Category Archives: History

Hands-on Aztec History

Hands-on Aztec History - Lizard Daysign

The Aztecs dominated Central America from the 14th to 16th centuries. They founded the magnificent floating city of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City) and – more importantly – were among the first people to make chocolate.

We haven’t done much hands-on history lately, but discovering that the Aztecs used cacao beans as money captured our imaginations, and  soon we were off on a delightful rabbit trail.

Here are some of the activities we enjoyed during our hands-on Aztec history day.

Aztec numbers

The Aztecs used a base 20 number system. Numbers were represented with combinations of dots and symbols, grouped together in any order.

Hands-on Aztec History
Aztec numbers

I printed out copies of how the Aztecs recorded numbers. We practised with this Aztec maths activity sheet, and then had fun writing number puzzles for each other.

The Aztec calendar

The Aztec calendar consisted of three calendar wheels. The two wheels of the religious calendar interlocked in 260 different combinations, making up the 260 day sacred calendar.

The Aztecs also used a 365 day agricultural calendar. The two cycles together formed a 52 year “century”.

Hands-on Aztec History
Aztec calendar on amate by Pacofender

I’ve seen beautiful artwork based on the Aztec calendar and I was tempted to suggest that we have a go ourselves. But since we didn’t study how the calendar works in any detail, I didn’t want to dumb down a fascinating but complex subject with an over-simplified art project. We’ll enjoy exploring the maths of the Aztec calendar another time.

Instead, we used this Aztec daysign calculator to find out which (of 20) Aztec daysigns we were born under. We coloured our daysign pictures with watercolour crayons.

Hands-on Aztec history
J(8) colouring his alligator daysign

My kids love this sort of thing, and spent ages playing with the daysign calculator, working out the “daysign destinies” of everyone they know.

hands-on Aztec history
C was amused to discover that the body part associated with her daysign – the vulture – is her right ear.

Aztec chocolate

The Aztecs were among the first people to mix ground cacao seeds with seasonings to make a spicy, frothy drink they called chocolatl.  Cacao beans were such a luxury commodity that they were used as currency, so chocolatl was reserved for special occasions and important people.

Cacao or cocoa?

Have you ever wondered whether there’s a difference between cocoa and cacao? It seems that the word “cocoa” probably came about by mistake – a sort of linguistic typo that stuck. Today, we tend to refer to raw “cacao,” but processed “cocoa”.

From bean to bar

We watched this video about how cacao beans are harvested and processed. I like that it shows the cacao beans being pulled from the fruit.

The next video shows how cacao beans are processed and made into chocolate bars.

Tasting time

After watching all that chocolate being made, our mouths were watering.

Tesco sells chocolate made with beans from individual named countries. Each bar even comes with accompanying tasting notes.

Hands-on Aztec history
I couldn’t find any Mexican chocolate, but we did taste chocolate from Dominican Republic and Ecuador.

We used all our senses as we tasted, noticing how each type of chocolate looked, how it smelled, how it felt and sounded as it broke, and – of course – how it tasted.  As we tasted each bar, we looked up where its beans came from on our world map.

I recorded some of the children’s descriptions. J(8) described the chocolate from Côte d’Ivoire as “Nutty, creamy, and smooth”. C(10) thought it was “musty”!

Hands on Aztec history
Chocolate tasting notes

The children both liked the chocolate from Ecuador best.  My favourite was the Peruvian chocolate, which tasted like berries.

What about cocoa nibs?

Cocoa nibs are small pieces of cacao beans that have been roasted and removed from their husks. Cocoa nibs can be eaten raw (we weren’t impressed), or added to recipes as a healthy chocolate substitute.

C(10) decided to grind a spoonful of cocoa nibs into powder using a pestle and mortar. An hour later, she had new-found respect for the people who used to do this before modern machines were invented!

Hands-on Aztec history
C(10) grinding cocoa nibs

After all that grinding, C(10) decided to save the tasting for another day. 🙂

Aztec poetry tea

We drank Aztec-style hot chocolate for poetry tea. The recipe comes from the British Museum, but we were doubtful how closely this delicious beverage resembled the spicy drink consumed by rich Aztecs!

I read Aztec poems as we enjoyed our hot chocolate, while J(8) entertained us with an old favourite, Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake.

