Hands-On History: Knights and Castles

We just finished an awesome six weeks of studying some really cool topics that my kids wanted to learn more about.  Today I thought I’d share the fun we had studying knights and castles.

Books were a big part of our study, though I tried to include as much hands-on as I possibly could.  (I’ll include a description of how we used the different books below for your perusal, along with a quick-reference list of all our resources at the end.  Our read-aloud stories–featuring King Arthur and Robin Hood–are listed and described at the very bottom of the post, below the reference list.)

Overview of the Middle Ages

We started by getting a bit of context, learning about the Middle Ages in general. In this, I included a timeline check so we could see what historical period we were discussing and some pondering of maps (we have a very cool Kingfisher Atlas of World History) so we understood where in the world this was taking place.


Pookie’s castle was simplest, but he insisted on including a well–with a bucket and bits of shiny paper for water–and a trapdoor to a dungeon, where he kept shoving Lego enemies.

I happened to pick up a book called Knights & Castles: 50 Hands-On Activities to Experience the Middle Ages (Hart & Mantell) that was a perfect starting point.  In this book, we read about the feudal system and the Dark Ages and the influence of the church, and we read about what life was like for a typical peasant or nobleman.  The kids had fun drawing their own Medieval map, an idea they thought of before the book even suggested it.  They included landmarks and roads we see often and invented possible dangers to be found in places we haven’t gone.  The kids were also excited to note that “Button You Must Wander”–a game they learned in choir, where children sitting in a circle pass a button while singing, and the child in the middle opens his/her eyes at the end of the song and guesses who has the button (this lady sings it, in case you want to try!)–is very similar to the “Hunt the Slipper” game included in the book.

We rounded out our introduction to the Middle Ages with two quick, fun reads–Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Medieval Castle (Cole) and Adventures in the Middle Ages (Bailey).  These were curl-up-on-the-couch type books that provided review for some of the highlights we’d read about thus far.



Goober made sure to include a walled dry moat, and that sticker on the tower is a sparkly oval with a cross cutout, meant to represent a chapel window.

Since we already had a basic introduction to castles, we dove right into this topic by reading David Macaulay’s Castle.  This was another good snuggle-up-and-read choice, since the detailed pictures gave the kids something to look at as I read the story of how the castle was built.  Using DK’s Eyewitness: Castle and National Geographic Kids’ Everything Castles, we pondered the structure and contents of castles.  Each kid planned their castle structure, and Peatie was assigned to try to make his an appropriate scale.  (He ended up copying Castle‘s dimensions for much of it, though he couldn’t quite execute the details like he wanted.)

Castle building took us a lot of time.  I had been saving cardboard boxes and other assorted supplies for several weeks beforehand in anticipation, but it still took a while for everyone to choose their supplies, decide how to arrange everything, decorate it all as desired, and add appropriate details.  Thankfully the kids were so excited by this process that they gladly worked on it a little at a time for nearly two weeks.  (We initially spent an hour or two getting the structure started, and then we continued by doing a little each day thereafter.)  Highlights for the kids were making working portcullises and drawbridges and adding details like garderobes and wells.



While I had high hopes for these castles as works of art, I had to remember that my kids are still 7-and-under and let my expectations go.  Still, Peatie made sure to include a garderobe (I opend the box on top so you can see the hole, which connects to a tube that emptied into a cesspit out back), and that funnel-on-a-cup that you see was intended to be a rainwater capture system and cistern.

Once our castles were well underway, we moved on to learning about knights.  We read through a National Geographic book entitled How To Be a Medieval Knight and enjoyed the pictures of real people photographed in various roles in Laura Durman’s Knights book.  Eyewitness: Knight was a good book for filling in details on topics of interest.

As we learned about knights, we sprinkled in some fun projects.  First, we made our own helmets and swords from paper, basing the helmet designs on actual photographs of helmets (though we were limited by the range of our hole punch!).

The helmets are formed from a paper tube fitted around the child’s head (using staples or tape to secure it at the right size) plus a paper headband-type strip across the top to keep it from slipping down to the child’s shoulders.  While the child is wearing their tube-helmet, mark any place you will want to cut (their eyes, and possibly their nose, mouth, or ears).  Remove the helmet and make the appropriate cuts.

The swords were made from two pieces of legal-sized paper and a strip of cardboard.  Fold both pieces of paper to approximately 1.5-2″ wide, maintaining the length of the page.  Tuck in the ends of one folded paper to form the points of the sword and secure with tape or a staple.  Slide the strip of cardboard inside this piece to stiffen it; this will be your blade and hilt.  Use your second folded paper to form the crossguard (the piece that protects the hand and separates the blade from the hilt), securing it to the stiffened blade/hilt.  Decorate as desired.

Another project we enjoyed was the making of our own coats of arms.  After reading about heraldry and coats of arms, we used this website as a reference and the kids pondered what colors and designs they wanted.  The coats of arms were featured on our cardboard shields (made with one cereal-box-sized piece of cardboard with a loop of cardboard attached to the back for a handle) and also drawn onto a paper tabard to accompany our paper helmet and sword.  The tabard was formed simply enough from two large pieces of paper taped together, trimmed to form angles at the bottom, and cut with a scoop to fit over the head. (We happened to score an unwanted box of old tractor-feed printer paper from a local school!)


The knights display their armor.

As we studied this material, the kids grew increasingly determined to have a “learning party” to share their new knowledge with Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa.  We’d done one before with success, so I agreed.  We worked hard to prepare, and the learning party was probably the highlight of the experience for the kids.

Our party featured three elements: castle tours, in which each child showed the castle they had created and pointed out any interesting features; castle reports, in which my older two children read short reports they had written about what they had learned; and the tournament.


