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The Hand Chart: A Montessori History Lesson

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.

Cosmic Education and the Great Lessons

In the Montessori Elementary classroom, the Universe and all its wonders are offered to children through the Great Lessons. These dramatic stories are about

  • the formation of the Universe, stars, solar system, and Earth,
  • the development of life on Earth,
  • human evolution,
  • the development of language,
  • and the development of mathematics.

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.

When and How to Present the Hand Chart

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.

The Lesson

  • We’ve been pondering the big questions: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Remember the Time Line of Life? What was the very last thing you remember from that time line?
  • Humans! Humans haven’t been on Earth very long compared to how long life has been on Earth.
  • This is called the Hand Chart. It represents the whole length of time humans have been on Earth, surviving, learning, evolving…
  • Slowly start to unroll the Hand Chart.
  • A lot of time is passing—hundreds of thousands of years! What do you see? Nothing. Just blackness. Why aren’t there any pictures showing what the lives of early humans were like?
  • Because we don’t know very much about how early humans lived. What do you think humans were doing?
  • Children may mention shelter, food, protection.
  • Yes, like us, the first humans needed food. They used their hands to care for their young, to find food and shelter…
  • Continue to unroll the cloth.
  • Now a long, long time has passed. Humans have been on Earth for several million years! And still we don’t know very much about how they lived.
  • There is a clue on this time line. Watch for it.
  • Unroll the cloth until the hand appears.
  • Here it is! What do you see?
  • Children often guess that the rock is a potato.
  • It’s a hand holding a sharp, pointed rock. Now humans have begun to make tools. What could someone do with this tool?
  • Dig for food? Chop down a tree?
  • Continue unrolling the cloth.
  • Some of the things people made long ago have been found: stone tools, arrowheads, bits of pottery, and other artifacts buried in the ground. These objects give us clues about how humans survived, but we still don’t know very much about their lives.
  • Until now!
  • Point to the red strip at the end of the time line.
  • This little bit of red signifies a special use of the hand. This is when early humans began to write on cave walls, drawing pictures and pictographs. Eventually people developed other forms of writing like cuneiform and alphabets. This little strip of red marks the beginning of history. For this brief amount of time humans have been writing.
  • Indicate the whole length of the black cloth.
  • All of the time before recorded history is called “prehistory.” Archeologists are like detectives, trying to understand the lives of early humans with clues from artifacts and skeletons. There are still many mysteries and unanswered questions about early humans. Maybe one day you will be able to discover some of the answers.
  • We look back with gratitude for all the human beings who came before us, who used their hands to survive, to make tools and, eventually, to write. We are here today and can do so many things because of our ancestors’ perseverance, their discoveries, and their gifts to us.


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