Learning Tip: How to Teach Children Spans of Time

Teaching kids time

Did you know that only 74% of Americans know America gained its independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776?*

An understanding of time is one of the most valuable intellectual tools we have for organizing huge amounts of information. That’s why we have started a discussion on ways to teach time so that children gain solid access to the “fourth dimension.”

Last week, I gave tips to help children learn to tell the time of day. Today, I’m talking about how to teach older children (9-years-old and above) ways to comprehend larger spans of time—years, decades, centuries and eons.

Helping your children visualize spans of time

One way to approach this topic is to create a set of large rectangular sheets (with the long dimension going horizontally). Each sheet will then cover a particular time span such as:

Modern times ( four to five decades covering 1980-2020),

The past five to six centuries (1500-2000—basically the period relevant to modern history);

The past four to five thousand years (3000 BCE to 2000 CE—basically ancient civilizations to modern times)

Geologic time (using a scale into the millions of years)

As you can see,  the time frames that have been selected are relevant to subjects such as history and science. But the particular time frames are only suggestions. They can be adjusted to fit your child’s interests and curriculum.

For example, if your child is studying the beginnings of aboriginal culture in Australia, a time frame of 60,000 years or more would be appropriate.

Listed below are some key points about how to create and use the sheets themselves.

1. Sit with your child as you create each time frame. Explain the ideas that you are aiming to represent. For each, draw a line from left to right and place the earliest period at the left and the latest period at the right. Make sure to leave enough space under the line so that there is room to enter different events that fit the time frame.

2. Once you have a sheet ready, bring up some events that fall within the time frame of that sheet. Then have your child show you where those events fall on the line (e.g., for the past four to five centuries sheet, you might enter the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620 and the election of Lincoln in 1861). If your child is experiencing some difficulty with this, you complete the entry, while explaining to your child what you are doing.

3. Place the sheets on walls that are easily accessible. A family room or a child’s room are usually good places. Then as events come up at various times (e.g., in the course of homework, on the news, etc.) ask your child to select the sheet that best fits the event under discussion. Then have your child enter the event on the sheet.

4. Once a sheet has several entries, you can begin to discuss the various events and the significance they had to the period (e.g., the starting of the Civil War after Lincoln’s election).

5. If your child is interested, it’s fun to make an additional time sheet that reflects the years of his or her life. Then as you look over family photos or discuss important personal events in the past, your child can enter the information in the appropriate place on this “diary calendar.”

This activity is not designed to take a lot of time or effort in one sitting. Instead, its purpose is to create a steadily emerging framework that enables your child to see how a huge span of events fit together to form our world and our lives. In the end, you have offered your child an invaluable gift that has no time limit.

* According to this Marist poll.