About 15 years ago my family got a card game for a few dollars at a garage sale. With its bland name and a box covered in black-and-white photos, we weren’t particularly excited. The premise seems like a bit of a hard sell for kids: Chronology – it’s a game where you put historical events in order… yay? But in the years playing it since I have come to wish that I could buy copies for local schools to use not just in their history classrooms, but in science ones as well.

Based on the description, Chronology barely even sounds like a game. Each person starts with one event card – with a brief description and the associated year – face up on the table in front of them. Players take turns pulling event cards out of the deck and reading the description out loud to the group. The player to their left has to guess where on their timeline that new event would fit. If they are right, the card gets added, face up to their timeline. If not, each of the other players gets a chance in turn to guess where the card falls in their own timeline. If no one guesses correctly, the date is read out and the card is discarded. Play continues until someone is able to build a timeline of ten cards.

This sounds pretty straight forward, and early play usually is. Figuring out whether the Wright brothers flew before or after the first atomic bomb was dropped is hopefully a gimmie. But as timelines fill up, the gaps get smaller and listening to people logic their way through the more complicated guesses gets interesting. If you had cards for the end of the Civil War (1865), the driving of the Golden Spike to complete the transcontinental railroad (1869), the start of the Korean War (June 25, 1950), and the year Alaska became a state (January 3, 1959), when would you guess that margarine was invented? Or Velcro? Would someone have created margarine to deal with war shortages? What about Velcro? Did your grandparents have Velcro? (You can find the answers to these at the end of this post.)

And the approaches that people take to talk their way to a guess can be so different, it ends up being an insightful exercise in synthesis. What year was Marie Antoinette married? According to one cousin, it was before the small dresses of Jane Austen (which she thought was the late 1700s) but probably after the time of castles/courts/crusades. (Marie Antoinette was married in 1770, Pride and Prejudice is published in 1813, and the “crusades” actually refers to a broad series of events spanning centuries.) And when discussing the creation of Budweiser, it seemed reasonable to argue that it was probably before the invention of the Model T, because, you know, its pulled by horses in the advertising, and they would probably have used a car if cars were more common. Imperfect logic, sure, but making these kind of guesses takes players through the mental exercise of having to justify their best possible guess. Then they get the chance for instant feedback. (Budweiser was introduced in 1876 and the Model T was first produced in 1908).

Playing the game with a mix of ages gives everyone a chance to learn from each other in a low-stakes and informal setting. But within the context of the game, there is a bit more motivation to listen and absorb some of what the other players know rather than just listening to someone talk about “Well, back in ’76 when …” and so on. And playing with kids and adults also gives young players a chance to see the adults in their life try their best to figure something out and be wrong anyway. Untethering an assumption of correctness from either age or reasonable-sounding arguments is an important lesson for any player to work through.

Some of the event cards have scientific discoveries, but the fact that they are mixed in with history, art, sports, and literature is a huge part of its value. Curriculum and testing requirements have long been forcing school subjects into isolated silos, something educators have been valiantly fighting against for years. But it is hard to get young people to think about the lessons learned in one classroom in the context of those discussed in another without real reasons to do so. Perhaps games can help students dip their toes into some low-stakes interdisciplinary thinking. Historical events and cultural forces don’t stop outside of science labs, and the use of logic, hypotheses, and critical reasoning are hardly limited to the world of science.

We all would be a little happier if history wasn’t seen as memorizing dates and science wasn’t seen as memorizing facts. The Wright brothers made their first manned gliding experiment only 11 years before war planes were first used as bombers. There is power in learning that planes hadn’t even been around as long as the soldiers flying them. There is power in the dismay a player feels when they realize that the end of US slavery came after vulcanized rubber, modern photography based on negatives, and electric motors. And there is value in recognizing the importance of art when all of the kids at the table knew that the Civil Rights movement continued on after Sputnik because of the movie Hidden Figures. As far as garage-sale purchases go, I would call it a few dollars very well spent.

Answers:

  • Margarine was invented in 1869. It was created as a butter alternative for armed forces and lower classes, but it was in response to the challenge by Emperor Napoleon III rather than a more modern conflict.
  • Velcro was created by the Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral. Rather than being part of a grand scientific pursuit, he came up with the idea after dealing with the burs stuck to him and his dog after a walk in the woods in 1941. It took until 1955 for him to patent a synthetic design.