A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Activities: History as Time


While our children need the opportunity to study events in depth to get an understanding of them, they also need to know the sequence of historical events in time, and the names and places associated with them. Being able to place events in time, your child is better able to learn the relationships among them. What came first? What was cause, and what was effect? Without a sense of chronological order, events seem like a big jumble, and we can't understand what happened in the past. It matters, for example, that our children know that the American and French Revolutions are related.


Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the place of another person and time. Since history is the reconstruction of the past, we must have an idea of what it was like "to be there" in order to reconstruct it with some accuracy. For example, in studying the westward expansion your children may ask why people didn't fly across the country to avoid the hazards of exposure on stagecoach trails. When you answer that the airplane hadn't yet been invented, they may ask why not. They need an understanding of how technology develops and its state at the time. Using original source documents, such as diaries, logs, and speeches, helps us guard against imposing the present on the past, and allows us to see events through the eyes of people who were there.


Context is related to empathy. Context means "weave together" and refers to the set of circumstances in several areas that framed an event. To understand any historical period or event our children should know how to weave together politics (how a society was ruled), sociology (what groups formed the society), economics (how people worked and what they produced), and religion, literature, the arts, and philosophy (what was valued and believed at the time). When they try to understand World War II, for example, they will uncover a complex set of events. And they will find that these events draw their meaning from their context.

History means having a grand old time with new stories. So, think about the relationship between history and time as you do the following activities.

Time Marches On

The stories of history have beginnings, middles, and ends that show events, and suggest causes and effects. A personal timeline helps your child picture these elements of story.

What you'll need

Paper for timeline
Colored pencils
Shelf paper or computer paper
Removable tape
History log (optional)

What to do

  1. Draw on a piece of paper, or in the history log, a vertical line for the timeline. Mark this line in even intervals for each year of your child's life.

  2. Help your child label the years with significant events, starting with your child's birthday.

  3. Review the timeline. Your child may want to erase and change an event for a particular year to include a more memorable or important one. (Historians also rethink their choices when they study history.)

  4. For a timeline poster, use a long roll of shelf paper or computer paper. For a horizontal timeline, fasten it to the wall up high around the room using removable tape so that your child can take it down to add more events or drawings. For a vertical timeline, hang it next to the doorway in your child's room. Start with the birthday at the bottom. Your child can begin writing down events and add to it later.

  5. For older children, have them do a timeline of what was happening in the world at the same time as each event of their life. To begin, they can use the library's collection of newspapers to find and record the headlines for each of their birthdays.

What is the most significant event on the timeline? What effects did the event have on your child's life? What are the connections between the events in your child's life and world events at the time?

Weave a Web

A history web is a way of connecting people and events. Is there an old ball field in your town you've always wondered about? Or did you ever wonder why there are so many war memorials in your town? Then you need to do a history web!

What you'll need

Large piece of paper or poster board (at least 3 1/2 x 2 1/2 ft.)
Colored pencils or markers
History log

What to do

  1. Pick a place in your community that has always seemed mysterious to you--an old ball field, general or hardware store, house, or schoolhouse.

    Or ask yourself: "What are there lots of in my town?" Churches, fountains? Pick one of these historical "families."

  2. Go to one of these places. Jot down in your history log what you see and hear there. For example, look for marks on the buildings, such as dates and designs, or parts of the buildings, such as bleachers or bell towers.

  3. Find out other information about the place by asking a librarian for resources, or by searching the archives of your local newspaper. Look for major events that took place there, such as the setting of a world record or the visit of a famous person. Also look for other events that changed the place, such as modernization or dedications.

  4. Find people who have lived in your town a long time. Interview them using questions about these major and related events, and any others they remember.

  5. Draw a web, with the name of the place you studied in the middle (like the spider who weaves a "home").

  6. Draw several strands from the middle to show the major events in the life of the place.

  7. Connect the strands with cross lines to show other related events.

  8. When the web is complete consider the relationships among the strands. (See below.)

  9. Ask the editor of your local newspaper to publish your web. Ask readers to contribute more information to add to it. This is exactly how history is written!

