Gail V. Ritchie

Kings Park Elementary School

Fairfax County Public Schools

May 2000

Formulating The Research Question: How can I meet SOL/POS History objectives for kindergarten and first grade in a play-based classroom?

When I first decided to conduct research in my K-1 classroom, I intended to look at the dynamics of multiage teaching/learning in relation to meeting Standards of Learning (SOL) and Program of Studies (POS) objectives for kindergarten and first grade. A particular concern of mine was the role of play in meeting objectives for multiage learners. A quality kindergarten is designed to provide time, space, and materials for play, since play is the primary vehicle by which young children construct knowledge. However, the typical first grade classroom is usually much more teacher-directed, work-oriented. I wanted to ensure that I could meet objectives for both kindergarten and first grade while simultaneously allowing children to play. Please note that I define play as any "hands-on/minds-on" (Wassermann, 1990) experiences that enable children to use their bodies to help their brains build conceptual understandings.

I therefore formulated the research question: "How can I meet the SOL/POS objectives and still keep play alive in my K-1 classroom?" I began the 1999-2000 school year by tracking play and student achievement across the four core curriculum areas&emdash;Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. My preliminary results, published in the Spring 2000 issue of ACEI’s Focus on Pre-K & K, showed that children did indeed make academic, as well as social and emotional, growth in an enriching, play-based classroom environment.

By December 1999, with the help of my Teacher Researcher support group, I realized that keeping track of data across the four core curriculum areas was becoming unwieldy, so I narrowed my focus to play in Social Studies. I reframed my question: "How can I meet Social Studies objectives for kindergarten and first grade in a play-based classroom?" My main sources of data were observation/anecdotal records, interviews, surveys, my reflective journal, children’s products, photographs, and videotape. I collected evidence across the four Social Studies strands&emdash;geography, economics, civics, and history&emdash;that demonstrated concept acquisition via "playing with" Social Studies. For geography, we made and played in a "mapping sandbox." For economics we participated in a multiage economics simulation with four other classrooms, grades K-2. For civics, we participated in the Kindness and Justice challenge. For history, we went on a field trip to an historical place&emdash;Mt. Vernon, began talking about what history is, and began constructing a timeline. These are just some examples of the Social Studies experiences we had. As I analyzed my data, I realized that my students had not only achieved the SOL/POS objectives for kindergarten and first grade, they had far surpassed them!

By February 2000, I realized that history and the class timeline had really "taken over" as the focal point of my research. Almost every entry in my journal had to do with the timeline. Many of the anecdotal records I took related to "historian" type language/thoughts/behaviors exhibited by my students. They began suggesting things to research and add to the timeline. They "formally" took "ownership" of the timeline just prior to Presidents’ Day when they insisted on adding all 42 presidents to the timeline in honor of the upcoming holiday. Since that point, I have continued to note play across the curriculum in my reflective journal, with a special emphasis on history and the timeline.

My first draft reporting the results of my research from September-April was 38 pages long, even though I had narrowed my focus to the four strands of Social Studies. On the advice of my Teacher Researcher colleagues, I have again narrowed my focus. My third (and final!) question is: "How can I meet SOL/POS history objectives for kindergarten and first grade in a play-based classroom?"

Although instruction was, and continues to be, integrated and interwoven throughout the school year, this paper will focus on the teaching and learning of history and historical concepts. This will enable the reader to see how the children progressed through the Learning Cycle (Bredekamp and Rosegrant, 1993) as they engaged in a "Play-Debrief-Replay" (Wassermann, 1990) framework of teaching/learning. 


I teach a multiage class of 5, 6, and 7-year olds in a suburban, middle-class school. Most of my students come from supportive, two-parent homes. I provide an enriching, challenging classroom environment designed to awaken and amplify students’ multiple intelligences via "hands-on/minds-on" (Wassermann, 1990) learning. We engage in conceptual units of study which integrate teaching and learning across and within disciplines. Children’s opinions, choices, and interests are valued and respected. Children are encouraged to develop a "can do" (Wassermann, 1990) attitude and be actively involved in constructing their own knowledge. Learning takes place in large-group, small-group, and one-on-one settings.

The classroom nurtures and supports play as outlined by Isenberg and Jalongo (1997) by providing space, time and materials that invite children to enter into the classroom community of learners. Learning centers (Garreau & Kennedy, 1991) that reflect a multiple intelligences framework (Armstrong, 1994) contain stimulating, creative materials that allow students to engage in learning at their own level of understanding. Two children could interact with the exact same materials, but at different levels of conceptual knowledge and understanding. There are many opportunities for children to develop decision-making skills as they choose what, and with whom, to play. They are encouraged to be creative, solve their own problems, and exercise their independence.

