Children’s study of history rests on knowledge of facts, names, dates, and places. In addition, real historical understanding requires students to engage in historical thinking: to raise questions and to marshal evidence in support of their answers; to read historical narratives and fiction; to consult historical documents, journals, diaries, artifacts, historic sites, and other records from the past; and to do so imaginatively—taking into account the time and places in which these records were created and comparing the multiple points of view of those on the scene at the time. Real historical understanding also requires that children have opportunities to create historical narratives of their own.

Read more details at: UCLA Public History Initiative’s K-4 Content and Historical Thinking Standards.

Historical Thinking in the Elementary Years: A Review of Current Research

Notes from the article above:

Thinking historically does not just mean thinking about the past; it involves seeing oneself in time, as an inheritor of the legacies of the past and as a maker of the future. As historian Gerda Lerner says, “It gives us a sense of perspective about our own lives and encourages us to transcend the finite span of our life-time by identifying with the generations that came before us and measuring our own actions against the generations that will follow … We can expand our reach and with it our aspirations” (1997, 201). History teaching in the elementary schools therefore should offer opportunities for children to make a difference in the future of their communities. Projects such as the preservation of historic sites or the erection of historical monuments, or projects that involve them in environmental conservation would empower children and help them see the benefits of community service. This is why history is not only appropriate for elementary children; it is essential.


History is not a chronicle of everything that happened in the past. Historians make decisions about what is important; students need to be able to distinguish between what is trivial and what is important….Research suggests that even children as young as second grade can distinguish between “history” and “the past” ….Young children learning about their local community could address the element of historical significance by considering for whom their school or other places in the community are named. Why are these people important? Have they learned about other people in their community for whom something should be named?


Another important element of historical thinking involves understanding how we come to know about the past. What evidence do we have? How reliable is this evidence? How can we explain historical accounts that offer different, even contradictory, interpretations of events in the past? Children should not be left with the impression that there is one true story of the past….They also need to engage in historical inquiries of immediate relevance to them that require the use of evidence in the creation of original narratives, rather than recapitulating historiographical debates about events that are safely remote from their experience.

Continuity and Change

Researchers stress the importance of helping even very young children with time categories such as “past” and “present” or “then” and “now.” Children should begin by examining objects and photographs from their own childhood and by learning about the lives of elders in their community (Seefeldt 1993). They can also examine archival and current photographs of familiar scenes—schools or local streetscapes—and categorize them as past and present.

Sequence is another critical concept in understanding change over time. Researchers working with very young children stress the importance of developing their understanding of a sequence of events by using familiar contexts….Studies indicate that when faced with pictures and photographs from various historical eras, even young children can place them in the correct chronological sequence (Barton and Levstik 1996).

Empathy and Moral Judgment

The paradox of empathy, and its value in developing historical understanding, is that it involves confronting difference at the same time that we recognize a common humanity that transcends time. It allows us to recognize something familiar while at the same time acknowledging that times have changed in profound ways. …Role plays, simulations, and field trips to historic sites can all help elementary children develop empathy with people in the past.

Historical Agency

The final element of historical thinking refers to causation: historical agency refers to understanding how and why things change. Research suggests that elementary children have extremely simplistic notions of the reasons for historical change. They tend to see history as a record of the accomplishments of a few important people…Whether children’s understandings of causation are deepened by historical accounts that integrate multiple perspectives or feature the stories of those previously ignored or marginalized in official accounts, remains to be seen. Understanding that the actions of people in the past have an impact on us today, and appreciating that our actions will have consequences for future generations, is history teaching’s essential contribution to citizenship education.