Hands-on Aztec history
Aztec hot chocolate


Aztecs at Mexicolore

Learning-Connections – Aztecs Primary Project Pages

Aztec chocolate


BBC Education (KS2) – The Aztec Empire – Good quality clips covering a variety of topics, including where the Aztecs came from and why they made human sacrifices (J(8)’s favourite).

Horrible Histories Aztecs videos


The Story of the World Volume 2: The Middle Ages

The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History


I’m appreciatively linking up here:

History and Geography Meme#108: St Patrick’s History

Entertaining and Educational

Weekly Wrap-Up

Collage Friday

After School Linky Party @ Planet Smarty

The Hip Homeschool Hop

Wonderful Wednesdays

Anything Goes @ Joy Focused Learning

Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop #14


Hands-On Ottoman History – Design Your Own Turkish Rug

design your own turkish rug

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 marked the end of the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern part of the old Roman Empire).

The Ottoman Turks, who ruled over the largest empire in the world for over three hundred years, renamed Constantinople “Istanbul”, and turned its great church, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque.

Design your own Turkish rug

Handwoven rugs are a Turkish art form dating as far back as 7000 BCE.  Rugs were used as blankets, and to cover walls, doorways and floors. They have also always been used as prayer mats.

Turkish rugs are usually made up of geometric patterns surrounded by a border. The patterns are symbols, and each colour that is used has a special significance.

We looked at photos of Turkish rugs and used the information in this Time Warp Trio guide to design our own rugs.

I printed us each a piece of isometric graph paper to help us with the geometric aspect.

design your own Turkish rug

design your own turkish rug
J(8) looked at photos of rugs that incorporated the dragon symbol he wanted to include in his design
design your own turkish rug
After creating his beautifully geometric centre design and border, J(8) decided to extend the theme with a swirling, dragon-like red and silver colour scheme – resulting in a slightly less authentic Turkish rug, but I can’t fault his creativity!
design your own Turkish rug
C(9) used a star symbol in her design (then decided to make it into a shooting star!)
design your own turkish rug
She coloured her rug blue (symbolising strength and power) with smaller amounts of orange (humility) and red (fire, joy, enthusiasm, faith), and dots of yellow (like the sun – symbolising the joy of life) in her rug’s border.
design your own Turkish rug
My rug is by far the least creative! In the centre are fertility symbols. The blue borders signify strength and power, and the green corners symbolise hope, renewal and life. Green is used only sparingly in Turkish rugs because it is the holy colour of the Prophet, Muhammad.

Field trip to Turkey

A few days after we designed our rugs we were lucky enough to visit Turkey on holiday.  We went to the city of Antalya, which was once a major Byzantine city on the south coast of Turkey.

It was fun being able to pick out the symbolism in the rugs we saw.

design your own Turkish rug
Turkish rug with “eye” symbols
design your own Turkish rug
Turkish rugs for sale in Antalya, Turkey
design your own turkish rug
Mini-Turkish rugs decorated these tubs of richly-coloured spices

Hadrian’s Gate

This magnificent gate was constructed in 130 AD in honour of the Roman Emperor, Hadrian.

design your own turkish rug
Hadrian’s Gate, Antalya

C(9) and J(8) remembered learning about Hadrian’s Wall when we studied Roman Britain, so seeing Hadrian’s Gate – nearly 2,500 miles away –  gave them a real appreciation of the size of the Roman Empire!

Antalya was conquered by the Turks in the 13th Century. The right hand tower of Hadrian’s Gate was added by a Turkish Sultan around that time.

design your own Turkish rug

We are visiting Istanbul next year, so we’re looking forward to learning more about this fascinating part of the world and its history!


I’m appreciatively linking this post up here:

Entertaining and Educational

Weekly Wrap-Up

Collage Friday

Hip Homeschool Hop 11/12/2013

Creative Kids Culture Blog-Hop

History and Geography Meme #98

Hands-On Russian History

hands on russian history

We took a couple of fun rabbit trails – one artistic, one linguistic – when we learned about early Russian history.


How Russia got its name

Russia (the land of the Rus) derives its name from Rurik, a Viking explorer.  Rurik and his warrior tribe settled to rule over the native Slavs in an area north of the Black Sea which became known as the Kievan Rus.

Ivan the Great

The various Rus tribes were ruled separately by different warrior princes – and latterly, the Mongols – for about six hundred years, until they were brought together by a prince named Ivan.