 Philosophical Framework

This report of children learning through play will be framed by the Learning Cycle, Play-Debrief-Replay, and Bloom’s (1984) taxonomy. The Learning Cycle, as described by Bredekamp and Rosegrant (1993) shows how learners progress through "stages" of understanding as they learn new concepts. First, students become aware that something exists. Next, they explore that concept. Once they have sufficiently explored the new concept, they begin to ask questions about it, to inquire more deeply about it. Finally, they utilize their knowledge about the concept. This cycle&emdash;awareness, exploration, inquiry, and utilization&emdash;is continually spiraling as students encounter new information.

In my classroom, I help children to become aware of new and different things, sometimes through "provoking" materials and/or activities. I assist children in the exploration and inquiry phases of the Learning Cycle by providing relevant experiences and materials. I encourage them to ask, and seek out answers to, questions about what they are learning. I support their first, sometimes awkward attempts, to make use of their newfound knowledge. I do all this by using Wassermann’s (1990) Play-Debrief-Replay model for teaching and learning.

Wassermann proposes that teachers invite children to "play with" new concepts by providing the time and materials necessary to do so. Once the children have engaged in exploration of the concept(s), the teacher facilitates a discussion ("debrief") about what was noticed and learned. The children are then invited to "replay" using the ideas raised in the discussion to extend their understanding of the concept(s). This revisiting of materials and concepts is an important factor in concept attainment and deep understanding. I do not believe that children truly learn in a classroom with a "do it once, check it off, and move on" mentality. The opportunities to explore and inquire and revisit new information eventually lead to children’s utilization of their emerging knowledge.

This notion of play as a vehicle for learning seems to be in contrast to the traditional, layman’s view of play as simply a "free-for-all." However, Stone (1995), Isenberg and Jalongo (1997), and others have written extensively about what play in a primary classroom really is. It is an opportunity for children to use their bodies (active learning) to help their brains construct conceptual understandings. Play is vital for children’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. For an abstract curriculum area such as history, play provides an ideal way for concrete learners to begin to make sense of knowledge and information.

To describe children’s levels of understanding, I will use the terminology developed by Bloom (1984). At the lowest level of conceptual understanding, students demonstrate knowledge of a concept. Then, they progress through ever more complex levels of knowing&emdash;comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis. These levels of understanding parallel the Learning Cycle. To know about a concept, students must first be aware it exists. As students explore and inquire about a concept, they are beginning to comprehend the concept. Then, they can apply that knowledge, engage in analysis of the concept, and even evaluate the information. Once students have passed through these levels of knowing, they can synthesize the diverse pieces of information that form concept(s) and utilize that information as productive members of our democratic society.

A key element to children’s ability to move along the Learning Cycle is TIME. This commodity is often in short supply in the public school classroom. That is why I consciously "gave up" some teacher-controlled, teacher-directed instruction. I wanted to give my students sufficient time to interact with the abstract social studies concepts, explore, inquire, and move beyond mere knowledge and comprehension to synthesis of social studies concepts. I worked carefully to set up a balance between child-initiated play and teacher-directed "work." I was able to achieve this balance because of Wassermann’s Play-Debrief-Replay framework. I, as the teaching professional, chose most of the materials and experiences to interest children in history. I say most, because I always left room for children to bring in materials and information that they felt were interesting and relevant to historical learning. I, again as the teaching professional, facilitated the debriefing sessions and helped children think about new and different ideas. Sometimes, however, I did ask children to sit with me and fill out surveys or respond to an open-ended historical question. These experiences, because they were initiated by me, and not by the children, can not be classified as play. However, these experiences supplemented the "hands-on/minds-on" play experiences and enabled me to collect the data necessary to document children’s growth in historical knowledge.

The Standards of Learning (SOL) and Program of Studies history objectives for which I, as a K-1 teacher, am accountable for teaching are shown in the following TABLES I and II. 


SOL History Objectives

Virginia Standards of Learning for History (Kindergarten)

K.1 The student will understand that history relates to events and people of other times and places by:

  • identifying examples of past events in legends and historical accounts, including Paul Revere's ride and the stories of Johnny Appleseed, Booker T. Washington, and Betsy Ross;
  • identifying examples of interesting Americans through exposure to biographies of important people of the past, including George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Davy Crockett; and
  • describing the people and events honored in commemorative holidays, including Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, President's Day, and Lee/Jackson/King Day.

Virginia Standards of Learning for History (First Grade)

1.1 The student will compare everyday life in different places and times and recognize that people, places, and things change over time through such comparisons as

  • current school and community with past school and community; and
  • contemporary American life with American life in previous time periods.

1.2 The student will understand through biographies and stories the deeds for which our nation honors leaders from the past, including a variety of political, scientific, social, and military leaders, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver, Jane Addams, and John Paul Jones.

1.3 The student will study the life of people and events associated with major holidays such as Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims, Independence Day, Flag Day, Veterans' Day, Memorial Day, etc.

1.4 The student will construct time lines to show sequence and change and will identify examples of possible cause and effect.


POS History Objectives

FCPS Program of Studies for History (Kindergarten)

Benchmark: Students acquire basic knowledge about themselves, their families and their community.Benchmark: Students begin to explore American traditions, leaders, and historical events.


