Level 2+: Cuba Unit

Hola, mis amigos! Welcome to our week-long Cuba unit study, packed with play-based, hands-on activities to explore this beautiful country. This week, we will tackle history and geography, while also strengthening math, science, and literacy skills. (We’ll also sample a variety of delicious Cuban dishes!) Click here to download your skills tracker, and vamos!

Have you printed a Learn and Live passport? Don’t forget to add a stamp to your passport to start your week in Cuba!

Note: Occasionally we include project modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings) and upgrades (for children ready for more). We’ll mark those with the minus (-) or plus (+) symbols.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Optional additional books:

Optional chapter books:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Phonics Guide:

New to our phonics guide? Start here. The Phonics Guide this week will highlight the phonics rule that English letters do not end in I, U, V, or J.  

Lesson 1:

Cuba is a long, narrow island (the largest in the Caribbean Sea) that stretches 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) from east to west but is only 60 miles (100 kilometers) wide in most places. The mixture of native, African, and European influences in Cuba gives this island a lively culture that is known around the world. (source) It’s capital is Havana. Let’s learn a bit about what you might see if you visited this city in the book All the Way to Havana (or listen to this read aloud).

Activity 1: Cuba is an island, but it is also an archipelago, or an area that contains a chain or group of islands scattered in lakes, rivers, or the ocean. Watch this video to learn more about what makes an island an island.

Cuba and its neighbors form the Greater Antilles, a chain of islands created millions of years ago when two of Earth’s tectonic plates collided. (source) Island arcs like Cuba are chains of islands formed by volcanoes located along the subduction zone, which is anywhere that two of Earth’s tectonic plates collide and one slips underneath the other. To understand how island arcs form, we first need to understand tectonic plates. The earth’s crust is divided into a number of these plates, which move relative to each other because of the motion of the fluid rock, called magma, of the mantle underneath the crust.

The upper mantle has two layers. The ‘top-most layer is similar to the crust and together with the crust is called the lithosphere. Below that is the asthenosphere, which is made of magma. It is circular convection cycles in the magma of the asthenosphere that cause the tectonic plates to move. When one tectonic plate meets another and sinks underneath it, we call the phenomenon subduction. There are many subduction zones in the Ring of Fire, and it is in these zones that island arcs can form.

Subduction occurs when oceanic lithosphere meets continental lithosphere. The lithosphere under the oceans is denser and heavier than that under the continent. When the two run into each other, the oceanic lithosphere, therefore, sinks under the continent. When two oceanic plates meet, one will sink under the other. The oceanic lithosphere melts into the asthenosphere and turns into magma. It’s like a recycling of the rocks that make up the crust and lithosphere. (source) This video helps to demonstrate how the plates interact when they shift.

Finally, let’s do this tectonic plates activity to bring it all to life.

Activity 2: Cuba is famous for its classic vintage cars. The country is like a big car show where you can find colorful and well-preserved motor vehicles from the 1950s and 1940s. Cuba has many old cars because of three extraordinary events that took place after 1959: the US trade embargo, the economic policies of Fidel Castro, and the mechanical ingenuity of the Cuban people. 

In the early 20th century, the United States was the leading supplier of vehicles for the island. In fact, some American car companies used Cuban roads to test-track some of their vintage models. 

But everything unraveled when Fidel Castro took power in 1959. In response to Castro’s economic policies, the US government imposed a trade embargo that made it impossible for Cubans to access American cars and mechanical parts. On the other hand, the Cuban government further restricted the sale and importation of cars. Until 2014, Cubans were prohibited from buying and selling cars, except for a few specific cases. 

While Castro and the US government were fighting, Cubans found a way to keep the old American cars running. With no new cars and car parts entering the country, car owners needed to be innovative to keep these cars running. For example, they used mismatched parts from Russian vehicles to repair old American cars. Common vintage car brands in Cuba are Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Oldsmobile, and Buick. It’s estimated that 60,000 classic American cars ride on Cuban streets. Many of them are 60 or even 70 years old. (source)

Let’s have a “car race” to work on some math skills today. You’ll need 3-4 copies of this printout, clear tape, two toy cars, and two dice. First create your track by cutting out the tracks on the printout and taping them into one long line. Designate a start and a finish, and then number the boxes from 1 to however many boxes you made, with 1 at the starting line.

