Historical periodisation for five-year olds

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 I’m a lecturer (=teacher) and that I’m teaching history (=what happened a long time ago). What she hasn’t quite got yet is what I teach about when I’m 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:

1) Dinosaurs
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 children’s 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-Granny’s lifetime.

For the West at least, that doesn’t 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).


2 thoughts on “Historical periodisation for five-year olds

  1. Have only just discovered your blog because I was grabbed by the title of this post.

    Knights lived in castles because castles sat comfortably on top of hills and they could see who was coming. Seems obvious to me. (Sorry!)

    Key events that have a material marker are quite tricky, aren’t they? The Great Fire isn’t much before BPC in the great scheme of things and I doubt that Chaucer would appeal to a five year old. I suppose you aren’t keen to offer battles to such a little one. And Robin Hood is fiction.

    I tried to remember when the notion of a timeline gelled with me. It probably started with Jesus so I’d have had a fluffy idea at infant school, firmed up with history lessons and the background of story books like Black Beauty and the Water Babies while at primary school and, by the time I left at 11 and was about to fall in love with Henry VIII or Richard the Lionheart, it was a done deal. Just as well, too, since we did Minoans amongst other things in the first year of my next school!

    More seriously I wanted to respond to your question about the Clintons and probably should comment on the correct post but I don’t want to flood you. I’m unhappy with the idea of voting for someone purely on the basis of her social group. It seems corrupt. Are we not describing apartheid here? Putting anyone in any job should be strictly a matter of installing the very best available candidate without any nods to favouritism, social engineering or other artificial considerations. Discrimination can never be positive: to me that is an anomalous concept and it is always evil.

    (or, rather, vale!)


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