  1. 1. Learn about people and events associated with traditional holidays, including Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King's Birthday, Presidents' Day.
  2. 2. Recognize people and events in legends and historical accounts, including Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett, and Betsy Ross.
  3. 3. Listen to biographies of important people who have contributed to society, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington.
  4. 4. Identify patriotic symbols: United States flag, bald eagle, American Beauty rose, Virginia flag, cardinal, dogwood tree/flower.
  5. 5. Participate in patriotic activities through music, art, writing, technology, poetry, and dramatic representation.

Benchmark: Students begin to use a variety of resources to gather and communicate information about history.


  1. 1. Recognize devices for measuring the passage of time such as clocks, watches, and calendars.
  2. 2. Measure time by calendar in days, weeks, months.
  3. 3. Demonstrate a beginning understanding of past, present, and future.
  4. 4. Identify examples of change in self, others, and the environment including personal growth, weather, and seasons.
  5. 5. Discuss primary sources, such as photographs and artifacts.
  6. 6. Become aware of historical information through listening, observing, reading, writing, technology, drawing, music, and poetry.
  7. 7. Relate new information to own knowledge and background experience.
  8. 8. Sort, classify, and organize information through drawing, charts, graphs, writings, manipulatives, and technology.
FCPS Program of Studies of Objectives for History (First Grade)

Standard 1, Benchmark 1: Students acquire a basic concept of different people, places, and times within the United States.


a) develop a basic concept of the passage of time

  • daily schedule
  • days of the week
  • yesterday, today, tomorrow
  • monthly calendars
  • seasons
  • sequencing

b) compare roles of men, women, and children from past to present

  • family and home
  • school
  • work place

c) use dramatic play, music, or art to demonstrate the everyday lives of different groups of people throughout the history of the United States

Benchmark 2: Students explore diverse cultural traditions and celebrations within the United States.

Benchmark 3: Students examine national holidays, and other individuals who have made significant contributions to United States.


a) discuss the major contributions of representative political, social, and military leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver, John Paul Jones, Paul Revere, Helen Keller, Sandra Day O'Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Lin, Gary Soto, and Squanto
b) study the life of people and events associated with major holidays such as Columbus Day, Thanksgiving Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Veterans' Day, Memorial Day, and Presidents' Day
c) name the President of the United States
d) discuss symbols and traditions of the United States and Virginia, such as: United States flag, bald eagle, White House, Statue of Liberty, Virginia flag, cardinal, state flower and tree, Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem, Thanksgiving feast, Fourth of July fireworks, displaying the flag on Flag Day, Memorial Day and Veterans' Day, holiday parades

Standard 2, Benchmark 1: Students develop basic research skills to compare changes in everyday life, from past to present, in the United States.


a) examine photographs, pictures, and artifacts to compare everyday life from past to present

  • home
  • schools
  • communities
  • transportation
  • communication
  • technology

b) gather historical information from literature, art, music, film, and technology use interviews to gather first-hand historical information

c) use interviews to gather first-hand historical information.

Data Collection

I have collected data related to my research question from the first day of school to the present time. My major source of information has been observation and anecdotal notes. My analysis of these notes enabled me to provide relevant feedback to students and their parents. It also helped me plan subsequent lessons that would further children’s knowledge and understanding. Other means of data collection were student interviews, student surveys, student products, student responses to open-ended questions, parent questionnaires, photographs, videotape, field notes, and reflective memories. I kept, and still keep, a reflective journal. Each week, I would review my field notes and anecdotal notes. I would then reflect upon what these notes were telling me about students, their play, and their emerging knowledge. To write this paper, I reread my entire reflective journal and made notes about the significance of the entries. What follows is my analysis of those entries as they relate to the teaching and learning of history in my classroom this year.

Data Analysis and Findings

As stated before, classroom instruction was integrated through conceptual units of study, which wove together the "four core" curriculum areas--Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. As the school year progressed, I realized that my students and I were spending more and more time discussing history and historical concepts. By February, it was clear that history, especially our class timeline, had assumed a central role in our classroom and that history had become the focal point of my research. That is not to say that we ignored other areas of the curriculum. Nor did we ignore other strands of Social Studies. However, the bulk of information and data I’ve collected relates to history, specifically our class timeline. For the timeline and its importance to my class to make sense to readers, I will back up to November and briefly trace the evolution of our timeline and the children’s emerging understanding of what history is.

