There are two theories about how to teach history to elementary aged children. One theory is to start with the familiar and move to the less familiar. This theory is the one used in American public schools. With this approach to history the child first learns about his own community (“The fireman is our friend,” and other “community awareness” topics), then about his state, and then about his country. If you look at public school scope and sequence charts, children usually are studying some form of American history every single year from first through seventh grade. World History is often only a one year course in tenth or eleventh grade. This same format is also used in several of the textbook curricula available for homeschoolers.
The second theory about teaching history to elementaries is that children need to be exposed to world history at a young age as a prelude to understanding the history of America as well as to understand Bible stories. Materials that take this approach provide elementary aged children a chronological study of history from ancient times to the present. We tend to think there needs to be a little of both: children should have a grasp of both where we came from (World History) and where we are now (American History), and whatever materials you use to accomplish that are the ones that should be followed.
In the primary years (approximately grades K – 3) children need to develop the concepts of past, present, and future, and to understand that people lived before everyone they know was born and that those people had different ways of doing things. This can easily be accomplished through reading a wide variety of good children’s literature. Young children best understand history as stories of “once upon a time” or “long ago,” and are particularly interested in tales of what their own family did in the past. For this reason we have made an effort to trace our genealogy back as far as possible and to collect family stories. We also read a lot of Bible stories and books that expose the children to different time periods and different cultures.
At about 4th or 5th grade children reach the information stage of reading where they can actually learn from what they read. At this point they can begin a more earnest study of history. However, they still need the story approach as much as possible because they have little understanding of chronology, of the political and economic motivations of adults, or of the sinfulness of man. This is why “story-centered” history programs are so successful. At this age, we try to provide a general framework of the main historical periods. This framework can be filled in with details later. It’s like giving the plot outline, main characters, and interesting highlights of a play and waiting until the children are older to fill in all the details of the staging and action. This is also the time to reinforce the concept that all history is really “His” story. Time on earth can be divided into the following periods: God’s Creation, Man’s Fall, The Promise of Jesus, Jesus Comes, and Preparation for Jesus to come Again. Each of those periods can be subdivided. For example, Preparation for Jesus to Come Again includes The Early Church, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance and Reformation, Rise of World Powers, and The Modern World.
One thing you could ask yourself (and your children) is why the Bible and historians give such different emphases to different peoples, cultures and time periods. The Bible easily ignores individuals and cultures which historians consider important, and vice versa.