This prince – a descendant of Rurik –  also freed Russia from Mongol rule. Ivan ruled Russia for many years, and is remembered as Ivan the Great.

Ivan the Terrible

By the time Ivan the Great’s grandson – remembered as Ivan the Terrible – came to power, the Russians had begun referring to their city “the Third Rome” (after Constantinople).

Ivan the Terrible called himself “Tsar”/”Czar”, meaning “Caesar”. After the death of his wife, Ivan the Terrible suffered bouts of paranoid madness, terrorising his people with a vast and vicious network of secret police. Ivan the Terrible even killed his own son – terrible, indeed!

The death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 marked the end of Rurik’s dynasty.


Ivan the Great ruled the newly unified Russia from Moscow. There he built beautiful cathedrals inside the ancient fortress known as the Kremlin.

St Basils’s Cathedral, with its colourful onion-shaped domes, is so much fun to draw. We worked from one of the many beautiful photographs of St Basil’s.

hands on russian history
We coloured in our pictures of St Basil’s Cathedral with watercolour crayons

Russian Writing

How the Cyrillic alphabet was created

Back in the 9th century, the Byzantine Emperor commissioned two monks to bring Christianity to Eastern Europe. To do this, the monks had to transcribe the Bible into Slavic – a daunting task since the Slavs had no written language, and their spoken tongue contained many sounds not found in other languages.

One of the monks, Cyril, came up with the idea of creating a Slavic alphabet from a hotchpotch of Hebrew, Greek and Latin. In this clever way, St Cyril’s alphabet – the “Cyrillic alphabet” – was able to represent every Russian sound.

The Cyrillic script is now used by more than 70 languages.

Writing in Russian

We used this fabulous free booklet You Already Know a Little Russian to familiarise ourselves with Cyrillic letters.

hands on russian history

I also printed out the Greek alphabet (which we’ve looked at before) so we could compare the Greek and Russian letters. If you have older kids, you might also look at the Hebrew alphabet.

hands on russian history

We used an online transliteration tool to convert our names into Russian, then wrote them out.

And I transliterated a short “secret message” to each of the kids which they enjoyed decoding. (I can’t remember what I used to convert the script, but you can use the transliteration tool then cut and paste into a document.)

hands on russian history

I know I have at least one lovely Russian reader so I apologise for any inaccuracies I’ve made in my attempts to summarise. {Please feel free to correct any glaring mistakes!}

In my next history and geography post I’ll share the fun project we did when we studied medieval Turkey. It even overlapped with maths!


The Story of the World Volume 2: The Middle Ages

Russia, the Kievan Rus, and the Mongols: Crash Course World History #20

I’m appreciatively linking up here:

1. Entertaining and Educational

2. Collage Friday

3. Weekly Wrap-Up

4. Hip Homeschool Hop

5. Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop

6. History and Geography Meme #97

7. Adventures in Mommydom

Almost Unschooling History

unschooling history

We may not be doing school time this year but that doesn’t mean we’re not enjoying learning history.

Here’s how we do it. It’s not much different from the way most homeschoolers do history. The key point for me is that my kids choose whether or not to participate in each activity we do.

History – How I prepare

Researching history resources and activities is one of my favourite pastimes. My aim is not to create perfect lesson plans. I don’t want to end up with something I’m so attached to that I can’t scrap it in favour of where the children’s interest leads us.

I save what I find in Evernote so that I can easily pull up everything relating to the topic when we need it.

1. The Story of the World

I pre-read a chapter of The Story of the World, which we’ve used as our spine since we began homeschooling. We’re now two-thirds through volume 2 (the Middle Ages).

2. Other books

I read about the topic in the Usborne Encyclopaedia of World History and do a library search for other books to strew.

unschooling history

3. Online research

* Google search for “hands-on activities” relating to the topic

* Google Images search for pictures of people, places, art, artefacts, architecture etc

* You Tube – our favourite videos include Crash Course World History and Horrible Histories

* Evernote & Pinterest – for resources I’ve bookmarked in the past

* Brainpop

4. Geography

Studying world history is the perfect way to show children how the world links up.