When was the place you picked built? If you picked a "family" of places, when was each place built? If they were built around the same time, what similarities and differences do you notice about their features, such as style and what they commemorate? How is the place you picked connected to other events in history?

Put Time in a Bottle

Collecting things from one's lifetime and putting them in a time capsule is a history lesson that will never be forgotten.

What you'll need

Magazines or newspapers with pictures
Sealable container
Tape or other sealant
History log

What to do

  1. Have your children collect pictures of a few important things from their life to date.

  2. Tell your children that the items will be put in a time capsule so that when future generations find it they can learn something about your children and their time.

    Some things to collect that represent the life and times of a period are games and toys, new technology, means of transportation, slang, movies, presidential campaign memorabilia, great speeches, poetry and fiction, music, heroes, advertising, events, television shows, fashions, and accounts of issues and crises.

    Also have them include a letter describing life today to the person who opens the time capsule.

                         LIFT UP YOUR EYES UPON                     THIS DAY BREAKING FOR YOU.                     GIVE BIRTH AGAIN                     TO THE DREAM.                      WOMEN, CHILDREN, MEN,                     TAKE IT INTO THE PALMS OF YOUR HANDS,                     MOLD IT INTO THE SHAPE OF YOUR MOST                     PRIVATE NEED.  SCULPT IT INTO                     THE IMAGE OF YOUR MOST PUBLIC SELF.                     LIFT UP YOUR HEARTS...                                 Excerpted from "On the Pulse of                            Morning", delivered by Maya Angelou                         at the 1993 Presidential Inauguration.  
  3. Meet together for a "show and tell" of the items.

  4. Once everyone is satisfied with the collection, label the items by name and with any other information that will help those who find them understand how they are significant to the history of our time.

  5. Place the items in a container, seal the container, and find a place to store it.

  6. Write in the history log a short description of the time period and record the location of the time capsule.

What did the collection of items tell about the period? Did the items tend to be of a certain type?

Quill Pens & Berry Ink

Knowing how to write has been a valued skill throughout history. history itself depends on writing, and writing has changed over time from scratches on clay to computerized letters.

What you'll need

For quill pen:
feather, scissors, a paper clip

For berry ink: 1/2 cup of ripe berries, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon vinegar, food strainer, bowl, wooden spoon, small jar with tight-fitting lid

Paper towel
History log

What to do

  1. Make the ink: Collect some berries for your ink. Consider what color you want your ink to be, and what berries are available. Blueberries, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, or raspberries work well. Fill the strainer with berries and hold it over the bowl. Crush the berries against the strainer with the wooden spoon so that the berry juice drips into the bowl. When all the juice is out of the berries, throw the pulp away. Add the salt and vinegar to the berry juice and stir well. If the ink is too thick, add a teaspoon or two of water, but don't add too much or you'll lose the color. Store the ink in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Make only as much as you think you will use at one time, because it will dry up quickly.

  2. Make the pen: Find a feather. Form the pen point by cutting the fat end of the quill on an angle, curving the cut slightly. A good pair of scissors is safer than a knife. Clean out the inside of the quill so that the ink will flow to the point. Use the end of a paper clip if needed. You may want to cut a center slit in the point; however, if you press too hard on the pen when you write, it may split.

  3. Write with the pen: Dip just the tip of the pen in the ink, and keep a paper towel handy to use as an ink blotter. Experiment by drawing lines, curves, and single letters, and by holding the pen at different angles. Most people press too hard or stop too long in one spot.

  4. Practice signing your name, John Hancock style, with the early American letters shown here. Then write your signature in your history log.

  5. Write your name again using a pen or pencil. Compare the results.

Why do we write? When do people in your family use writing? What written things do you see every day? What is their purpose? What effect do different writing implements have on writing, for example quill pens, ballpoint pens, typewriters, and computers?

School Days

Did you ever wonder why there is no school in summer? Or why there might be soon?

What you'll need

Map of the United States
Crayons or colored pencils
History log

What to do

  1. Talk about what school was like when you were a child. Include how schools looked physically (e.g., one-room schoolhouse or campus?); what equipment teachers used (e.g., chalk boards or computers?); what subjects you studied; what choices you faced (e.g., transportation to and from school, extracurricular activities); and favorite teachers.

