hands-on prehistory

In studying history with my young kids, I decided to start with the earliest people.  Stone Age people offered lots of opportunities for hands-on study, which is just what I wanted for history in the early elementary years.  In case you’re looking for ideas, here are our highlights:


  • Introduction and Overview
    I generated my own 11-page Wall Timeline for the longest wall I had available in our work area. Though I would love to have all years equal in order to show a more accurate perspective on time, it just isn’t practical.  To highlight my scale changes, I used different colors on my timeline for each period.  I then explained to my kids that studying history is like studying the world around us:  things that are near us look much bigger and more detailed than those that are far away, even though we know that if we were to go far away, things would have the same dimensions and level of detail.
  • Timelines and Scales
    We made a few of our own timelines—for our day, for our week, for our lives—in order to see how and why you would change the scale of your timeline, and how the scale and scope also determine the types of events you would include.
  • Learning about the Past
    Pondering timelines led to a discussion of how we know about history, why we know more about recent years than the ancient past, and what sorts of things we know about the past. At this point, we were ready to dive in…

Art History: Cave Paintings

  • Part 1: Ponder and copy images. Try to recreate the way in which animals were drawn primarily using one long curving stroke from the nose all the way to the hind foot.  Look at a map to see where cave paintings have been found.
  • CavePaintings

    The mud-paint was not only less disgusting to create and work with, it also resulted in a bolder and brighter image.

    Part 2: Consider how paints were made. Folks in the know believe that ancient humans may have first tried paints made of berries and other biomass; when these were found to fade and disintegrate with time, alternatives were sought.  Try making your own paint.  We tried chewing and spitting strawberries and blueberries (yuck!) and also mixed our spit with some red dirt we’d collected.  (My husband questioned this, but I argued that it was a less disgusting binder than urine and less messy than animal fat.)  The saliva worked really well to make a sticky paint—and it seems to last!  We tried the spitting technique to make handprints (both directly from our mouths and from straws dipped in our “paint”) but that didn’t work for us.  We had more success with our fingers and with makeshift stick-paintbrushes.

  • Part 3: Try your technique in a cave. This part was most exciting for us.  I used various plastic totes, pieces of cardboard, and furniture—all covered with blankets—to turn our master bedroom into a maze-like cave.  (After all, many cave paintings have been found in hard-to-reach locations deep inside caves.)  The kids had to crawl behind the loveseat, squeeze through the shelves of a bookshelf, slither under the bed, and finally climb over a half-wall and wade through a flooded cavern (our garden tub with an inch of water in the bottom), encountering obstacles and dead-ends along the way.  They ended in our candlelit master closet, in which I’d taped crumpled paper bags on the walls as cave-canvasses.  I provided CrayPas for them to draw with; they seemed a relatively authentic medium without being over messy.  (I certainly didn’t want clumps of spitty sand on my carpet, and I thought even chalk might be a bit too messy.)  While the candlelight art part of this was fun, the highlight was definitely the cave.  The kids crawled around in my room for a long time, eventually rearranging the cave walls.

Hunter-Gatherer Life

  • We made "tooth and bone" necklaces and hunter-gatherer sacks.

    We made “tooth and bone” necklaces and hunter-gatherer sacks.

    Craft Project: A Gathering Bag
    I purchased animal-print felt at a local craft store for this project. We talked about how folks had to scrape skins, stretch them, and even chew them to make them workable.  Then we discussed how sewing helped people make better clothes and other useful items.  One of our books talked about using a sharp tool to pierce the skin to make sewing easier.  (I used a scissors!)  The kids used yarn to sew their little gathering sack together.

  • Craft Project: A Hunter-Gatherer Necklace
    Even hunter-gatherers liked jewelry, apparently, because archaeologists have found quite a few necklaces made of bones and teeth. Make your own using yarn, string, or leather cord with corks, straws, beads, noodles, or anything else you can find that looks somewhat bone- or tooth-like.
  • Field Trip: Hunter-Gatherer Diet
    We happen to live near a slew of pecan trees, which made this portion of the lesson simple to execute, though going to an orchard or a you-pick farm could also have worked as an experiential example of the effort needed to keep your family fed.
  • Cooking: A Hunter-Gatherer Meal
    Make a meal that a hunter-gatherer might have been able to eat. We used our pecans to top a spinach-and-strawberry salad and paired it with a soup of carrots, lentils, onions, and peppers flavored with chicken bouillon.  While this may not be the most authentic hunter-gatherer meal, you get the general idea—and so did the kids. (Though perhaps I should have done something more bland—all pecans, everyone?—or less filling to make a more accurate point…but at this age, I still wanted full tummies and excitement rather than whining.  This was a more fun meal to prepare.)

Construction Projects

  • Stone Age Shelters
    While many folks lived at the mouths of caves, there were other types of dwellings used when caves weren’t available. I sent the kids into the yard to make a Little-sized shelter using whatever materials they could find.  Goobie tried a leaf-and-mud hut and one made of sticks.  Peatie spent a long time testing different building methods with sticks and mud.  He tried to make a mud wall between upright stick posts, attempted to mud-glue sticks upright beside each other, and finally settled on crafting a teepee-style structure made of sticks glued together with mud.
  • Stone Age Travel
    Having read about coracles in a couple different places, I asked the kids if they’d like to make one. Instead, they preferred to craft their own water-travel solutions.  They discovered several solutions for water transit using natural materials (blocks of wood) or stand-ins (a plastic bag in lieu of an animal skin).

Transition to Farming

  • Research: Catal Huyuk (and Jericho)
    I intended to do some wandering around on the Science Museum of Minnesota’s page on the ancient city of Catal Huyuk; unfortunately, I couldn’t for the life of me get the site to work the night before I was going to teach it (though I could pull up random parts of the site through the Wayback Machine). Instead, I did some quick research on Catal Huyuk and Jericho and did my own nonfiction summary for comprehension work.  (Then, of course, my printer wouldn’t work, so we all gathered around the computer to read it the next day. You can use my last-minute work here, if you’d like: The First Towns)
  • Project: Clay Balls
    Archaeologists at Catal Huyuk have found scads of clay balls, and they have no idea what they were for. We read about them, guessed what they might have been used for, and then used this opportunity to make our own clay balls.  We gathered two different types of soil, and each child made four balls: one was set in the sun, one was left in the shade, one was baked at a low temperature, and one was baked at a high temperature.  The method of drying didn’t seem to have as much effect on our clay as the soil itself.  We’re hoping to use this knowledge to make some tiny clay bricks for future building projects.
  • Map Work and Reporting
    To complete this portion of our learning, I created a regional map for the kids to fill in and included space for them to record why folks first started settling in towns and what they had learned about Jericho and Catal Huyuk. This worked better than the more open-ended, write-whatever-you-learned approach I’d used for science.  Having a few specific important details to recall and then having space to record what was most striking to them gave us a more concise, complete, and comprehensible page for our learning books.  (This was the page I created: First Towns and Cities)

Books We Used

  • Adventures in the Ice Age (Linda Bailey)
  • Hands-On History: Stone Age (Charlotte Hurdman)
  • A Little History of the World (EH Gombrich)
  • Mammoths on the Move (Lisa Wheeler)
  • Usborne Book of Living Long Ago

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