Active Learning on

The Big Human Timeline

This is a very simple idea, using students to create a human timeline – one student per century from the birth of Christ to today.

This human timeline then becomes the vehicle for exploring wide range of aspects of chronological understanding – there’s over 20 ideas below and if you think of any more do let me know and we’ll add them in. What we can do with this is really only limited by our imaginations.

While this is a simple idea in its conception it can be developed to tackle quite complex ideas – which is partly why I’ve not tried to divide this up into activities for KS2, KS3, GCSE or A level. Many of the ideas could be used at several levels so you’ll have to read through to sort out what may be useful to a particular age-group.

A critical part of this activity is its sense of involvement and enjoyment – period hats, tabards and a range of props and pictures will make this into a strongly visual activity and make it enjoyable and memorable. ‘Memorability’ is vital - if students don’t remember an activity they can’t re-use what they’ve covered.


This isn’t a one-off activity. Many aspects of ‘chronology’ need Rapid, Regular, Reinforcement so keep using this – most of the ideas can be done quickly - and the more students of all ages get used to it the more they’ll learn from it.

A final thought -

Don’t underestimate the power of this activity just because it’s in essence very simple.


A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

Useful website where you can buy props are shown at the bottom of the page, click here

This activity is based on the ’Timelines’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

Setting Up

To set up a timeline:

– have students stand in a slight crescent so everyone can see everyone else. A straight line doesn’t work for visibility.

– if you don’t have enough students in your class use chairs or stuffed toys to make up the numbers or to increase the length of the line if you venture back into time BC

begin the line with a representation of Christ – maybe a model from a nativity set or a doll.

- use photos of the timeline to illustrate your classroom wall timelines to give a much stronger sense of involvement


Using the Timeline

Please note – the following are 20 different mini-activites – they are not 20 stages of the same mega-activity.


1. What does AD mean?

Get students to say the number of their century out loud – passing your visual representation of Christ down the line as they speak. Or get them to say e.g. ‘the first century Anno Domini – in the year of our lord’.

2. Why is 1450 the 15th century?

Use the line to explain why the dates and centuries are out of sync – see Making Sense of BC AD on this site.

Use dates on flash cards or say dates aloud – which ‘student century’ has that date? Or the reverse – go up and down the line at random asking students to identify a year in their century.

This will need a lot of brief regular repetition.

3. Making sense of BC

This may be useful, however simple it may seem, for Ancient History at GCSE and A level. Add extra centuries back into BC – again get students to number their century aloud and identify their dates, writing them on large sheets of paper and holding them up (and maybe using he ideas for activity in 2 above). This gives a clear visual sense of the reverse order BC. The pattern of BC dates always look weird if you’re not used to them so, simple as it, this may help even with older students.

4. Other dating systems e.g. Islamic calendar

The timeline allows you to demonstrate other dating systems simply through comparison. For example the Islamic calendar starts in what is called 632AD in the Christian dating system – so move the 1st century up to the 7th or create a second line in parallel with the AD line.

5. Identifying periods

This is the bedrock activity on which many of the later ideas build. Use labels, cards or tabards (or a mix) to identify the core periods – Roman Britain, Saxons etc – start by asking students where they think they go on the timeline rather than simply telling them.


Add period props and hats or pictures of key people or inventions to make this more fun and memorable. There’s a lot of permutations – dynasties, major events etc.

6. Overlapping periods

Students are often puzzled by overlaps e.g. Saxons and Vikings. They assume they follow on from each other, not overlap. The timeline enables them to see overlaps physically and this makes a great difference to understanding and memory.

Simply have the Saxon centuries (5th-11th) wearing tabards of a single colour, then add another tabard in a different colour for the Viking centuries (9th-11th) – or have these student-centuries holding two name cards if you don’t use tabards. (Alternatively use spare students to form a second set of student centuries for the Viking centuries.) To make the 11thC even more fun add a third colour tabard for the Normans – no wonder there were battles in 1066! This is even better if each ‘people’ has a different hat style.

7. Why do some periods have different names?

Physically labelling the timeline helps students see overlaps or alternatives e.g. The Industrial Revolution overlaps Georgian and Victorian periods – having these centuries hold more than one label demonstrates this much more clearly than a verbal explanation can. Similarly where do the Renaissance, Reformation go and what other words are used for the same period – and there’s a range of other examples.

8. Duration – comparing the lengths of periods

Duration is a key idea and the physical timeline can help hugely – e.g. compare the length of the Tudor and Saxon periods – how many Tudor centuries fit into the Saxon period? Demonstrate this physically by taking the Tudor century for a walk along all the Saxons – it’s clear the Saxon period is much longer.  Similarly the length of Roman Britain stands out as longer than most realise.

