but the maps are not in a handy place. 🙂

                  Timeline or not, I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about your kids learning and loving history! 🙂

                • mandamum October 6, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

                  (usual lurker here) I really appreciate your response to the essay as well – your experience aligns more with what I have found so far, just listening to SotW in the car. I would like to try doing it more deliberately, so I appreciate your (nuts and bolts -exactly!) description of how you branch out from SotW spine.

                  As far as timelines, what I did was this: I picked a plaid scrapbook paper pattern (in the by-the-sheet bins) that sort of matches both the long hall and the kitchen paint, and then measured the amount of wall length I had to work with, starting from the entryway end of the hall, down and around the end of it, back up and around the corner into the kitchen (no doorway mouldings to maneuver). Then I decided where I wanted more space (1500-present) and where I was willing to smush (creation – 3000BC, 3000-2000BC) and apportioned the time. (AD until 1500 gets about 1.5 times as much space per century as BC after 2000, and since scrapbook paper is a foot across, it makes measurement pretty easy.) I cut the scrapbook paper in half and taped it into a ribbon of sorts, giving me a 6″ “border” up near the ceiling – I wanted it high enough not to be taken apart by children and to clear the doorways, and in a location where it might look a bit like a wallpaper border. Then I put year markers on in solid paper, and started putting up pictures of different SotW and CCM (Classically Catholic Memory) events. It’s a bit challenging to get the pictures large enough to see, but small enough to share the space. Sometimes I have to climb a chair to revisit the tiny squares 🙂 And I made some blank 3×5 card halves for my girls to draw their own (which are, of course, the favorites).

                  Here’s where “reality” sits: I have creation – 200BC up, and then 1500-1800, but I’m missing most of AD and all the current millenium because I haven’t taped those sheets together yet. And I did what we have… over a year ago. But it’s a work in progress, and we’re enjoying it even so unfinished. Our CCM history sentences are from the birth of Christ, so I really should have that early AD up there…. but our Timeline memory work is still firmly BC so I can at least get them up there. And poor Christopher Columbus is hovering on a blank wall just before the 1500s begin around the corner in the kitchen 😉

                  Our “nuts and bolts” of a timeline that at least *I* am enjoying 😉

  5. Jenny September 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    I’m glad to see this post because I, too, immediately thought of you when I saw Leila’s post. I have no dog in this particular fight but was interested in seeing what you thought. I also thought it was interesting that Leila didn’t elaborate why she decided the cyclical approach wasn’t the best for her.

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 21, 2014 at 1:08 am #

      Well, that’s what really bothered me about her piece. It wasn’t clear if it “wasn’t best for her” as in she’d tried it and found it wanting or if it was more that it looked like a bad idea and so she never tried it. Or she tried something akin to it but it didn’t work and she’s assuming that what I’m doing is the same thing. It’s just not clear what if any experience she has with Story of the World or other spiral curricula. The assertions without evidence, even anecdotal evidence, bother me.

      • Leila September 23, 2014 at 11:45 am #

        Just to add to what I have posted in my comment below, I *do* advocate the cyclical approach (not that I’m an expert — in anything!) — just not beginning in Kindergarten. I think there are other things a K-1st grader could be focussing on.
        But again, this is a comment about a method. If your own personal approach is working, that’s great!

  6. scotch meg September 21, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    Funny how things go … when I started using the Story of the World, they were just coming out. My recollection is that I used the first volume with a second grader. Then when it came time to spiral, he was not going to listen to the stories in the “baby” book again. So we did things differently with the “spiral” – we used some of the book suggestions for older kids, we used some books from the Catholic Textbooks Project, we used some series (especially for American history) from the library – the Story of US and books by the Collier brothers (James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier). Instead of doing a whole-family cycle, I ended up starting over with the youngest child separately, even though he had listened to lots of it earlier. I never told him to go away during history reading.

    I wasn’t worried about the modern history. Ancient history is no less violent than the 20th century, and the Story of the World books are appropriate for kids. If ancient history seems distant and fairy-tale-like and therefore less realistically violent, so does the history of the last century. For us as adults it is closer – maybe grandparents or parents have memories of these dramatic events, and they seem more real. But for our kids… not so much. Pearl Harbor and Nazis are as unreal as the Armada and the Elizabethan priest-hunters. Or as real, depending on how you look at them. I wouldn’t have a fourth grader read “The Diary of Anne Frank” – but I certainly would use “Twenty and Ten” to talk about the Holocaust. In this day and age, perhaps a good lead-in to what is happening in the Middle East.