Our tournament included jousting.

Of these three elements, you can probably guess that my kids’ favorite part was the tournament.  They dressed in gray and black to mimic armor, donned their helmets and tabards, and showed off some knightly skills.  We started with sword fighting and an archery demonstration, held our own joust using Hop! balls (with horse heads attached!) and paper lances (two pieces of legal-sized paper overlapped and rolled), and finished with a carousel to show our horsemanship.  (Who knew the term originated from the church-approved, non-violent, late-era, mostly-for-show form of the tournament!?)

Renaissance Faire


The awesome (free!) Ren Faire had a lot of things to see and do.

As an unexpected grand finale to our unit, I found out about a free Renaissance Faire hosted nearby by the Society for Creative Anachronism the weekend we would be wrapping up our studies.  Needless to say, I jumped at that opportunity–and I’m so glad I did.  Though it was a small affair, the kids were able to see plenty of period costumes; try on gauntlets, chainmail, and a 400-year-old helmet; witness (and try) some Medieval dancing; watch some sword fighting by folks with various types of weapons and armor; see a blacksmith demonstrate how to make an iron chain; card and spin wool to make their own small piece of yarn…  It was an awesome capstone experience!


  • Kingfisher Atlas of World History
  • Knights & Castles: 50 Hands-On Activities to Experience the Middle Ages (Hart & Mantell: This was the book I used to introduce the time period and beliefs.  While many of their ideas were ones I’d already put on my to-do list (like making our own castles, coats of arms, and armor), there were a number of games and crafts I hadn’t considered.  This book was also great for including details that kids would find interesting–stuff like the origin of the Christmas tree, Charlemagne’s contribution to reading/writing, and the silly demands of Medieval nobles.
  • Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Medieval Castle (Cole): If your kids like the Magic School Bus series, they’ll probably enjoy this book, in which Ms. Frizzle and Arnold accidentally discover a path back through time and help save a castle.  It’s probably better for young kids than the title below because it’s shorter and less detailed.
  • Adventures in the Middle Ages (Bailey): We’ve read others by this author and found them all to be fun reads.  The Binkerton kids travel back in time to the Middle Ages, where they bumble along from one mishap to the next, reading their time-travel guidebook to learn more about the time period and find their way back home.  The adventures are silly and the pictures fun, but the stories do have some good historical information tucked in them–an all-around win!
  • David Macaulay’s Castle: This book is awesome.  Using a single lord as an example, Macaulay weaves a story that tells not only how castles were built, but why and how.  His detailed pictures kept my kids entranced–especially my boys, who love the how-things-work type of details–while his story was engaging enough to convey the intended information without boring my kids.
  • Eyewitness: Castle (DK): The format of this one is probably better for mid- to upper-elementary students, since the font tends to be small and the pages are jam-packed with tiny tidbits of information and small images to go with them.  We used this book primarily to find out more detailed information about particular aspects of castles about which we were interested.
  • Everything Castles (National Geographic Kids): This book is appealing for a wider range of ages than the one above, since it features at least one large, main image and brief article per page, making it less cluttered and using a bit larger font for the main text.
  • How To Be a Medieval Knight (MacDonald): My kids found this to be a pretty engaging book.  It’s addressed directly to the reader, and it gives instructions on how to become a knight.  This author wrote several other similarly laid-back books on the topic, but this was the only one we could find in our library.
  • Knights (Durman): This book contains pictures of real people photographed in various medieval roles, including a step-by-step series of images of a knight being armed by a squire.  It’s perhaps a little dry, but it’s informative and has interesting images.  Durman, too, has several books in this series, but this was the only one in our library.
  • Eyewitness: Knight (DK): Another book with lots of detailed information about knights, provided in bite-sized snippets scattered across the pages.  Again, this series is probably more appealing to older readers due to the font size and the busyness of the pages (but maybe that’s just my perception, since I find them too busy and my kids don’t love them).
  • Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess (Platt): We ran out of time for this one, but I browsed a good portion of it.  Set up as the diary of a young boy serving as a page in his uncle’s home, each reasonably short entry shares details of his life–the living conditions, activities, parties, jobs, etc.  The end of the book has brief articles on various topics of interest as well as an index/glossary.  This could easily be read by a child who is capable of 100-page chapter books, especially since the text is 1.5 spaced (not too crowded) and nearly every spread contains at least one small black-and-white drawing.
  • Magic Tree House Research Guide #2: Knights and Castles (Osborne): This was another book we just didn’t get to, though I almost wonder if it would have been better suited than the multiple-book-approach I used.  I didn’t notice until most of the way through our studies, but this book was divided in precisely the way I segmented our studies–the setting, the castles, and the knights.  Again, this could easily be read alone by a kid who can handle chapter books; it’s probably aimed younger than the book above.

Additional Read-Alouds

I selected some read-aloud stories to go along with our study, too.  Since my kids hadn’t heard the stories of King Arthur or Robin Hood, I thought those would be great places to start.  I had read that King Arthur tales retold by Margaret Hodges were good for early elementary, so I picked up both Merlin and the Making of the King and Of Swords and Sorcerers.  While the former had more pictures, I found the latter to be the more engaging and complete-feeling set of stories.  We also read Robin Hood as retold by David Calcutt, which the kids and I really loved.  It had some lovely illustrations, and the stories were well-crafted.  One thing to be aware of is that these tales come from violent times and often center on conflict.  Hodges has a bit more gruesome descriptions and more frequent deaths–as well as a few romantic encounters that I censored while reading–but Calcutt’s tale also includes quite a bit of sword fighting and several deaths.  A year ago these would not have been readable with my kids, but at this point the violence just led to discussion.


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