As part of our first-quarter study of self and families, I had wanted the children to create a "Family Tree." I planned to tie this into our concurrent Science study of trees and leaves. However, I was informed that family trees can be very touchy and I should find another means for children to relate their family history. Then, it occurred to me&emdash;why not have each child make a family timeline? They could use our recently explored math concepts of before/after and "putting things in order." But, I thought, how could I help them understand what "history" is? I decided to use something known&emdash;their stories of their lives (written in October as part of our "I Am Special/Others Are Special" unit of study)&emdash;as a starting point. In mid-November, I asked the children if they knew what history was. They didn’t. I then said, "It’s everything that’s already happened. For example, the stories of your lives are about your lives so far. That’s your history. Our class photo album shows things we’ve already done this year. That’s our classroom history." I then gave some specific examples. I said to Caleb, "The bath you took yesterday? History!" I said to Mark, "When you were a baby and had no hair? History!" The children began to catch on and eagerly began giving examples of their own history. I then told them that each family has a history, too. I further explained that people come into a family in a certain order or sequence and that we can show this sequence with a family timeline. I asked them if they wanted to make a timeline to show their family history. They did.

To help them see what a timeline could look like, I wrote down some historical information we’d learned about thus far during the school year, such as Columbus Day, Johnny Appleseed’s birthday, the invention of the pencil, and several other events. I put each event on a white 3" by 9" marker. Then, I clipped these markers onto a piece of blue yarn, beginning with the first to the most recent event. I asked the children if they thought we should hang up our "history timeline" in the classroom. They voted unanimously to do so. I hung it halfway across the back of our classroom. Then I invited the children to make their own family timelines. Their homework for the day had been to bring in the names of their family members, listed "in order" from oldest to youngest. We used this information to make markers and hang them on yarn, just like the class timeline. The children were very engaged in and excited about this project. In this one lesson, they had become aware that there was such a thing as history, and now they were getting the opportunity to explore the notion of representing history on a timeline by doing something meaningful and relevant&emdash;family timelines.

That evening, I showed my principal our timeline. She liked the idea of using math understandings to begin to understand history. She suggested that, since many of my students were beginning readers, a visual with each marker would be a nice addition. So, I used Kid Pix and the Internet to print out pictures to go with each of the 7 timeline events we’d discussed that day.

The next day, we revisited the idea of history, and students told me some of the history that had happened to them the previous evening. After this debrief, we replayed with the idea of history by discussing and planning our trip to Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington. In our packet of field trip materials, we had received a large picture of George Washington. The children wanted to "put him on our timeline," so we did. He came "after" Columbus Day, but "before" Johnny Appleseed.

At Mt. Vernon, the children got a chance to actually SEE history. They walked in the same house and over the same ground that George Washington had. They were very intrigued with his bedroom, since that’s where he had died. They asked many questions (inquiry) about his life and death. They enjoyed seeing people dressed in colonial costume and playing colonial games. I bought some souvenirs that would enable them to replay some of what they’d seen and done once we returned to our classroom. They especially enjoyed playing with/writing with quill pens. We made a class book about our field trip so that we could revisit and remember the trip. The children took turns bringing the book home to share with their families.

At this point, I planned to collect historical data regarding children’s responses to:

Also, about this time, I narrowed my research question to focus solely on Social Studies. I planned to focus on history and weaving the "required factoids" together via play and hands-on, "being there" experiences. I believed that this would allow my students to progress through the Learning Cycle at their own individual paces, engage in Play-Debrief-Replay, and meet (and probably exceed) POS objectives regarding the passage of time and historical people/events. My intention was that the timeline would visually represent the "required" historical people and events. This would give the students a concrete model to help them "play with" the abstract notion of history.

In late November, the children role-played the first Thanksgiving by dressing up as the Pilgrims and their Native American guests. This was a child-initiated, child-planned event. We invited the families to send in foods that might have been eaten at the first Thanksgiving. Then, both K-1 classes shared the feast. The children could choose to make a Pilgrim costume, a Native American costume, or both. It was their choice whether to dress as a Pilgrim or a Native American for the feast. As part of our celebration, we read about and discussed life at Plymouth Plantation. We added the first Thanksgiving to our timeline&emdash;"after Columbus but before George Washington." The children demonstrated their emerging comprehension of history and times long ago when we read about Pilgrim children. They were very intrigued that Pilgrim clothes did not have pockets. They knew that those children did not watch television, because neither electricity nor television had been invented at that point in time.

At this point, I began to "lose control" of the timeline. Whereas I had a preconceived notion of who and what would go on the timeline&emdash;"required POS people/events"&emdash;the children did not. They wanted to put every new learning up on the timeline. When we read a story that began with the formation of Plymouth Rock, "eons ago," the children insisted that we add it to the timeline. When we read about turkeys, they wanted to add turkeys. Karen researched when people first domesticated turkeys, and then we added turkeys to the timeline. When we studied evergreens in science, the children wanted to "put evergreens on the timeline." They were interested in representing our learning on the timeline, although they were not using historical terms or inquiry phrases to make their requests about what to put on the timeline. They would just say, "Let’s put that on the timeline." I would then rephrase the request to make it an historically-related question. For evergreens, the marker denotes when they first grew in North America. I got my first sense that they didn’t really understand about historical passage of time yet when Colby said, "Let’s put symmetry on the timeline." He didn’t understand that symmetry was not a history-related concept. I realized that we would need to "play with" and explore the notion of history quite a bit more before children began to understand it.

