"Children at this stage are fascinated because this story [about early humans] concerns them personally."
—Mario M. Montessori, Jr., Education for Human Development
The Hand Chart, a key lesson in the Montessori Elementary history curriculum, gives children a first look at the Story of Humans in a condensed form. This lesson helps children appreciate how early humans used their hands to survive, to invent tools, and to make important discoveries. Most of all, it highlights the development of writing.
The Hand Chart is actually a ten-foot-long strip of black cloth that represents how long humans have been on Earth. In the center of the otherwise blank cloth is a picture of a hand holding an early stone tool. There is a surprise at the very end: a half-inch wide red strip representing recorded history, from the first pictographs to today's computerized documents.
Children are amazed to see the relatively short time in which people have been writing, compared to how long humans have been on Earth. The lesson also introduces children to the concepts of history or written records, represented by the narrow red strip, and prehistory, the time before writing, represented by the longer black strip.
With impressionistic lessons like this one, the details come later, as children are inspired to do research and discover answers to their own questions. A student might learn that humans have been on Earth for eight million years and then calculate that every foot on the Hand Chart represents 800,000 years! In my Montessori training, we were told that the red strip represents 5000 years of recorded history. Some scientists now believe that the earliest pictographs are 700,000 years old. Others believe the earliest pictographs are 70,000 years old. New discoveries are made all the time. Remember that the Hand Chart is meant to give children the impression of how short a time humans have been writing, rather than a specific number of years.
In the Montessori Elementary classroom, the Universe and all its wonders are offered to children through the Great Lessons. These dramatic stories are about
Maria and Mario Montessori believed in starting with the big picture. Children learn that we are all made of stardust! They marvel at the Universe, Earth, and our shared human ancestry. This sense of connection with others helps foster empathy and promotes world peace. Children begin to appreciate all that came before them, making their lives today possible. The Great Lessons are the foundation of Cosmic Education and the basis of the Elementary curriculum.
Both the Long Black Strip and the Time Line of Life (two other Montessori history materials) have a narrow strip at the end representing the short time that humans have been on Earth. With the aid of both the Hand Chart and the Time Line of Humans, we stretch out these narrow strips to take a closer look at the time of humans on Earth.
The Hand Chart is an impressionistic link between the Second Great Lesson, "The Coming of Life, " and the Third Great Lesson, "The Coming of Humans." Less is more! Too much information about dates, tools, or pictographs compromises the fundamental Montessori principle of supporting each student's ability to independently and confidently pursue knowledge. You are giving children the key to open the door to whatever interests them.
Tell the story with mystery and suspense. The following is one example of how this lesson could be presented. However, you can make the lesson much more meaningful by telling the story in your own words.
—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.
—Originally Published 2015