  2. Talk about what school was like 50 or 100 years ago. Ask your librarian for help in looking this up, and talk to older relatives.

    Include the history of work in America and how this affects schooling. For example, when America was an agricultural society, children were needed to help plant and harvest crops. It was common then that children didn't go to school every day, or in the summer.

    Have children draw a variety of crops or animals raised in the United States, including those grown in their own state or neighborhood. They can draw either right on the map or on paper that they will cut and paste on the appropriate state. The map can be traced from an atlas in the library or from a geography book. Talk about when various crops are planted and harvested, and the effects of growing seasons on migrant worker families.

    Talk about another change in work in America and how it affected schooling. For example, when America was becoming a manufacturing economy, during the Industrial Revolution, laws were made against child labor and for mandatory schooling.

    Help your child talk about how the work of parents in America today affects schooling, for example, the need for afterschool programs.

  3. Imagine what school will be like in the future. Younger children may want to use blocks to build their future school, and older children may want to draw theirs.

What has remained the same about school from the past to the present? What has changed? If you could be the head of a school 20 years from now, what would you keep and what would you change based on your current school? How would you go about making the change?

Time To Celebrate

On quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies is written the phrase "E pluribus unum," "One out of many." What does it mean?

What you'll need

U.S. coins
Map of the world
History log

What to do

  1. Have your children look at U.S. coins for the expression "E pluribus unum", and translate it for them: "One out of many." Explain to them that it refers to America as one nation with many peoples and cultures, and that it is not a common nationality but shared democratic values that bind us as a nation.

  2. With your children talk about the following list of holidays celebrated in the United States. Look at a calendar to add other holidays, and next to each holiday write when it is celebrated and what is celebrated.

        New Year's Day         January 1          New beginning      Martin Luther          January 15         Birth of a leader     King Jr.'s                                  Birthday      Presidents' Day        3rd Monday         Originally, Presidents                             of February        Lincoln and Washington;                                               currently all former                                               U.S. presidents      Memorial Day           Last Monday        War dead                            of May      Independence           July 4             National independence;     Day                                       adoption of the                                               Declaration of                                               Independence in 1776      Labor Day              First Monday       Working people                            of September                  Columbus Day           Second Monday      Landing of Columbus in                             of October         the Bahamas in 1492                Veterans Day           November 11        War veterans      Thanksgiving           Fourth Thursday    Giving thanks for     Day                    of November        divine goodness                       Christmas Day          December 25        Birth of Jesus 

  3. Use the opportunity of talking about what holidays celebrate to read original sources. For example: on Presidents' Day read one of the great presidential speeches such as the Gettysburg Address; on Martin Luther King's Day read the "I Have a Dream" speech.

  4. Find holidays celebrated in other nations. Classmates, neighbors, and relatives from other countries are good sources of information.

  5. Think and talk about other important holidays our nation should celebrate.

  6. Discuss what your family celebrates, and have your children write about the discussion in their history log.

What kinds of accomplishments or events do we celebrate in America? What similarities and differences did you find between American holidays and holidays celebrated by people from other countries?

The Past Anew

Reenactments of historical battles or periods, such as colonial times, make our nation's history come alive. And they get our children involved.

What you'll need

A library card
Local newspapers
Phone book
History log

What to do

  1. Find out where reenactments are held by looking in your local newspaper or calling your local historical society, State Park, or National Park Service.

  2. Choose one, and prepare your child to see it by visiting a local museum or historical site that relates to the reenactment, or by watching a television program about the event or period to be reenacted. Use your local librarian and TV guide as resources.

  3. Attend the reenactment and participate. Ask the reenactors questions about anything--from the kind of hat they are wearing to the meanings of the event or period for the development or transformation of America. Finally, help your child write about this experience in the history log.

What was unusual or interesting about the reenactment? What role did each of the reenactors play? If there was conflict, what was shown or said about its causes? What obstacles did the characters face? How did they overcome them? What is the difference between the "real thing" and a performance of it? What did you learn from the performance?

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