* I flag relevant pages in our World Atlas

* or print a map using Wonder Maps

* or I find a historical map online – e.g. I needed a map this week showing the Kievan Rus

* Google Maps and Google Earth – good for seeing where places are in relation to each other (and us), what they’re like today, and even “visiting” historical landmarks

* Geography Through Art – this book is full of mini-project ideas. It’s black and white so I usually browse it and then find examples of the projects online

unschooling history
C(9)’s map showing how first Australians and New Zealanders arrived

5. Collating resources

I save what I find to Evernote. One advantage of digital filing is that if we don’t use something now, I can easily find it next year {or in three years’ time}.

6. Printables

I print any materials I want the children to see close-up, and store them in a clear document wallet in our everyday homeschool materials crate.

unschooling history planning process

History – What we do together

Reading Aloud from SOTW

When we have a free fifteen minutes, I ask the kids if they’d like to hear a chapter of The Story of the World.

We’re a family of multi-taskers so I’m happy with the children doing other things as they listen. Ideally this means something hands-on like play dough or drawing. In practice it might mean J(8) playing Minecraft. I’m okay with that. His comments as I read and throughout the days afterwards let me know me he’s taken in what he’s heard.


Depending how much time we have and what else the children have planned, we either do an activity straight after I read from SOTW, or in the next few days.

We almost always chat informally about the topic throughout the week. This helps me gauge their interest in any activities I have in mind, and gives me ideas for other learning tangents.

Our activities usually inter-relate with other subjects, especially geography, art, science and maths.

We watch videos when we can fit them in throughout the week.

We might make notes on our Timeline Builder app.


C(9) will read almost any library book I leave on the table. J(8) looks at the pictures. This is one of the reasons I like the Usborne Encylopedia of World History, which I leave open on our topic.

Unschooling History
Usborne Encyclopedia of World History

When do we leave a topic?

We stay with each topic until we’ve learned everything we want to know. Sometimes spin-off projects continue while we move onto a new chapter of The Story of the World. Other times we get halfway into a project and decide we’ve done as much as we want to. There are schedules and no rules. Only enjoyable learning.

unschooling history
C(9) had the idea to make a guidebook for medieval travellers wishing to follow in Marco Polo’s footsteps

Check out our history curriculum 2013-14 to see some of our unschooling history activities.

Coming soon: our activities relating to medieval Russia.

unschooling history

To see how the other Homeschool Help ladies teach history, visit:

Hammock Tracks – Finding Your Way as you Explore History

Highhill Homeschool – History with Activities at Highhill Education

One Magnificent Obsession – A Glance at How we do History

Every Bed of Roses – Teaching History Revisited

Barefoot Hippie Girl – Historically Speaking: A Barefoot Hippie Plan for Studying 1600-1800


This post is linked to:

History and Geography Meme #91

Unschooling History

History Curriculum 2013-14

homeschool history curriculum
Hands-on history projects

Why do we teach our children history?

Is it to help them become culturally literate? To give them a sense of perspective on where the human race stands now?  To give them greater tolerance of societies different from their own? Because we want them to learn from the mistakes of the past?

Perhaps. But most of all, history is a rich source of exciting stories from around the world. Stories I love sharing with my children. Stories that spark fun projects and inspire all kinds of learning.

The Story of the World

Over the last two years we’ve used The Story of the World (volumes 1 and 2) as our guidebooks through ancient and medieval history.

* We wrote hieroglyphic messages for each other when we learned about Ancient Egypt.

* We learned about blowing and colouring glass with the Phoenicians.  “You stink like a man from Tyre!” is still one of J(8)’s favourite insults.

* We built our own Stonehenge and Celtic Roundhouse.

* We painted Chinese characters and learned about the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army and the story of the Chinese calendar when we visited China.

* When we learned about Japan, we discovered how to distinguish between Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing. And thanks to Japan’s location on the Ring of Fire we were inspired to investigate plate tectonics.

The first year we based our history curriculum around The Story of the World, I bought into the whole classical education schedule and felt we had to finish ancient history within the year.

Visiting Rome  homeschool history curriculum jpt
Visiting Rome

Then I had the epiphany (duh!) that we didn’t have to finish SOTW Volume 2 in a year. So we’ve had plenty of time to dig deep into other cultures.

When history overlaps with other subjects

Geography – Learning about the rise and fall of great empires paints a vivid picture of where each country is in relation to its neighbours and the rest of the world.

Maths –  When we studied the Maori last year we used isometric graph paper to make geometric Taniko designs.

We might do something similar for Turkish rugs when we look at the Ottoman Empire next year.

Art – One of our favourite projects last year was Aboriginal dot-painting. We also enjoyed Japanese ink-wash painting.

