Photo by Toasty Ken
Each year, my students engaged in a year-long Create A Civilization activity. They developed their own civilization to match what we were learning about Egypt, Rome, and China. It culminated in an always incredible Open House display.
Primarily a social studies project, it also bridges easily into our science curriculum, language arts, and beyond.
This will work with a variety of social studies topics, so give it a try even if you don’t teach ancient civilizations. If you’re teaching American History, you might have students develop their own rebellious set of colonies. If your curriculum covers Native Americans, students could create their own realistic tribe.
Example: Unit One
After each social studies unit, students took their new understandings and applied it to their own civilizations.
Unit one was about the many environments humans settled in and their development of tools. We also covered the domestication of plants and animals and the introduction of clothing and shelter.
After we finished the unit, I asked students to consider:
- What biome would your people settle in (note the natural connection to science)?
- What plants and animals would be available to their people in this environment?
- What sorts of tools would they develop, given their resources?
- What would their shelter be like?
At this point, students would simply jot ideas into a notebook I gave them. We’re slowly building up to a grand end-of-year project.
Before turning them loose, I always modeled using my own civilization, often called Byrdlandia. I’d answer my own questions, use the same resources as my students, share my thinking, and take suggestions from the class. Only then could the students get started.
This step is vital to ensure understanding of the task, to communicate expectations of quality, and for getting kids excited about the project. Plus, you’ll catch those pesky errors and confusing directions when you do your own project!
I can’t emphasize enough how much this modeling improved students’ work.
Example: Unit Two
The next unit showed the development of cities and the importance of farming. Students learned how a surplus of food led to new types of jobs, increased populations, and time for the arts, sports, and hobbies.
I’d ask my students:
- Explain the tools your civilization used that led to successful farming.
- Describe some of the new roles that emerged in your civilization.
- Give examples of the art your people began to produce.
And, of course, I’d answer these questions myself before letting them start.
Throughout the year, students kept adding this information to their little notebooks. Once state testing passed and Open House approached, we began to really put the pieces together.
Every student developed a three panel board to explain their civilization.
I gave them five “required” pieces, such as:
- Hunting/gathering tools
- Social roles and jobs
- Religions: monotheistic or polytheistic
- Development of liberty: freedoms of speech, press, religion, voting rights, etc
- Development of government to: monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, republic, etc
And I also gave some “optional” pieces (they had to choose a subset from the options). These might include:
- Show your civilization’s currency and explain your symbolism
- Explain the development of clothing in your civilization. Include at least two different levels of society (nobles/commoners)
- Describe any relations with nearby civilizations (kids really got into warring and trading with each other).
Students used drawings, diagrams, maps, and text to answer the questions and arranged it all onto a three-panel display board.
These boards were one of the main features of Open House. Students really went wild developing the most amazing details about their civilizations.
And I always kept a couple great ones to show the next year’s class the final product.
Once you start thinking beyond simply mirroring the social studies curriculum, it’s easy to make many connections across all subjects. These would be great “optional” components for the end-of-year board.
- Write a myth from your civilization
- Write about a hero from your history
- Develop a style of poetry that was important to your people
- Create the calendar system used by your people (more about calendars here)
- Develop the alphabet or other writing system of your civilization
- Design your flag and explain its symbolism
- Create a holiday celebrating an important day, person, or quality of your civilization (great to discuss an upcoming real life holiday).
- Create the number system used by your people (more on number systems here).
Let me know if you give this a spin in your class!