    As far as loving history goes, well, that’s a question of personality. I have some who love history and some who could take it or leave it. But the Story of the World had nothing to do with the longer term trend – both of the two who went through that cycle loved it. One still enjoys history and the other doesn’t. Just the way of life. And it’s got nothing to do with aptitudes, because both of them are more tech-y than artsy. In fact, the one who tends not to enjoy high school history (so far) is not the one who plans to major in math. Just so ya know.

    Do your best, and don’t look back.

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 22, 2014 at 12:56 am #

      I’ve already been guessing that in a second spiral SOTW wouldn’t be as appealing to a middle schooler. So I’d imagine reading it to the littles, Sophie and Ben and Anthony while doing something else with Bella. Or maybe at that point Sophie would be with Bella? Who knows. But I tend to use SOTW as a spine but not necessarily the heart and soul of our history study. It’s mostly to tie everything together into a semi-coherent narrative. I think the real meat and potatoes is actually the “supplemental” books and videos and literature and art and music and all.

      Good point about the relative violence. I think the squeamishness is probably more on the part of the adult than the children. And I have already read Bella stories about St Teresa Benedicta/Edith Stein so we’ve at least touched on Nazis and concentration camps. Context: martyrs. You’re right her death is no worse than St Lucy’s in St Patrick’s Summer.

      “Do your best, and don’t look back.” I love it. And I miss you, Karin. We need to get together again soon. How’s the Latin shaking out?

  7. scotch meg September 21, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Oh, and I took an extra year for the cycle with the second round, so we finished volume four at the end of fifth grade. I had distinct goals for middle school, since I thought at the time that my kids were going to go to high school – I wanted to get some ancient history done in eighth grade, since most high schools around here start with the middle ages (none of that messy Christ stuff for parents to get upset about). So we ended up doing five years of Story of the World, a year of Catholic schools textbook project (All Ye Lands) plus world geography, a year of American history (7th grade), and more or less a year of high school level ancient history.

    At least, that was the plan. If it turned out a little differently – you won’t be surprised.

    We did spiral – sort of. I imagine the spiral would work differently in a family where the kids are closer together in age than my last (and most extensively homeschooled) two are.

    What I said before, only double: do your best and don’t look back.

  8. Amy F September 21, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

    I’m gal to read this – I agree with you wholeheartedly. I began homeschooling 2 years ago and my big kids are now 10 and 8. We are going to do one round of world history over 5 years so my oldest gets to present day by the end of seventh grade. Then I’ll have them do civics in8th/6th and the high school we will likely send them to does another round of world history. I’m combining SOTW with RCHistory and beefing up the Catholic Textbook Project parts now that my oldest is approaching middle school. So my kids will be older when we hit the 20th century. But living books are still the center.

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 22, 2014 at 1:37 am #

      I haven’t really looked at RC History very closely, but I’ve seen it mentioned a few times and I’m intrigued. I glanced at their website and found it a little opaque. I couldn’t readily grasp what exactly they offered. I need to go back and peruse at my leisure, I think. It’s just so hard to find any. 🙂

      “But living books are still the center.” Yes, that more than anything else.

      • Amy F September 27, 2014 at 12:16 am #

        Although RCHistory pushes its CONNECT acronym hard, I mainly use it for its booklist. The author has found some wonderful living books for all grade levels and split them into units. I’m pretty sure you can see the book list for free on the website. I have only done a couple of her projects and writing prompts, but we’ve read nearly every book she suggests at the beginner level and most at the grammar level for volumes 2 and 3. (My kids did a bit of the ancients in kindergarten at their private school so I started history with Jesus birth/SOTW volume 2.)

        It’s just now, in 5th grade, that I’m having my oldest do more writing in history. I gave them a million books to read in previous years and we all loved it.

        • Melanie Bettinelli September 27, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

          Thanks, Amy. I’ll have to check out their lists. I’m always looking for more book lists. Yay for good living books!

  9. Amy F September 21, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

    Argh, that is glad, not gal.

  10. Leila September 23, 2014 at 11:41 am #

    Hi Melanie — as you probably gathered, I have been traveling and so am scrambling to catch up on things.

    I’m hoping that you saw my clarification on the part of my post that was a bit ambiguous — it’s my own education as a child in the area of history that I found lacking, and it took me a long time to crystallize my educational philosophy in this area.

    Thus, it took me a while to get up to speed in my own homeschool. That’s all I meant. I have tried various things and listened to many homeschoolers. My post is by no means comprehensive (and this is what I get for trying to just do a limited post!).

