Visualizing Space & Time for Primary Education

Group Members

Coram Bryant and Christopher Warner

Project Proposal


The development of chronological and spatial thinking skills constitutes a critical component of primary grade curriculum in the State of California (see California State Content Standards). In fact, of the twelve intellectual standards for K-5 Historical and Social Sciences education, five involve the ability to comprehend and reason about space and time:

1. Students place key events and people of the historical era they are studying in a chrono­logical sequence and within a spatial context; they interpret time lines.

2. Students correctly apply terms related to time, including past, present, future, decade, century, and generation.

3. Students explain how the present is connected to the past, identifying both similarities and differences between the two, and how some things change over time and some things stay the same.

4. Students use map and globe skills to determine the absolute locations of places and interpret information available through a map’s or globe’s legend, scale, and symbolic representations.

5. Students judge the significance of the relative location of a place (e.g., proximity to a harbor, on trade routes) and analyze how relative advantages or disadvantages can change over time.

Similarly, spatial and temporal reasoning factor prominently in grade-level content standards for the Sciences, particularly in terms of species life cycles, stages of development, and the effect of seasons on populations.


Despite the fact that educators employ a variety of tools and methods to teach these standards, many elementary-aged students still exhibit misconceptions about spatial and temporal relationships. Investigatory discussions with primary grade educators reveal that these concepts are difficult to inculcate, to the point where students often leave 5th grade with misconceptions about concepts such as:

  • relative units of time (e.g. the length of a decade relative to that of a century)
  • chronological ordering of events (e.g. the invention of the telephone versus the dates of the civil war)
  • proportional versus absolute time (e.g. the relative lifespans and proportional life cycle stages of a butterfly and a bear)
  • effective temporal distances over time (e.g. travel or information transmission time with respect to technology advances)


We suggest that these concepts can be made more accessible to primary grade students with the aid of a developmentally appropriate, interactive visualization tool. This tool will visually reveal relationships between space, time, and events in ways that support primary grade cognitive abilities. Interactive components will foster exploratory comparisons between absolute, proportional, and relative measures of time. Through a process of investigation, design, user testing, and revision, we plan to develop a solution that may include one or more of the following features:

  • coiled timelines reflecting annual units of time (encoding the earth's orbit) and revealing patterns and fluctuations with respect to seasons
  • interactive tools for pulling out timeline ranges for side-by-side comparison
  • interactive tools for switching between proportional and absolute temporal scales (e.g. when comparing species life cycle stages)
  • interactive cartograms reflecting temporal (e.g. travel or information exchange) "distances" between locations with respect to chronological developments
  • abilities to select individuals and events in a timeline in order to reveal concurrent meaningful information (e.g. modes of transportation, or some other standards-based concept)
  • others as revealed by investigations

Initial Project Presentation

Final Deliverables


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