When we study Russia in September, we might create art inspired by colourful Russian architecture.

History curriculum next year

Some topics I’m particularly looking forward to next year are:

* The first Russians (did you know that the word Tsar/Czar comes from “Caesar” because Ivan the Terrible wanted to show he was as powerful as the Roman emperors had been?)

* African Kingdoms

* Columbus and Magellan (lots of geography)

* The Mayans and Incas

* Copernicus and Gallileo (lots of science overlap here)

This list shows my personal bias for learning about other cultures and filling gaps in my own knowledge.

But I’m also excited about sharing with C(9) and J(8) the great stories of Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, the Spanish Armada and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Almost-unschooling history

Next year I’m taking another step towards unschooling and giving the children much more freedom to decide what they want to learn.

So if they don’t want to listen to me read from The Story of the World or do any activities I suggest, that’s okay. I suspect that mostly they will join me. If not, I’ll do them myself!

The Kane Chronicles  The Red Pyramid

An almost-unschooling style will also make space for the children’s interests.

J(8) was listening to The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid in the bathroom yesterday when I heard a shout,

“Mummy, can we go to New York to see the Egyptian artefacts?”

“Definitely… one day. Did you know there are lots of Egyptian artefacts in the British Museum in London, too?”

“Cool! Has it got the Rosetta Stone?”

He nearly jumped out of the bath when I said yes. Sounds like we may be revisiting Ancient Egypt!

Why do you teach your children history?


I’m joining Highhill Homeschool’s history lesson-planning link-up.

homeschool history curriculum

homeschool history curriculum


Navigating By Joy homeschool blog

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Miniature Japanese Zen Garden For Kids

miniature japanese zen garden

As part of learning about how Zen Buddhism spread to Japan in the Middle Ages, we made miniature Japanese Zen Gardens. It seemed like a great excuse to play with sand!

What You Need

  • Sand
  • Pebbles or rocks
  • Fork or other mini-raking tool
  • Container (we used chocolate boxes supported on trays)
  • Any other decorative items you like (marbles, twigs etc)

What You Do

1. Fill your container with sand

Miniature Japanese Zen Garden
Not a very Zen tablecloth – oops!

2. Look at pictures of real and miniature Zen Gardens for inspiration

3. Place your rocks

Miniature Japanese Zen Garden

4. Have fun making patterns in the sand with your “rake”

5. Finish with any other decorative features that take your fancy

Miniature Japanese Zen Garden
C(9) added a pond to her Zen Garden. This took a bit of experimentation to stop the water soaking into the sand
miniature japanese zen garden
Adding a “tree”

6. Place your Zen Garden somewhere you can admire it (and the cat can’t get it)

miniature japanese zen garden
Zen Garden with pond

Zen Soundtrack

You might like to listen to some relaxing Japanese music as you tend your garden.

Japanese Religion

Miniature Zen Garden Japan project for kidsZen Buddhism was brought to Japan from China and Korea in the Middle Ages.

We read about Buddhism in One World: Many Religions: The Ways We Worship by Mary Pope Osborne (the author of the Magic Tree House series).

Siddhartha and the Enlightenment

We learned how a young prince named Siddhartha was born in India five hundred years before Jesus was born.  One day, disturbed by some of the sights he saw outside his luxurious palace, Siddhartha set off in search of wisdom.

During meditation, Siddhartha had a sudden divine understanding that explained how to end all suffering.  Buddhists call this powerful insight the Enlightenment.

We read about the eight rules that the Buddha – as Siddhartha became known after the Enlightenment – set down to allow anyone to free themselves from their worldly desires and achieve enlightenment.

Photo credit: Tevraprapas

Zen Buddhism

As Buddhism spread from its origins in India, it split into different groups.  Zen Buddhism, a type of Mahayana Buddhism, is one of the most common types of Buddhism in Japan.

We learned how Zen Buddhists seek to cultivate a still, meditative state of mind to help them achieve enlightenment.


Before Buddhism, the indigenous religion of ancient Japan was Shinto.

“Shinto teaches that divine forces live in all things that inspire awe and wonder, such as a waterfall, a whirlpool, a mysterious cave, a beautiful stone, an exquisite insect, the wind and rain, thunder and lightening, and even a fascinating person.”

