Cascading Timelines


Creating these timelines takes a bit of time up front, but its an investment you can use all year long. Timelines are a wonderful place to hang bits of knowledge, and see the relationships between different subject areas.

Materials needed: paper, ruler, pencil, and books or Wikipedia. Printable Template here

We used butcher paper and a good chunk of wall space. We made 5 timelines, on different scales. The thing to do is choose a convenient, easy to measure timescale that approximately fits the thing you want to display.

For a 120 cm stretch of butcher paper, here are some scales you might want to use:

1) The Universe. 14.5 billion years to cover, so 1cm = 120million years works pretty well. You can place hash marks at the very beginning (left hand side) at 14.4 billion years ago, one at the very end (right-hand side) for the present, and a few marker points in the middle. This is a good place to put the formation of galaxies, of stars, and you can also see on this scale the evolution of early life ( starting about 3.5 billion years ago). Dinosaurs are squeezed into the last few cm, but have just enough space to show up.

2) Story of Life. Really this line should be named the story of 'Advanced Life' as the earliest evidence of life on Earth points 3.5 billion years ago. But not all that much happened in the early years (which itself is interesting as a story of acceleration of evolution). Most of what we think about in evolution, life coming onto land, the evolution of vertebrates, those amazing dinosaurs, early mammals - all that happened in the last 650 million years or so. Thus, a good scale for an Evolution timeline might be 5 million years per centimeter. The left hand mark then becomes 600MYA or Million Years Ago, and the right most side again is the present day.

You can highlight the rightmost 5 centimeters on the Universe timeline to show that this bit corresponds to the whole Life timeline.

To see this story on a beautiful chart on logarithmic scales, see
The Correlated History of the Universe. We have this chart posted near to our cascading timelines and can use it as a source.

3) The Human Story. Which scale to pick next is a matter of taste, but I like to use Recorded History starting with the invention of writing about 6 thousand years ago. Conveniently this is a similar timescale to the history of life, and lets us pick 50 years/cm as the next timescale. Another choice would be the origin of the human race, which would let us track the possible invention of fire, stone tools and the development of agriculture.
In either case, this is a good timeline to record notes about ancient Egypt, the Romans, the Greeks, and is fine-grained enough to make a few notes about major happenings in the last few hundred years.

4) Modern times. Even more flexibility here, but to keep with our pattern about 600 years might be a good scale, which at 5 years/cm will include the end of the middle ages, the Renaissance, and yet have enough space to include each president who warrents inclusion.

5) Your Family. 60 years is another interesting timeline, which at 2cm per year allows a pretty good amount of information, including perhaps a good 20 centimeters for entering events from the student's life! Another choice would be to make this last timeline exactly scaled to the student's own lifetime, plus one year to allow for entries of new items as time passes.

Your timelines won't be filled in all the way at first - they are a framework to add knowledge to. A few items can be added at the start from the above Wikipedia articles, and students can make drawings or paste magazine cutouts along the timeline to add interest. As you study different subjects, ask your child to find where the subject belongs on the timeline - often, you can add the subject itself to an early timeline and its discoverer to a later one!

We also use this for earning. Anytime they like, our kids can earn a dollar by adding a point accurately to the timeline with some supporting detail (up to a daily limit). So they will use the nearby resources - a chart of the presidents, the Correlated History of Earth chart, and our Timelines of History book to earn a quick buck.

Once we add information, the correlations can be quite surprising. I didn't know until doing this project that the star Sirius is quite young, and actually formed during the time of the dinosaurs. History doesn't proceed in separate isolated bits, but has interconnections and simultaneous events tangled throughout.

On a single sheet of 8x11 paper, the information becomes denser, but each child can have their very own. Here is a free printable PDF template for a personal set of cascading timelines.

Down to Grade/Age: 
1st Grade
Up thru Grade/Age: 
High School