Level 2+: Pirates Unit

Ahoy, me hearties! Get ready to break out your best pirate speak as we dive into this swashbuckling unit! Besides exploring what life was really like in the golden age of pirating, we’ll tackle history, math, grammar, science, and more this week. So hoist the sails, pull the anchor, and get ready for an adventurous week of learning about the Golden Age of Piracy (approximately 1650 to 1726)! Click here to download your skills tracker for the week.

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 reading:

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 phonogram AR.

Lesson 1:

Pirates have fascinated people for hundreds of years…but are they really just blood-thirsty thieves? Or is there more to the story? We’ve recommended two books that can help introduce your child to the full story of pirates (Pirates: True Stories of Seafaring Rogues by Anne Rooney OR DKfindout! Pirates), but you may also be able to find more at your local library. You can also watch this video for some more background, or this one for some pirate “myths” that are actually true! (+) If your child is very engaged, they may also like this longer video.

Activity 1: Contrary to almost all depictions in all media, pirate captains are not known to have worn tricorne hats, although it is possible that the more gentrified ones did, like the former privateer Captain Kidd. (source) That being said, we can’t deny the fun of a little imaginative dress-up! If your child agrees, you may want to make these paper pirate hats to wear during lessons this week.

Activity 2: An important part of any life in sea is understanding directions on a boat. That’s because on boats, you don’t just say “go straight” or “turn left.” Instead, you have to learn boat directional terms:

  • The bow is the front of a boat
  • The stern is the back
  • The Port is the left side (when you face forward)
  • The Starboard is the right side. (source)

Let’s reinforce this with a hands-on activity and a game. First, print this download and cut out the directional terms for your child to glue onto the correct sides of the boat. Your child can hold onto this printable while they play the below game.

Using sidewalk chalk (if you play outside) or masking tape (if you play inside), create a large boat shape on the ground. Have your child stand in the middle and call out a boat direction. You child should run to the direction you call. Practice until they can go to the right direction without looking at their printable, or until they’re done playing.

If you found Inside Out Pirate Ship: Explore the Golden Age of Piracy!, now would be a great time to look through it with your child to learn more about the parts of a pirate ship!

Activity 3: Next, let’s play a battleship-inspired game while reviewing our 100 chart! First, first, out two copies of this game board. Set up a box or tented folder between the two players so they cannot see each other’s boards.

Give each player 12 coins, beans, stones, M&Ms, or other small pieces to place their “boats” on their board. They should have one 2-piece boat, two 3-piece boats, and one 4-piece boat, like this:

Once everyone is ready, have the players take turns calling out numbers, trying to sink the other player’s boats. (Bonus points if you speak like a pirate the whole time!) When a direct hit is made, call out “Boom!” The first player to sink all four of their opponent’s ships wins.

Activity 4: Finally, let’s learn a bit about buoyancy while working on this STEM activity. The challenge is to create the strongest boat shape using straws, aluminum foil, and tape. We’ll test our boats by seeing which can gold the most “gold” (coins) without sinking.

First, brainstorm with your child what shapes they would like to test. Next, build the frames out of straws. You can either tape them together, or you may find it easier to snip the ends of the straws and thread them together. Once the frames are built, cover them with aluminum foil.

Fill a sensory bin, sink, or bathtub with a few inches of water and place the boats inside. Begin adding coins to each boat (use the same type of coin for most accurate comparison), counting how many each boat holds without sinking. Which design is the strongest? For an added challenge, see which boat can float across your “ocean” without spilling or sinking under its load.
(+) Want another boat-themed STEM challenge? If your child likes playing with LEGOs, have them try building a boat that will actually float!
(-) Working with a younger child? Give them their own tub or bucket of water to play this Float or Sink? game.

Lesson 2:

One of the most feared pirates in history was Edward Thatch–though some historians disagree on the correct spelling of his last name. If he doesn’t sound familiar, it might be because you know him by his pirate name, Blackbeard. Begin by watching this brief summary of his life as a pirate or (-) this shorter version. You can also read Black Beard the Pirate King by J. Patrick Lewis, a book of poems about the life of this infamous pirate.