Mary Pope Osborne: One World, Many Religions

Shinto is congruent with Buddhism, and has survived alongside it. Many Japanese Buddhists worship at Shinto shrines as well as Buddhist temples.

What does Buddhism have to do with Gardening?

Apparently not much! Buddhist temples often house traditional dry gardens that have come to be known as Zen Gardens. Like many people, I thought that relaxing “Zen Gardens” were cultivated by Japanese Buddhists to help them achieve a meditative state of mind.

But as part of this study we discovered that  the association between Zen Buddhism and these gardens is actually a twentieth-century Western invention.  Oh well – that didn’t stop us enjoying creating our own miniature Zen Gardens!

miniature japanese zen garden

japan projects for kids
Click the picture to see more of our Japan projects


Miniature Zen Garden for Kids

Highhill Homeschool

Visit Adventures in Mommydom for more history and geography ideas.

Aboriginal Dot Painting for Kids

Aboriginal Dot Painting for Kids

This week we learned a bit about early Australian history. We read some lovely books and had fun making Aboriginal dot art paintings.


We began by reading Explore History: Australia, which explains how the earliest settlers came to Australia from South-East Asia when the continents were still close together and Australia was only a few hundred kilometres from Indonesia.

Australian History Books

We read the about the Aboriginal Dreamtime, including the Rainbow Serpent creation myth, in Stories From The Billabong. These are stories are short and sweet, and beautifully illustrated with dot paintings.  The book includes a section on the symbols that are used in Aboriginal art.

Aboriginal Painting – What Do All Those Dots Mean?

… Aboriginal paintings often resemble a map of sorts.  Traditional symbols are used to represent water, waterholes, clouds, stars, fire, cliffs and sandhills. There are also symbols that represent people, especially people sitting, alone or in groups, and often in front of a fire or camp site.

Thaneeya McArdle

The painted dots in Aboriginal art can be symbols too, but they are also often used to obscure rather than add meaning – the secrets of the Dreamtime are closely guarded, so dots are added to paintings to conceal sacred symbolism from the uninitiated.

Aboriginal Dot Painting for Kids

Make Your Own Aboriginal Dot Painting

We took inspiration from Stories From The Billabong and from images of Aboriginal Dot Art to make our own dot paintings. There are so many ways you can do this, and I’d love to experiment with other ideas but, for what it’s worth, here’s how we did it this time:

What You Need

  • brown paper – any shape, any size
  • acrylic paints
  • paintbrush with a blunt, circular end (most kids’ paintbrushes work) or a Q-Tip
  • black tempera paint (optional)
  • black sharpie (optional)

What You Do

1. Tear around the edges of your paper to make them rough.

2. Scrunch up your paper and unfold it several times.  This makes it look tree bark or rock.

3. Have a look at some examples of Aboriginal Dot Art and the traditional symbols it uses, and get dotting! 

Aboriginal Dot Painting For Kids

4. Keep dotting until your page is filled.  This takes some patience, because you need to dip your stick in the paint after every two or three dots. But it’s satisfying work, and combined with some traditional Australian music (see below), even quite meditative.

We were inspired by this tutorial which suggests using an animal as the central image.

Stories From The Billabong mentions several Australian animals that we weren’t familiar with, and we enjoyed looking them up and finding out about them. The children now know that, unlike Perry on Phineas and Ferb, a real platypus does not have a flat head.

Aboriginal Dot Painting For Kids

Aboriginal Dot Painting For Kids
Dot painting with campfire and people symbols


Aboriginal Dot Painting
Platypus dot painting


What We Might Do Differently Next Time

Next time we might use tempera paint rather than acrylic to colour the central animal, for a less shiny effect. Acrylics work perfectly for the dots, though.

Music To Paint By

We listened to some gorgeous didgeridoo music as we painted. So soothing – I might play this more often!

Aboriginal Dot Painting For Kids


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Japan – History & Geography

Japanese Ink Wash Painting - Evening Landscape (anon) c.1540
Japanese Ink Wash Painting – Evening Landscape (anon) c.1540

This post is about some “spin-off fun” we’ve been having as we’ve been learning about medieval Japan.

We’re using The Story of the World vol 2 as our “guidebook” for the Middle Ages, but this year we’re not using an accompanying activity guide or curriculum.

Instead, we’re enjoying coming up with our own ideas for spin-off activities. When I say “we” come up with ideas, of course I initiate most of them – but I’m guided by the children’s level of engagement and interest when it comes to how fully we explore each idea, and I’m always open to being led down new paths of their choosing. Sometimes we go off on tangents that take us far away from history, and that’s ok.

