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By John Davisteacher and freelance writer

Helping children to develop a greater awareness of time and chronology is a difficult part of teaching history. Using timelines can overcome some of the difficulties involved by helping children understand the correct order in which events happened.


Timelines are an excellent way of clearly showing important data and represent a key area in which history and mathematics merge closely together. Dates should not become an obsession, though. With younger children in particular, the emphasis should be more on sequence and getting events in the correct order.

Use of vocabulary

Timelines and the way in which they can be used to sequence events are an excellent way of introducing children to some of the important vocabulary associated with the teaching of history. Younger children should become familiar with using words and phrases like before, after, between, earlier, later, at the same time as, future, present, ago, first, last and next. Introduce older children to more specialised vocabulary like ancient, modern, era, period, age, generation, dynasty, reign, decade, century, millennium and pre-historic.

Timeline formats

There are a variety of formats for constructing timelines and primary aged children should experience a range of them during their time in school.

Timelines for younger children

Spread low-level timelines around the walls of classrooms or down a corridor where access is easy and large labels and illustrations can be added quickly. Give a group of children a set of events on large illustrated boards, stand them at the front of the class and ask other children to arrange them in the correct sequence. Alternatively the boards can be pegged out on a length of washing line stretched across the room and added to when new historical topics are introduced.

Timelines for older children

Experiment with large sheets of joined-up card constructed in an accordion design. Pull pieces in to cut down on display space and spread them out to examine the timeline in full. Children’s own individual timelines can be kept in large ring-binder sketchbooks. Label time spans near the top of the book leaving the rest of the blank page for collecting information and adding pictures and diagrams. If the timeline is intended as a source of reference rather than for display purposes, try using a card index system inside a drawer. Use coloured card to indicate the turn of the centuries and file the items in each section in time order. The cards themselves can be used to gather data or list what resources are available and where they can be found.

Small paper copies of timelines can also come in different formats. Timelines can be drawn either vertically or horizontally while others suggest the passing of time is best shown as a journey along ‘the winding path’. Spiral timelines are also becoming popular and like the others they are easy to construct.

When labelling time spans, years, decades and centuries should be clearly marked at regular-spaced intervals. Specific dates, further information, illustrations and so on can be included on either side of the actual line or in spaces provided. Allow room on either side of the timeline to make children aware that there is a past before the start of the timeline and that time continues after the events recorded. Decisions will need to be made about the use of AD (‘Anno Domini’ or ‘In the year of our Lord’) and BC (‘Before Christ’) and how this is explained to children. Increasingly, some published sources use BCE (‘Before Common Era’ or ‘Before Christian Era’) and CE (‘Common Era’ or ‘Christian Era’).

Take the opportunity to include timelining activities whenever artefacts are used in the classroom. Ask children how old objects might be and when they were used. Challenge them to arrange artefacts in time order. This works best if objects have a common theme but with a distinct age difference. Try a collection of different methods of lighting, a set of toys or items of baby clothes. Find opportunities to run several timelines in parallel. In a project on the Victorians, for example, record events and personalities that feature locally, nationally and in the wider world.

Suggested themes

Key Stage One:

My day

  • Start with the children’s own day and how time influences when things are done and where we need to be. Ask children to cut out the illustrations shown on Activity sheet, ‘My day’, and arrange them in the correct sequence. Pose questions that require them to use and interpret words like first, last, before, after and between.
  • Extend the time span by investigating the order of key events in the school calendar. Draw a long, wiggly line to represent a ‘winding path’ timeline. Divide the line evenly into ten sections and label them with the months September to July. Ask children to add the following events to their correct position in the school year: Christmas, school fete, sports day, year ends, bonfire party, Easter, year begins, carol concert.
  • Ask children to construct an individual picture timeline by bringing in a series of five or six photographs of themselves from home to show how they have grown and changed over time. Ensure they obtain permission first.

Key Stage Two:

Family tree Nile seasons

  • Make a timeline in the classroom that covers long periods of Britain’s history rather than separate eras or events. One theme might be ‘Britain under Attack’. Ask children to correctly sequence invasions and threatened attacks from the Romans, the French, Nazi Germany, the Spanish, the Vikings and the Normans.
  • Activity sheet, ‘Family tree’, provides the opportunity to experience another form of increasingly popular timeline these days, the family tree. As an extension, encourage children to construct their own family tree going back over several generations.
  • Try the timeline with a difference on Activity sheet, ‘Nile seasons’. Here, time passing is not linear but cyclical. Compare the passing of our own seasons with those that existed around the River Nile in Ancient Egypt.