I hoped that, if I made the timeline more relevant, it might begin to serve as an historical reference for my students. In early December, we added their birthdays to the timeline. Thomas Q. remarked that their birthdays had to come "before" the marker. "We started school on the timeline because we had to be born to start school." He is very adept in math, and his mathematical understanding helped him figure out the time-related placement of the birthdays on the timeline. By December 20th, the timeline had gotten so crowded with markers that we extended it to reach all the way across the back of our classroom.Another indication I had that my students were becoming more interested in history was their response to the 200th anniversary of George Washington's death. I had not said anything about it during school, but when the newspaper reported accounts of the commemoration events at Mt. Vernon, several of my students clipped the article to share with their classmates. 

The next thing to go on the timeline were markers to show when in time our read-aloud stories, the Magic Treehouse books, had been set. I didn’t notice it at first, but the children did. In these books, the characters travel through time. So, of course the books should go on our timeline! I had my first inkling that the students were beginning to think more like historians. They were beginning to see the connection between time and the timeline. Now, with the addition of Dinosaurs Before Dark to our timeline, the formation of Plymouth Rock by glaciers was no longer the first event on our timeline. It was now, as Thomas Q. put it, "the thing after the first thing."

Of course, children’s understanding of historical passage of time didn’t just magically appear. We had fits and starts. Some children understood and began using historical phraseology such as "When was the first . . .?" or "When was ____ invented?" or "When was so and so alive?" These children were beginning to make historical inquiries. They continued to ask questions related to things we were studying. However, they also asked historical questions randomly, as topics occurred to them. At these times, we would generate 10-20 items of historical interest that the children wanted to know about. In February, I began asking children to research the answers to their own questions. I hoped this would help them move to the utilization phase of the Learning Cycle.

Not all the children reached this level of understanding at the same time. Whereas Thomas Q. would say things like "What’s he between?" as we prepared to add Martin Luther King, Jr. to the timeline, Nathan asked, "When was snow invented?" He was trying to phrase things historically, but he was confusing a scientific phenomenon with an historical event. When I scaffolded his understanding by saying, "Do you mean that you’d like to know when Snowflake Bently first studied snowflakes?" he replied that, yes that’s what he meant.

In response to a random remark I made about tape in late January, Ann wanted to know when tape was invented. We searched off and on for two months before I finally found the answer accidentally on March 11th. This was a good lesson to us that we should never give up hope of finding information! Of course, finding this out generated a discussion of other helpful inventions and another round of research so that we could place those on the timeline.

As I reflected about the timeline in late January, I noticed that the students were eager to generate questions and ideas, but they really didn’t have enough "ownership" in the timeline to follow up on researching those questions without my support and guidance. As stated above, I began asking them to do their own research, via Internet or encyclopedia, with the help of their families. However, it didn’t occur to me until mid-March to invite the child to make his/her own marker related to the inquiry. Up until then, I had made all the markers and visuals.

Also late in January, I was lunching in the classroom with several students. We happened to be sitting right next to the timeline. Colby noted that we had the rose, (the National flower) on the timeline. He wanted to know when the cardinal, dogwood and eagle were picked as symbols for Virginia and the United States, respectively. He and I looked into it, found the information, and put the three markers onto the timeline on February 7th.

I began to notice that more and more students were thinking and talking in historical terms. On Groundhog Day, Eve brought in information about the history of Groundhog Day, so we added that to our timeline. When we generated our list of questions related to February topics of study, students wanted to add the first Valentine’s Day to the timeline. They also indicated that they wanted to learn about and add Abraham Lincoln to the timeline. In mid-February, we had 44 items on our timeline.

To revisit/replay the historical importance of George Washington, I had planned to use the Presidents’ Day holiday to awaken renewed interest in him. This would also be a good time to introduce the students (as they had requested) to Abraham Lincoln, another President with a February birthday. Materials were provided so that students could make "masks" for themselves and then look like these two Presidents, although no one chose to do so. By creating this opportunity, I hoped to encourage some historical role-playing, something we hadn’t done since Thanksgiving. I think part of the reason why children didn’t choose to role-play is because, due to snow, our "Presidents’ Birthday" celebration got combined with our "Day 100 celebration." The 100th day of school is a significant milestone for elementary students, so we teachers use their fascination as an opportunity to interact with the number 100 in a meaningful context. The children were busy exploring the number 100 instead of engaging in historical exploration and inquiry. Naturally, "Day 100" was commemorated on our timeline.

I finally realized that I had completely "lost control" of the timeline when the students insisted upon adding all 42 presidents to the timeline to celebrate Presidents’ Day. They had now completely taken over ownership of the timeline. It was no longer "my" timeline, or even "our" timeline. It was really "their" timeline. We had to extend the timeline around the corner to accommodate all the markers. The timeline now took up two walls of our classroom.