Japanese Writing

Japanese writing is made up of three alphabets, one of which is a collection of Chinese characters. We had recently looked at Chinese characters when we learned about Chinese New Year, so I thought it would be interesting to compare Japanese writing with Chinese. The article I found also compared Korean, so we looked at that too.

comparison of japanese chinese and korean for kids
Comparing Japanese, Chinese and Korean writing

I found two examples each of Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing (using Google Images). We examined one set of examples and talked about similarities and differences. Then we used this article to help us distinguish them further. (In a nutshell, Korean has lots of ovals and circles, Chinese characters are the most complex, and Japanese contains some Chinese characters plus other characters, many of which are curvy.)

comparison of japanese chinese and korean for kids

Finally, the children looked at “blind” copies of each type of writing (I had cut off anything that identified what they were). They found it fairly easy (and enjoyable) to identify where each type of writing came from.

japanese name translator
Writing our names in Japanese

We then looked up our names in Japanese. This name translator translates into various writing styles, including traditional Japanese and Manga. We wrote out our names in both styles using paintbrushes dipped in black ink, and C also wanted to write hers out using her calligraphy pen.

japanese name translator
Using black ink and a paintbrush to write Japanese letters

Ink Wash Painting

While we had the black ink and paintbrushes out, I showed the children some examples of Japanese ink wash painting and they decided to have a go. We didn’t have Japanese rice paper so we used diluted black ink on wet watercolour paper. (I have to ‘fess up – I did buy some A4 edible rice paper before I realised this is not the stuff the Japanese paint on! Oh well, I’m sure we will find a fun way to use it!)

Hasegawa Tohaku Pine Trees Japanese Ink Wash Painting
“Pine Trees” by Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610)

I based my painting on Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610). The children’s designs were, of course, were much more original!

japanese ink wash painting for kids
Our ink wash paintings

Origami Kimonos

We were amused to learn that the exotic-sounding word “kimono” actually translates as “thing to wear”! It is composed of two Chinese symbols. “Ki” comes from “kuru” and means “to wear”, and “mono” means thing.

japan lapbook - origami kimono
From C(9)’s Lapbook

C(9) thought this origami kimono girl would look good in her lap book. The directions are simple, and no special paper is required – you just print out the page and then cut out, fold and assemble the pretty patterned kimono pieces. C(9) did comment that it was a bit of a cheat as real origami wouldn’t call for glue!

Japanese Kites

Kites were first brought to Japan from China by Buddhist missionaries, for use in sacred ceremonies. The Japanese developed their own distinctive style of kites, and began to use them for practical purposes, such as lifting building materials and sending messages. They were also used to raise soldiers into the air to act as spies or snipers!

Find out more about the origin of kites here and Japanese kite history here.

Japanese kites lapbook  minibook
C(9)’s minibook on Japanese kites

C(9) loved researching Japanese kites and enjoyed making a mini-book about them.


We learned that Japan is an archipelago – a large group of islands – and we compared the islands’ size with the island we live on, Britain. (See this image for a comparison of Japan’s size with the USA). When we saw that the distance from the north to the south of Japan is the same as the distance from Scotland to the south of Spain, we understood why Japan has such a varied climate.

salt dough map of japan
Salt dough map of Japan

Japan is located on the “Ring of Fire” – the zone of volcanic activity surrounding the Pacific Ocean. We contrasted Japan’s position on the boundary of several tectonic plates with Britain’s location inside the Eurasian Plate, and reflected on what this means for our respective societies. This has also launched a spin-off project on volcanoes and earthquakes!

We’re away next week, but when we get back I’ll be sharing more Japan spin-off fun, involving Samurai and Zen gardening.

To see what other homeschoolers have been doing this week, visit It’s A Wrap at Hammock Tracks and Collage Friday at Homegrown Learners.

For more geography and history ideas, visit Adventures in Mommydom.


Homegrown Learners
benjamin franklin house lightening rod experiment at navigating by joy homeschool blog

Field Trip to Benjamin Franklin House

field trip to benjamin franklin house at navigating by joy homeschool blogWhenever I write about a field trip I  feel like I’m back in infants school writing in my “news” book on a Monday morning: “We went to a museum.  It was fun.” (Though back then apparently all I ever wrote as “news” was that we’d been to the rubbish dump.  Easily pleased we were, back then.) (I might get out my crayons to draw a picture to go with this post.)