    History is actually the one subject that eludes easy summary, simply because it’s so many-faceted and requires so many different resources. I have posted in the past about my beloved Bobbs-Merrill readers, lap books, and timelines (that one is linked in the post in question), but really, I’d be hard pressed to do a good job going over ALL the things I’ve used.

    I am sorry you felt insulted by the post, because nothing was further from my intention! You obviously love thinking about history and teaching it to your children, and you are intelligent and experienced (and relaxed) enough to know what is working and what isn’t.

    Truth to tell, I had something very specific in mind when I was posting — namely, the somewhat rigid “classical curriculum” approach that begins in Kindergarten — coupled with the earnest, self-demanding, and not very experienced young homeschool mom’s efforts to do everything she can to give the child a good education.

    In addition, I had in mind classical grade schools that tout their approach — starting the cyclical learning in Kindergarten. Perhaps this even more than the other, because we homeschoolers can respond to our own child but a school will continue on its way.

    I find that many young moms give up on homeschooling because their young children (under 2nd grade) get frustrated and they do too.

    If this coincided with something you had posted, I am sorry — I really was thinking of other things, and I bet we agree on those things anyway 🙂

    Often, the homeschooling parent will drag that child through the curriculum regardless of whatever frustration everyone is feeling!

    What I tried to say in my post is that the development of the Kindergartener or first grader is not coinciding with that kind of pressure.

    And I tried to say that if any particular family is finding it exciting to explore far-away long-ago times, then great! But if a mom is getting that panicky feeling, she should know that there is plenty of time for the child’s development to catch up with the curriculum. And many other ways to approach things, including yours.

    I also feel that for many whose interests lie elsewhere, there is an opportunity cost in insisting on following a rigid, cyclical approach at such a young age. The child who just wants to manipulate numbers, or who is struggling with learning to read, or who needs gross motor skill development, will really suffer when subjected to “history lessons” before the right moment.

    All of that is completely distinct from interested children exploring things they are genuinely taken with along with their equally interested parents!

    I think that all the things you are doing will be successfully imitated by the parents of slightly older children IF they are in the state I am describing.

    So hopefully this clears up some of your issues with my post — again, it was not in any way directed at you! — I do really like the cyclical approach and heartily endorse it, once a basic level of understanding has been reached in the child’s imaginative and cognitive development.

    • Leila September 23, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

      I’ve edited my post further to make it more clear what I’m talking about. See what you think!

  11. Jennifer Gregory Miller September 24, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    Melanie, I’ve been mulling over this. I found that the sense of history wasn’t really understood when our boys were younger. I remember taking our oldest to Mount Vernon, telling him that this is George Washington’s house. He really enjoyed it, but at one point he asked if GW was going to come out so we could meet him. That’s when I realized that the sense of time wasn’t really grasped.

    I also saw that the younger children have difficulty sorting fact from fiction. Who or what is real and what are just stories? They enjoy it, but it all lumps together.

    In this, I agree with Leila. I think starting the cyclical history is too young before 3rd, if you think this is laying a foundation and building the knowledge for other years. I prefer to introduce history through family, then through great persons, particularly those of our country. We love Mary Daly’s First Timeline for that approach. I was introducing the sense of time and important figures and events, but not necessarily trying to teach history.

    Then we did American history along that approach, simple, again focusing on the people, rather than the great ideas. And saints and the Bible also introduce that sense of past and great people.

    I’m very fond of the CM approach to history, especially what MA has. In Britain they would have started with what is closest to home, their own country, and expand from there. So we start with American. We do two types of history starting at 3rd grade. I haven’t felt it necessary to cling to following exact cycles.

    I guess what really needs to be defined is what is “teaching history”? To me it looks different and has different aims at the different levels. Maria Montessori addresses this when with the different planes of childhood. At a young age we introduce some concepts of time, of culture, of great people and events. We introduce some things that they canmake connections, like George Washington, who is on the dollar bill.

    I don’t think hsitory has to be bookish or overthought, and I do agree it needs to be enjoyed. Some of your children’s extensions are similar here, with Lego and play acting and such. And then the books….picture books and read alouds galore.

    But the aim is separate at the young ages versus the older ones.

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 25, 2014 at 1:40 am #

      “I was introducing the sense of time and important figures and events, but not necessarily trying to teach history.”