We celebrated Leap Day, February 29th, with a party and by marking the "modern calendar came into use" on our timeline. The children’s confusion regarding B.C. was eased somewhat when I thought of calling it the "Backwards Calendar." This really seemed to help. The children understood that the numbers in the years got larger as time moved forward, but for the "backwards calendar," part of our timeline, the numbers got larger as we went farther back in time.

The students genuinely enjoyed "playing" with the notion of history and the passage of time. They were beginning to use the timeline as a resource. In response to an open-ended question about "What is History?" children used events on the timeline to frame their responses. In late February, Thomas C. reconfirmed several times that "that bald guy" (Eisenhower) was the President when I was born. In late March, during a discussion of Ben Franklin, Eve searched the timeline to see if he could have written with a pencil. When she saw that the pencil was on the timeline prior to Ben Franklin’s birth, she confidently announced that he could have used a pencil to write. I see our timeline as a foundational "mental file" from which the children can draw information now and in the future.

Our research into historical questions was aided immensely by Ann, who found us two good websites for information: and a professor’s website regarding inventions and inventors. We have used these two references repeatedly since then.

As we added more and more information to the timeline, we began to have duplicate events. That is, some events happened in the same year, such as receiving the Statue of Liberty from France and the first Groundhog Day. The children voted to put one marker under the other rather than next to each other. This was their choice about how to use the timeline.

In late February, when I asked the children "Who remembers what history is?" at first they didn’t remember! When I prompted their memories by activating their prior knowledge of selves, families, and timeline people/events, they began to say things like "long ago," "anything that’s happened before right now." I then read a history-related book entitled My Nine Lives by Clio. (Interesting side note: Clio is the muse of history!) The book features a fictional cat author who "invents" things throughout history up to the present time. The children enjoyed the story and even compared some of the events in the story to events on our timeline. They also nominated the book to be a "Traveling Book;" that is, a book that would travel to each child’s home for sharing with families. After reading the story, I asked them to respond to the prompt, "What is history?" We talked about what resources they could use for writing, and of course they said dictionary, word wall, etc. Then Lisa said, "The timeline." I was delighted that she brought it up, so we talked about how our timeline could help us understand history and even give examples of history. As a result of our initial discussion and the "rehearsal" for the writing response, many children used phrases such as "Time ago," "Already happened," "Happened before you," "Back in time." Four children even used actual dates from the timeline. These children were using the timeline to help themselves understand history.

In March, when we generated our monthly list of topic-related questions, children asked historical questions. Shortly after this, Amy was looking through our "History Book" (the class photo album). She told me she enjoyed "walking back through" her visit to Mt. Vernon. I used her experience and a new book I’d been given as a gift&emdash;Kids Guide to the Millennium to spark a renewed interest in history and the timeline. Most of the children remembered what history was, since it had been a little over a week since we’d last discussed it. We had a new student, so the other students took this opportunity to "teach" her about history and the timeline. During this discussion, Ethan brought up that the previous night’s Presidential primaries were "history." Then someone asked if we could put the new President on the timeline after he’s elected. I replied that when that happened in November, we could certainly add that to our timeline. At this point, Mark looked very sad; he said, "I won’t be in this class next year." Colby, too, realized he would not be in our class to commemorate that event on the timeline. When I told them they were welcome to come back to visit us and our timeline, they cheered up. This discussion precipitated a disagreement over what to do with the timeline at the end of the year. First graders, who will be moving on to second grade next year, want to dismantle the timeline and take pieces of it with them. Kindergartners, who will be returning to our classroom for first grade next year, want to keep the timeline intact. In keeping with our democratic philosophy, the children decided that the only "fair" thing to do is vote on its disposition the last day of school.

We finally got a chance to role-play again and do some physical, concrete play with history to supplement all our mental play. When we discussed Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad on March 10th (the anniversary of her death), the children took on the parts of escaped slaves and bounty hunters. The "slaves" had to make their way from the back of the room to "freedom" by traveling only at night (lights out) and hiding behind and under classroom furniture during the day (lights on). The children really enjoyed this experience, and it gave them a tiny taste of the anxiety felt by the real slaves as they tried to make their way safely north to freedom. We also sang "Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd" and made ourselves paper pictures of the Dipper and North Star as a memory aid. Naturally, we added Harriet Tubman to the timeline.

I should note that my first graders had learned about Harriet Tubman last year in kindergarten, but they didn’t remember any details about her. To me, this shows why we can’t have a "teach it once, check it off, and move on" mentality about teaching/learning. Children don’t necessarily learn something the first time it’s taught to them. It may take repeated exposure to the concept, or in this case, the historical figure, before children acquire the desired knowledge.

Mark, who is very interested in the Civil War, suggested that this would be a good time for him to make a marker about that war, since it was the war that ended slavery. He researched the dates and made a visual using KidPix. He was proud to add his marker next to the picture of Abraham Lincoln.

