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Barton, Keith C., and Linda S. Levstik. “‘Back When God was Around and Everything’: Elementary Children's Understanding of Historical Time.” American Educational Research Journal 33(2) (1996): 419-54.


In order to investigate elementary children’s understandingof historical time, we conducted open-ended interviewswith 58 children from kindergarten through sixth grade. In orderto overcome the limitations of previous research in this area,we asked children to place pictures from various periods ofAmerican history in order and to talk about their reasoning.We found that even the youngest children made some basic distinctionsin historical time and that those became increasingly differentiatedwith age. Dates, however, had little meaning for children beforethird grade, and, although third and fourth graders understoodthe numerical basis of dates, only by fifth grade did studentsextensively connect particular dates with specific backgroundknowledge. At all ages, children’s placement of most picturesrevealed substantial agreement with one another and with thecorrect order; this agreement indicates a significant body ofunderstanding of historical chronology. History instructionin the elementary grades, then, might productively focus onhelping students refine and extend the knowledge they have gainedabout history; information which relies on dates, however, isunlikely to activate their temporal understanding. 

American Educational Research Journal