      But I’d say that’s exactly what we’re doing. Is it calling that “history” that’s so confusing? Because I’m not really seeing a substantial difference. Except that the sense of important figures and events that I’m playing with includes Biblical figures and a smattering of figures from Mesopotamia and Egypt and Rome. No, I suppose it’s not really “history” it’s just interesting stories. And yes, the importance of them is over kids heads often. And definitely the aims of “history” are vastly different at different ages. For early elementary, it’s just fun stories and events and some stuff about daily life in different times and places. Most definitely people rather than ideas. Though I throw the ideas out there sometimes because they are there, but they aren’t the focus, how could they be?

      I agree that the sense of time is hazy, but I suppose what I mean when I talk about laying a foundation isn’t what you’re thinking. It’s a foundation of pleasure and relationship. Not one of building knowledge, but of creating an excitement, a sense of wonder and connection. I don’t expect retention of names or events or really anything, I expect the beginning of an awareness of time and culture and place.

      So yes, I agree that it seems what really needs to be defined is what is “teaching history”? I say teaching history at an appropriate age level will indeed be different at the different age levels. I don’t think anyone should push kids faster than they can go. I delayed Bella’s formal reading instruction until last year, when she was in “second grade” because she’s not ready. I’m very open to reading what my children are ready for and interested in and following their lead. But I guess I’m not really understanding the pushback either. If kids are hazy about history and sorting fact and fiction, then it seems if they are happy with the ancient world then that’s just as good as American or English history. They’re fun and exciting stories and it’s really about an imaginative and playful experience, not an academic study at all.

      “I don’t think history has to be bookish or overthought, and I do agree it needs to be enjoyed.” I’m not sure I’m capable of *not* being “bookish and overthought”. It’s just the way I approach everything. It’s the way I see the world. I do try to reign it in and not go too far beyond what my kids are capable of, I am very aware of their developmental abilities. But I do enjoy pushing the boundaries just a little. Not so as to make them uncomfortable but to see how far we might be able to go. I like reading them hard things and seeing what will stick. They are free to wander off and play with Legos and much of the time they do. Except Bella who begs for more. Then again she was the kid who begged Dom to read her articles from Popular Science and Popular Mechanics when she was potty training. She likes listening to complex language even when its meaning is beyond her. Who am I to deny her that pleasure.

      Sophie is less interested and that is precisely why I’m not designing a separate “history” plan for her this year. She can listen in on what I’m doing with Bella, take what interests her and leave the rest. So far all that’s caught her fancy has been Shakespeare stories. And I’m happy with that. If she’s got no taste for any of the rest of it and that’s all the “history” she gets this year, then I’m content. She’s only six. We have time and time and time for the formal study of history when she’s old enough to get it.

      So yes, I think it must be calling what we do “history” that’s the problem. In fact, here at home we don’t. It’s never been a formal subject like math and reading. It’s just part of our afternoon “Story Time.” One more book in the pile to dip into before we move on to something else. Same with science and literature. They aren’t subjects to be studied. It’s just dishes at the banquet.

      I’d agree that exact cycles aren’t necessary for kids. They satisfy my own need for logic and order and putting things in their proper place. Perhaps it’s a weakness in me as a teacher, but starting in the middle with American history would drive me batty. Although I was open to the possibility. I was really on the fence when we were beginning with Bella’s “first grade” year. So I asked her, which would you prefer? And she chose ancient history. Does that seem silly, to follow the whim of a six year old? I mean it as an illustration of how lightly I took “history” at that point. All we did was read a bunch of books and only so long as they kept her interest. Had she lost interest, I’d have ditched the project and gone back to American history. Also, that we started with ancient history doesn’t mean that we don’t discuss George Washington and read books about the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving and visit the Mayflower and lots of other bits and pieces as they come up or as we stumble onto them. Sharing the stories of the ancient world has been fun for all of us.

  12. Jennifer Gregory Miller September 25, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    I need to clarify my thought process. I always Refer to overthinking and bookish to the textbooks, workbooks and the structured activities. A living book, narration, and activities that are inspired and sprout organically is not what I think of overthinking history. I’m a history major and I think some of the schooly ways of history are just too much. Cm approach recognizes that history underlines the whole curriculum, it’s not cubbyholed into one subject.

  13. Valerie in NZ October 7, 2014 at 12:14 am #

    Making my comment a little late – but, an excellent article, Melanie! Found myself nodding in agreement all through. Well done.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] Go read Melanie! Particularly her very interesting thoughts about history and children. […]

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    […] Some more, rather rambling, musings about teaching history with Story of the World, following up on History for the Young Child. […]

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