During early March, the kindergartners looked through their journals and could see visible evidence of their progress as writers; these journals showed the "history" of their writing ability. On March 14th, Thomas C. declared that the timeline was too crowded and we needed to expand it to a third wall. So, we did. Children continued to be eager to ask historical questions and add information to our timeline. Our spring semester intern from George Mason had instituted badges of distinction that children could earn through exemplary classroom behavior. One badge, "History Buff," was especially prized; this badge was usually worn by the person who had most recently added something to the timeline.

In late March, our school staff participated in Social Studies SOL training that demonstrated how drama, music, and movement could help children acquire and understand Social Studies concepts. This training simply reinforced what I had already discovered for myself. My students could learn about and understand history and other abstract Social Studies concepts though play!

When we were preparing to read about Ben Franklin, Colby said, "Oh, I’ve been waiting to talk about him! Can I make the marker?" He was the first child to make the visual and write the information on a marker. Ben Franklin is a favorite of Colby’s because he experimented with kites and electricity and Colby loves kites. Their common interest helped Colby connect to an historical figure across all those years of time. On that same day, March 29th, during our discussion about Ben Franklin, Eve noted that "feather pens were alive when he was." She understands about historical relationships, but doesn’t quite have the terminology.

Our buddy K-1 class has even gotten interested in our timeline. When they hatched chicks, they asked if they could mark that event on the timeline. Of course, we voted, "Yes."

In early April, I added paper dolls of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and their families to our Communication Center. I knew that some of the girls in the class enjoyed paper dolls. I hoped that they would play with the paper dolls and engage in some historical reenactments with them. The girls did notice and play with the dolls the first day they were in the classroom. However, once the dolls got put away, the girls did not get them back out. I guess it was a matter of "out of sight, out of mind." I thought that, if I put the dolls out on one of our work tables again, the girls would play with them again. Sure enough, any day that I place the container of paper dolls on one of our work tables, children play with them.

Also in April, we revisited/replayed the notion of the American flag as a living "history lesson." While first graders were next door taking a test, all the kindergartners from my class and our buddy K-1 class, read about, sang about, marched with, made, drew, and painted flags. "Playing with" flags helped my kindergartners revisit their previous knowledge about American history. For the kindergartners from our buddy class, it awakened an interest in American history.

Later that day, when our class was reunited, we read More Than Anything Else, a story about Booker T. Washington (one of our "required" historical figures). The main point of the story was that Booker was born a slave and hadn’t learned to read. When slaves were freed, more than anything else 9-year-old Booker wanted to learn to read. My students could relate to his desire to read; many of them are just learning to read themselves. We asked them to write about Booker in their Reading Response journals; Lisa wrote, "He really wanted to read and so do I." The opportunity to listen to and reflect upon a piece of quality children’s literature helped my students comprehend how Booker T. Washington felt as he went about trying to learn to read. They were especially impressed that, as an adult, he founded a school so that other people could learn.

The opportunity to write about what they’re learning really helps my students remember and understand their emerging knowledge. Reading Response entries about George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington helped them relate to these two historical figures. I decided to build on that foundation. With the help of my artistic son, I designed a five-part open-ended response sheet called "Why are we famous?" Prior to answering the question, I engaged the students in a discussion of what it means to be famous. Then, I asked them what would help them remember famous people like Harriet Tubman, Ben Franklin, Booker T. Washington, Betsy Ross, and George Washington Carver. (These are all "required" K-1 historical figures). We brainstormed and synthesized what we knew about each person, compared and contrasted similarities and differences, and then settled on visuals that would be learning keys for us. Harriet Tubman: star (to represent the North Star and the Drinkin’ Gourd and the Underground Railroad); Ben Franklin: kite with key attached (to represent one of his many experiments and inventions); Betsy Ross: colonial flag; George Washington Carver: peanuts; Booker T. Washington: book. During this discussion, a question arose about Ben Franklin and George Washington: Who was older? We used our timeline to answer the question; Ben Franklin came before George Washington on the timeline, so he was older.

As I was organizing my data and preparing to write this paper, one of my Teacher Researcher colleagues gave me an article she knew I would find interesting. It was entitled "Back When God Was Around and Everything": Elementary Children’s Understanding of Historical Time (Barton and Levstik, 1996). The authors of this research study conducted interviews with 58 children, grades K-8. They discovered that, even the youngest children could begin to understand the passage of time, even though dates held little meaning for them until after third grade. Prior to this study, most historical research had assumed that children had to understand chronological passage of time and "adult temporal vocabularies" before they could began to think historically. Not so! These authors found that children are constructing chronological and historical time knowledge concurrently. In their study, children "as young as 7 were able to recognize historical pictures and place them into an accurate sequence of ‘first,’ ‘last,’ and ‘in the middle.’" The students could "arrange a set of visual images from different periods in American history in chronological order and . . . talk about their reasons for placement." (1996, pp. 420-425)