Each player needs a car at the starting line. The first player should roll the dice and move their car that number of spots. Then the second player does the same. Next, the first player rolls again, this time adding the total to the number they are currently on and going to that spot. Repeat, alternating turns, until someone gets to the finish line.

Activity 3: While you have the toy cars out, sneak in some engineering with this car launcher project.

Activity 4: Want to design your own classic car? Make this popsicle stick craft.

Lesson 2:

Like many countries, Cuba has a long, complicated history with it’s government. We’ll learn a bit about it in today’s activities. (If your child is interest in more, see our Level 3 Cuba Unit: Week 2 for a more in-depth look.)

Activity 1: Cuba’s original inhabitants were the Ciboney and Guanahatabey people. About a thousand years ago, the Taino people from Venezuela took over the island. In 1511, forces from Spain defeated the Taino and claimed the island as a Spanish territory.

American forces helped drive the Spanish out of Cuba in 1898. By 1902, Cuba had won independence, but the United States had a strong influence over the island. In 1959, communist revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, took control. Fidel Castro was president, prime minister, and commander of the armed forces until February 2008, when he stepped down due to a lengthy illness.

The United States and Cuba have had a hostile relationship since 1959, but in 2015 the United States reopened its embassy in Cuba—where American diplomats live and work with the Cuban government. Soon after, Cuba did the same in the United States. (source)

Let’s read a book about a man who played a crucial role in Cuba’s fight for freedom in Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad (or listen to this read aloud by the author).

Jose Marti was a poet, essayist, journalist, translator, professor, and publisher, in addition to being a national hero. Share some of his writing with your child. Next, make the below recipe and have Tea + Poetry.

Activity 2: Let’s make a Cuban treat to enjoy with our Tea + Poetry with this arroz con leche recipe.

Activity 3: The official language of Cuba is Spanish. (source) Let’s add a little Spanish to our homeschool by learning the days of the week. Begin by listening to this song and encouraging your child to practice the movements along with the days.

Have you printed our homeschool calendar from our Level 1: Foundations Unit? If not, you can print it here, updated with Spanish days of the week cards that you can use to practice the words you learned today. (If you already have the full calendar, simply print the last page for the Spanish cards.)
(+) Would your child like to learn more Spanish? We love the Eat Your Spanish podcast for short, kid-friendly episodes that introduce the language in practical, conversational ways.

Lesson 3:

Cuba’s history is reflected in many elements, but especially in its music! All year round, it seems as if bands are everywhere in Havana. Let’s learn about one of the country’s most famous musicians, Celia Cruz. You can read about her in either Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa (or read it here on OpenLibrary) OR My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz (or read it here on OpenLibrary) If your child would like to hear more about Celia Cruz, you can also watch this brief biography. They can also listen to one of her songs here.

Activity 1: Son Cubano is a style of Afro-Cuban music that forms the basis for most forms of salsa music and Latin jazz. Son Cubano translates roughly to “the Cuban sound.” The term describes a popular music genre that originated in the highlands of eastern Cuba using both European and African instruments and musical customs. The blend of cultures through music also changed the social dynamics between ethnic groups—they began to interact more and to dissolve barriers and rivalries between genres, styles and rural versus urban music. (source)

Son Cubano draws melodic and harmonic language from Spanish guitar and vocal music. Its famous percussion section—featuring bongos, congas, timbales, claves, and more—traces primarily to the Bantu region of central Africa. (source)

According to oral Cuban tradition, the first song of son cubano is the Son de la Ma Teodora by two Afro-Cuban sisters, Micaela and Teodora Ginés, who had recently been freed after slavery was abolished. Listen to it here! (source)

Claves are a unique instrument commonly used to keep rhythm in son cubano music. You can learn how to make your own with this video tutorial, purchase them here, or use any sticks you may already own that look similar. Next, watch this video to learn how to play them. Finally, play the song Son de la Ma Teodora again and see if your child can play along!

Activity 2: Would your child like to try some salsa dancing? Watch this video lesson and dance along!

Want to really be impressed? Check out these amazing kid salsa dancers!

Activity 3: Another famous artist in Cuba is José Fuster. He is so well known in part because one of his works covers most of his neighborhood!

Fusterlandia in Havana began as an art project created by José Fuster, where he spent years covering his entire residence in colorful tiles and mosaics. The style of art is reminiscent of Gaudí and Picasso, and is a sight to behold.

