Since I had a lecture on gender and the Carolingian Renaissance to give today I had to explain to L why I was off early and my husband was taking her to school. She can cope both with the idea that Im a lecturer (=teacher) and that Im teaching history (=what happened a long time ago). What she hasnt quite got yet is what I teach about when Im teaching history. So she asked today whether I was teaching about dinosaurs or Bible stories, which is fair enough, because she knows both happened a long time ago. But how do you explain the concept of the eighth century or 1000 years ago to someone for whom a year represents 20% of their life-span? However, after further reflection, I think I am actually getting quite close towards a suitable form of historical periodisation for five-year olds (or at least my five-year old).
L so far knows about 4 main historical events/figures (in the loosest sense of the world). These are, in order:
2) Bible stories
3) Bonnie Prince Charlie (owing to numerous renditions and explanations of Over the sea to Skye)
4) Her great-granny (aged 102 and the oldest person she knows)
That still leaves a gap of around 1700 years, which is pushing it a little. What I need is one key medieval date/event. One obvious possibility is 1066, if for no other reason that the Bayeux Tapestry just needs a few English (rather than Latin) captions to be a childrens picture book. Once you have the Norman conquest established as a historical event then you have your periodisation set up:
a) Prehistory is after the dinosaurs but before the Bible
b) Ancient history is the time of the Bible
c) Early medieval history (=what Mummy teaches) is after the Bible but before the Norman Conquest
d) The next bit is a little trickier, because you have to stick everything from 1066 to 1745 together. However there is actually a vaguely plausible argument that this is all just the ancien regime/noble domination, so I think I can have medieval/early modern as after the Norman Conquest but before Bonnie Prince Charlie
e) Modern history is after Bonnie Prince Charlie
f) Recent history (1905 onwards) is in Great-Grannys lifetime.
For the West at least, that doesnt seem too bad an outline framework, at least until L needs to learn the difference between the Tudors and the Stuarts. Now all I have to do is work out what medieval history (if any) can be taught to a sensitive child. (I have already nearly got stumped by the question Why did knights build castles?, because I could not translate my instinctive thought: in order to be able to dominate and oppress the peasants, into anything more child-friendly).