So.  Last week we visited Benjamin Franklin House, and it was fun, as well as educational.

Where is Benjamin Franklin House?

benjamin franklin house at navigating by joy homeschool blogBenjamin Franklin lived at 36 Craven Street, London, for sixteen years on the eve of the American Revolution (between 1757 and 1775). Franklin first came to try and negotiate with the British, so the building was really the first US embassy.    The house was built in 1730 and is the world’s only remaining Franklin home.  It has been carefully architecturally preserved. So when we were told of the “air baths” Franklin would take – standing naked at tall windows of the very room we sat in – it was easy to imagine ourselves back in time and giggle as we wondered what the folk sitting in the house directly across the narrow street must have made of the sight!

Before our Visit

Our visit fit in perfectly with Cordie’s electricity project.  In preparation, she read aloud to us How Benjamin Franklin Stole the Lightening, a wonderful living book about Franklin’s life and inventions, including how he harnessed lightening in his famous kite experiment.

how ben franklin stole the lightening

Electricity in Action

At the house, we saw a demonstration of the kite experiment, as electricity (generated using a Tesla coil) jumped down a (miniature) kite string into an attached key. A model church next to the Tesla coil showed us how lightening is attracted to tall buildings, and how a metal lightening rod protects the building by grounding the lightening (while a plastic rod has no effect).  A great opportunity to experience the sight, sound and smell of electricity up close!

benjamin franklin house lightening rod experiment at navigating by joy homeschool blog

lightening experiment at benjamin franklin house - navigating by joy homeschool blog

A Trip Back in Time

The museum’s educational team enthusiastically engaged the children in a number of activities throughout the house.  There was even an actress playing the part of Franklin’s landlady’s daughter, Polly Hewson, to take us on a guided historical tour!

benjamin franlin house historical experience at navigating by joy homeschool blog

Polly’s husband ran an anatomy school from the house, so there were hands-on anatomy-related learning activities, including an exhibit of human bones recently found in the basement of the house.

anatomy activities at benjamin franklin house - navigating by joy homeschool blog

Planning Your Trip

The Benjamin Franklin House Historical Experience is open to the public from Wednesdays to Sundays (£7 for adults, children go free).  On Tuesdays the house offers pre-arranged educational visits (including to homeschool groups), taking in the Student Science Centre, at no charge.  Check the website for up-to-date information.

Field Trip to Butser Ancient Celtic Farm

Butser Ancient Celtic Farm - navigating by joy homeschoolers

What better way to round off our study of the Celts than to visit a “real” (reconstructed) Celtic village?  I love the way learning leads the way to new experiences – I didn’t even know Butser Ancient Celtic Farm existed until recently, and there it was just 40 minutes’ drive away, waiting for us to spend a very pleasant Sunday exploring.

Everything at the Farm has been constructed using authentic Celtic/Iron Age materials. The houses looked just like our model Celtic Roundhouse (not! :-D)

The Farm was having a Celtic weekend when we visited, which meant there were lots of hands-on activities to try.

C ground grain into flour (rather coarse flour – apparently Celts’ teeth were very worn down!).

Butser Ancient Celtic Farm - navigating by joy homeschoolers

She mixed flour, yeast, oats and water to make a kind of bread which she baked on a Celtic stove.

Butser Ancient Celtic Farm - navigating by joy homeschoolers

She also made yarn out of sheep’s wool.

Butser Ancient Celtic Farm - navigating by joy homeschoolers

We crushed chalk, used for building roundhouses and levelling their floors.

Butser Ancient Celtic Farm - navigating by joy homeschoolers

There was even a mock archaeological “dig”!

The site also houses a reconstructed Roman villa …

Butser Ancient Celtic Farm - navigating by joy homeschooling

…complete with underfloor heating.

Butser Ancient Celtic Farm - Navigating by joy homeschooling

There was an opportunity to make mosaics in the Roman house.

mosaic making at butser ancient farm - navigating by joy homeschoolers

While C was baking, spinning and grinding,  J was hunting around the village for the answers to a scavenger-hunt-style quiz on Celtic kings and Roman emperors.

Our field trip was a perfect complement to our study of the Celts and a great introduction to the Romans. 🙂

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