Activity 1: One thing many people associate with pirates was their unique way of speaking, savvy? This list shares 75 pirate vocabulary words and phrases, but here are a few of our favorites:

  • ahoy – hello
  • avast ye! – Stop you!; pay attention!
  • savvy? – a question that means, “Do you understand?”
  • shiver me timbers! – an expression used to show shock or disbelief
  • give no quarter – show no mercy; pirates raised a red flag to threaten no quarter
  • landlubber – a person who is uncomfortable, or not incredibly skilled, at sea
  • mutiny – a situation in which the crew chooses a new captain, sometimes forcibly removing the old one
  • scallywag – an inexperienced pirate, considered an insult
  • mutiny – a situation in which the crew chooses a new captain, sometimes forcibly removing the old one
  • scallywag – an inexperienced pirate, considered an insult
  • Davy Jones’ locker – mythological place at the bottom of the sea where drowned sailors were said to go
  • hearties – friends and comrades
  • scuttlebutt – a cask of drinking water; slang for gossip

Next, let’s review some modern-day grammar with this pirate-themed Mad Lib activity. As a reminder, here are the definitions of the parts of speech you’ll see in this printable:

  • nouns: a person, place, or thing
  • verb: a main part of speech that is often used to describe or indicate an action—sentences are not complete without a verb
  • adjective: a word that describes an animal, person, thing, or thought
  • adverb: a word that describes how an action is carried out

Activity 2: Another popular pirate term is the Jolly Roger, or the famous pirate flag with a skull and crossbones on it. In the golden age of pirates, the term referred to any sort of flag raised by pirates and privateers (state-sponsored pirates) and designs varied. The origin of the name is not known for certain, but it may derive from the word ‘Roger’ which in that period signified the Devil, a figure often referred to as ‘Old Roger’. An alternative origin (among others) is the French term le jolie rouge (the “pretty red”), which was applied to the red flag commonly flown by privateers for centuries.

Whatever the origins, the meaning of the black flag, and by extension the “Jolly Roger,” was known to most law-abiding captains—it was intended to scare them into surrender. It may be that the Jolly Roger was intended as a first warning, and if not heeded, the hoisting of a red flag indicated that no quarter (or mercy) would be given. In any case, pirates typically wouldn’t raise their Jolly Roger until they were close enough that the targeted ship had little chance of escape. (source)

Pirates themselves were often colorful individuals, so it’s no surprise that they often wanted a flag that was unique to themselves. The most common background of a pirate’s flag was black or red and the images on them were to remind victims of the dreadful consequences of resistance. Skeletons, skulls, a bloody heart, an hourglass (signifying one’s time on this earth was coming to an imminent close), and wings (one’s time was flying away) were all common designs on flags. Weapons were another favorite symbol, such as swords, curved-bladed cutlasses, flaming cannonballs, and spears. (source) Click here to see examples of the top 10 most famous pirate’s flags. Next, have your child design their own using drawing supplies or construction paper cut-outs and glue—but don’t feel obligated to use frightening images! Let your child choose whatever symbols they feel would represent their own pirate crew.

Activity 3: Pirates were able to strike fear into the hearts of their victims through a variety of means. One of these was their hefty supplies of weapons. Some of the most infamous pirates were famous for carrying multiple pistols and a heavy cutlass or sabre, which had a sharpened point and a sharp single edge of the blade. These swords were designed to quickly cut and slash an opponent rather than dither about with intricate swordplay. When attacking another ship, pirates might also use grenades (made from glass bottles filled with gunpowder and a quantity of lead shot or random metal pieces) or cannons (which were often booty stolen from previous attacks). (source)

Though cannons were certainly the most powerful weapon at the time, they weren’t always the right choice for pirates for a number of reasons. For one, they could cause a lot of damage to the attacked ship, and many times pirates wanted to take the ship as part of their booty. For another, they were very heavy, and pirate ships relied on speed for successful attacks and to evade capture by the authorities. Additionally, cannons were not precision instruments, and variations in ball size, elevation, distance to the target, movement of the ships, and the varying strength of gunpowder made firing them accurately an elusive challenge. For this reason, captains usually waited until they were within 500 feet (150 m) or closer to an enemy vessel before firing a broadside. With luck, a single shot across the bow of a target was enough to bring a peaceful surrender. (source)

Let’s bring this to life with this catapult cannon launcher! After it’s built, fold in a math application by having your child measure how far they can launch their “cannon ball.”