He began the project after receiving inspiration from a visit to Spain and returned with the desire to beautify his home. He expanded the project through his neighborhood as well, so you’ll see many colorful houses if you visit here. Click here to see photos of the incredibly rich mosaics.

Next, create your own mosaic with this tutorial.

Lesson 4:

Food is another important element of Cuban culture! In today’s book, we’ll get a peek at some traditional dishes woven into the fabric of many Cuban families. Begin by reading The Road to Santiago (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary).

Activity 1: Here is a picture of Cuba’s flag:


The Cuban flag, also known as the “Bandera de la Estrella Solitaria” (Flag of the Single Star), was created in 1850. The flag is characterized by its simplicity and exhibits three colors (red, blue, and white) in perfect harmony

The flag is composed of three blue stripes, representing the departments in which the Island was then divided; two white ones, symbolizing the strength of the independentist ideal; and a red triangle, standing for equality, liberty, and fraternity. In the center of the triangle, you see a single star with five points, token of absolute liberty among the other peoples. (source)

Finally, make a model of the flag out of pom poms with this tutorial.

Activity 2: Rice is a staple in many Cuban dishes, like the rice and beans we see the family enjoying in our book. But there’s actually a lot of science that goes into properly cooking this food staple!

Rice comes from a grass plant, and the actual grain that we eat is comprised of many layersThe outermost layer, the chaff, is tough and inedible. The chaff is removed during processing, and inside the chaff there is the bran, germ, and endosperm. It is these 3 layers that make up brown rice. The bran is the fibrous layer directly under the chaff. There is also the germ, a nutrient dense section of the grain that would become a new plant if it were allowed to sprout. White rice is just the endosperm layer, and it is almost entirely made of starch.

Rice goes from crunchy dryness to pillowy goodness via a chemical process called gelatinization. Starches, like rice, when left in their natural state exist (on a molecular level) as crystals. Gelatinization is a chemical process during which the starch granules absorb a bunch of water and lose their crystallinity. Gelatinization will only occur when heat and moisture are present. 

But wait! There’s more. A second process, pasting, occurs after gelatinization. Continued heating of starch after it has gelatinized, especially if the starch is physically agitated (e.g. if you’re stirring it), will break down the swollen granules. Broken granules leach out amylose and other molecular bits into the water around them, resulting in increased viscosity, or thick stickiness, of the surrounding liquid. Rice that has gone through extensive pasting will feel mushy and goopy–AKA it has been overcooked. (source)

Let’s bring the science to life with this rice + this black beans recipe!

Activity 3: Yarn dolls are a traditional Cuban craft for children. Let’s learn how to make our own with this tutorial.

Lesson 5:

For our final book of our unit, we’ll read a Cuban folk tale. If you have done any of our other country-based units, your child is likely familiar with folk tales, but just in case, a folk tale is a story that is passed down from generation to generation, often without a specific author (so it is said to be authored by “folk,” or the people.) Folk tales tell about different parts of life, entertain, teach a lesson, or explain things that people might see in nature. Often, folk tales stem from a certain culture, but they are retold so often the stories can become part of different cultures. (source) Let’s read Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale (or read it here on OpenLibrary).

Activity 1: Not everyone thinks cockroaches are beautiful, but they are interesting! Click here to watch a video to learn more about them.

Activity 2: Has your child ever heard the popular Spanish song “La Cucaracha”? Let’s listen to it here in Spanish and then here in English.

Activity 3: Let’s use some coffee beans for a little division practice today! You will need a cup of beans and this printable (or, if you’re not working on writing numbers, you can just use four coffee mugs). If you are using the printable, laminate and use dry erase markers. Have your child grab a small handful of beans and put them in the “bag” at the top of the printable (or a separate bowl, if not using). Count the beans.

Next, have them practice dividing the beans into the different mugs, starting with just two. When they find the solution, have them write out the equation with a dry erase marker in the number sentence on the bottom of the printable. (If the number is not perfectly divisible, you can introduce the idea of halves by discussing how you could split the last bean evenly.)

Next, try dividing the beans into three mugs and four mugs. How does this change the answer? Continue to write out the equation each time so they can see how this would be represented in a number sentence.

Activity 4: Let’s end the week with one more Cuban recipe. The mango is a favorite fruit throughout the Caribbean, and Cuba is no exception. Try out some mango with this Cuban Mango Milkshake recipe! If you found the book A Song of Frutas, you may also wish to read it as you sip your shakes.

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.