Implications and Conclusion

My main research question was, could I teach the "required" SOL and POS history objectives through play? My research provided an answer: a resounding YES! Learning through play is, indeed possible, even for an abstract subject like history. A second question I had was could I include all the curriculum I was accountable for teaching? Again, the answer was YES! Early on, I discovered that the first grade curriculum, in all subject areas (not just history), was an extension of the kindergarten curriculum. Teaching in a multiage setting allowed me to "spiral back" to re-teach concepts/ideas that my first graders hadn’t yet acquired. It also allowed me to "extend" learning for kindergartners, because there was no "grade-level" ceiling on their learning. They were interested in learning about the historical figures and events included in the first grade curriculum, they had multiple opportunities to do so, and, as a result, they did learn about those people and events.

During the course of this school year, I found out another thing that I hadn’t even thought to inquire about. I knew intuitively that revisiting concepts and replaying ideas is a necessary part of learning. However, as a teacher new to multiage, I was leery about duplicating experiences that my first graders had already encountered with me during their kindergarten year. I did not want to provoke a "been there, done that" attitude from them, so at the beginning of the school year, I carefully planned experiences that would not duplicate last year’s learning. My students, however, had other ideas. They asked to replay favorite experiences from last year. They would say, "Remember when . . . Can we do that again?" In so doing, they taught me a valuable lesson, which I will remember for the future. I won’t be so concerned about duplication for two reasons. First, my students demonstrated a desire to repeat experiences. Second, when they couldn’t remember Harriet Tubman from one year to the next, my students reminded me to avoid the "teach it once, check it off" mistake that so many teachers are prone to make as they rush to "get through" curriculum. The multiage classroom is the ideal setting for revisiting concepts and ideas, because I’ll have students for at least 2 years and can build in many opportunities to "spiral back" and build stronger mental connections.

In terms of historical knowledge, Barton and Levstik’s research confirms what I observed and documented in my own students during the past school year. They were not perfect by any means in their understanding of the historical passage of time. However, through role-playing, reading about historical figures and events, and most importantly, through the visual image of the timeline, my students began to understand and use their emerging knowledge about the passage of time. They could certainly place events in order, using the timeline as a reference. They could certainly identify "first," "last," "between" and frequently did so. The daily opportunities to play-debrief-replay their growing understanding of history enabled them to far exceed the required objectives.

I found that harnessing abstract information within a more concrete, "hands-on/minds-on" means of concept acquisition enabled my students to "play with" abstract concepts and begin to understand them. My role as the teaching professional was to set up opportunities for children to "play with" history. The students’ role, initially, was to take advantage of those opportunities to further their own learning. However, they became so interested in and involved with historical learning that they "took ownership" of the timeline as a means of organizing their emerging understandings. As the timeline grew, it became a visual representation of their expanding knowledge about history and the passage of time. From its beginning, when it spanned halfway across one wall of our classroom, to its current span encompassing three walls of the classroom, the timeline chronicled my students’ growth as historical thinkers.

As the school year draws to a close, we will continue to engage in historical inquiry. To provide a high-interest, "hands-on/minds-on" means of revisiting all our "required" historical figures and events, I wrote down the names of 25 important historical people we’ve learned about this year. I then asked each child to draw 1 name out of a hat. The child will inquire about the person named by conducting individual research with his/her family. Each child will create a dollar bill to "honor" the person whose name s/he drew, using information obtained from his/her research. I have encouraged children to dress up as "their" historical person when they share their creations with their classmates. This will enable them to engage in role-playing as they endeavor to accurately represent the historical people through the costumes they choose. The children are excited about this opportunity to apply their research skills to further their own and their classmates’ historical learning.

I expect that my first graders will enter second grade next year, well-prepared to continue their historical knowledge journey. I anticipate that my kindergartners will return next year, ready to utilize the history knowledge they built this year. They will replay and revisit their understandings as they help me teach next year’s kindergartners about history concepts. As our new class of kindergartners become aware of history, my returning students will be solidifying their conceptual knowledge and moving on to higher levels of understanding via the Learning Cycle and Play-Debrief-Replay.


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Barton, K. and Levstik, L. (Summer 1996). "Back when God was around and everything": Elementary children’s understanding of historical time. American Educational Research Journal, 30: 2, 419-454.

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Bredekamp, S., & Rosegrant, T. (Eds.). (1993). Reaching potentials: Appropriate curriculum and assessment for young children (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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Ritchie, G. (Spring 2000). Meeting state and county standards and objectives within a play-based classroom. Focus On Pre-K & K, 12:3, 1-3 and 6-7.

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Children’s books cited

Bradby, M. (1995). More than anything else. New York: Orchard Books.

Love, A. and Drake, J. (1998). Kids guide to the millennium. Toronto: Kids Can Press.

Osborne, M. (1992). Dinosaurs before dark. New York: Random House.

Priceman, M. (1998). My nine lives by Clio. New York: Athenum.