9. Going back into BC

Explore the duration of the distant past e.g. by asking how many ‘people centuries’ do we need to go back to Stonehenge? Answer – Stonehenge in use c.2800-1500BC so need another 15 people to reach when Stonehenge was abandoned, 28 to when it was built!

10. Make them sort themselves out

Once students have been introduced to the timeline and, for example, major periods of history give out labels, tabards etc to the class sitting in their seats and get them to sort themselves into the timeline. First time give them the same places in the timeline, after that mix them up – let them help each other so they work as a team.

11. Creating a chronology team game

All kinds of possibilities for a useful end of term or half-term activity consolidating knowledge and understanding – start with the topics already covered, then move onto things that they have to use logic for – whose century do you think this event happened in? Where does person A, B or C go on the line? Which century does this source or archaeological find tell us about?

12. What are The Middle Ages in the middle of?

Sit all the medieval centuries (5th-14th) down – tell the 15th and 16th centuries (the Renaissance) to look snooty and know-it-all, looking down on the ignorant centuries before them. These Renaissance folk linked themselves back to the Greeks and Romans – pass a rope or cord back from the 15th century to the Roman century to make the link above the heads of the medieval centuries – now you see why they’re called The Middle Ages, they’re in the middle of two lots of societies that had a high opinion of themselves!

13. What does prehistoric mean?

Prehistory – ‘the time before written records’ – in terms of British history give everyone from 1stC onwards a piece of paper with writing on it – but extend the line back so there’s at least several people BC without paper. Easy question – what’s the difference? No writing before 1st C – this is the time called ‘prehistoric’ and explain its meaning. You could develop this to show that different societies began writing at different times and therefore ‘prehistoric’ means different things in different places.

14. What kind of work did they do?

This can be very simple – the idea is to identify how recently manufacturing and industry became the main employer. So ask the 1st century what was the main kind of work – answer ‘farming’. Then get each century to say in turn ‘farming’ and pass a toy sheep or similar prop down the line as they say ‘farming’. This doesn’t change until the 19th century. Very powerful impact for all its simplicity – hard to forget.

You could use the same simple approach for types of energy, travel etc.

15. The story of Britain – very simply!

Use the timeline to show a very quick pattern of British unity and disunity – an English flag for the 10thC to show the beginnings of English unity, then add other national flags at the point when they became part of ‘Britain’ or the UK. What does this pattern tell you? What questions do you want to ask as a result?

16. The story of royal power

For KS3 – use height of students to tell the story of royal power – those standing up tall show royal power at its peak, those sitting down show a fall. What do students think the pattern is to begin – then after working on it get them to demonstrate the pattern in this way. Add in named kings to help identify the pattern.

17. The stories of empire

Student-centuries sit down on the floor if England/Britain was part of another empire (Romans, Norman kings) and stand up if England/Britain has its own empire. Centuries without either sit on chairs or move away to leave gaps in timeline. You could either give them the pattern and ask them to suggest which empires/which lands for each period or get students to suggest possible patterns.

18. GCSE Medicine through time

Use the line to show the longevity of individual theories or treatments – e.g. ask students to demonstrate how long the theory of the Four Humours lasted. Illustrate this by passing a rope from the Greeks to the 19thC. Yes, it simple – but the visual impact is important.

19. Creating a research task in period groups

Instead of working with individual centuries split the line into periods – Romans, Saxons, late middle ages etc.

Ask each group to research the development of e.g. homes, food, leisure, warfare, royal power, empires, migration etc in their period and come back to the timeline and tell their story. Having heard each story then ask them to pick out changes and continuities.

20. Changing the timeline – one person per decade at A level

Not such a big timeline but a good way of overviewing a century at A level – change the scale so there’s one person per decade and focus on the pattern of changes and continuities e.g. society, people, events, harvest quality, governments and rulers. Using the physical timeline will help with sequence and duration and there’s plenty of scope for students researching their decade and reporting back with images etc to hold up in the timeline.


Useful websites for Props


Set up by a history teacher – lots of ideas.


Jorvik’s on-line shop – e.g. look in arms and armour for a felt Saxon hat

English Heritage

English Heritage have a plastic Roman helmet and cloth chainmail coif – I’ve often picked up cheap props at EH sites.


It’s also worth looking at museum shops on-line and costume-hire shops often sell cheap crowns etc.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

This Page



Setting Up

Using the Timelines

Websites for Props