Lesson 3:

Would it surprise you to know that a handful of the most famous pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy were actually women? It’s true! In fact, some historians argue that the most successful pirate of all time was Zheng Yi Sao (sometimes spelled Cheng I Sao). Let’s learn more about her in the book Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao by Helaine Becker. You can also read her story beginning on page 16 of Honest History – Issue Two A Pirate’s Tale (use code LEARNANDLIVE15 for 15% off your purchase!), or by watching this video.

Activity 1: Despite having a reputation for being ruffians and rogues, nearly all pirates (and especially the most successful ones) were known for having strict rules for their crew, known as pirate’s code. The rules varied depending on the fleet, but become the full member of the pirate crew, every willing person needed to sign their name on the document that detailed the rules of the particular ship, including the share of the plunder that each crew member will get, what compensation would be for injuries, and the forms of punishment disobedient crew members could expect. During signing, crew members were obliged to swear an oath of allegiance and honor, often by placing the hand on a Bible or a part of a weapon or ship. Once all new pirate members signed the pirate code, this paper was often posted in a prominent place on a ship where everyone could quickly get reminded of their oaths. (source)

Part of Zheng Yi Sao’s success was due to the strict code she commanded her fleet to adhere to, which included:

  1. If a leader of one of Zheng’s Flag groups gave a command without her approval, they were killed (typically by beheading).
  2. If someone hurt or harmed a woman in any way, they would be killed.
  3. If anyone stole money from the treasury, they would be killed.
  4. If a pirate stole from the local villagers, they would be killed. (source)

What would your child have for their own pirate code of conduct? Work together to help them write out their own code, including 3-6 rules and the punishment for breaking any of them. (And don’t be afraid to get a little silly! For example, what would be the punishment for burping on deck? What about tripping someone with your peg leg?)

Activity 2: Pirates were skilled sailors and navigators, despite dealing with limited technology to help them cross the seven seas! One of the most useful instruments a pirate might use to navigate is a compass, which most historians believe were originally invented in Zheng Yi Sao’s homeland, China. (source) Let’s build our own with the help of some magnets. This post contains both a wet and dry compass tutorial, so make whichever one most interests your child.

Activity 3: But knowing which direction you want to go is only half the battle. Good pirates are also masters at reading weather conditions, especially the wind! One way we monitor the wind even today is with the use of weather vanes, which tell us which way the wind is blowing. Let’s build our own to test out with this tutorial.

Lesson 4:

Let’s get to know another true life pirate in today’s book, The Pirate Meets the Queen (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary). Curious which parts of the book are true? You can read more about the real Granny O’Malley here. O’Malley’s story also shares a few similarities with that of a legendary pirate named Anne Bonny. If desired, you can read more about her story here.

Activity 1: While pirate life might sound exciting, there were definitely less glamorous parts to it. For example, the food! A life at sea meant that the majority of the pirate diet needed to be able to survive months away from land (and obviously without any refrigeration!). As a result, the most common fare with heavily preserved with very little produce, and many pirates and sailors often died young from malnutrition-related diseases, like scurvy. Common foods found on board were hardtack, salted or dried meats, occasionally dried or pickled fruits, and plenty of beer, ale, and rum (all of which were often safer to drink than the local water). (source)

Why not make a “pirate tasting board” for your child? Create a plate with dried fruits, beef jerky, and some of these hardtack biscuits you can make at home. (Note: Hardtack is, well, hard! As this recipe recommends, dip yours in milk, tea, or even soup broth before eating.) You can also include cheese and eggs, as these were often eaten in the early days of a voyage.

Activity 2: While real pirates were more likely to maroon their victims or mutinous fellow pirates over making them walk the plank, there’s no denying that planks have become a crucial part of pirate lore. Let’s take some inspiration from walking the plank with this math game.

Activity 3: Have you reviewed this week’s featured phonogram AR yet? Here’s a silly pirate video that can help your child remember what this letter team says. Next, play this treasure hunting game to review our phonogram! Start by printing the board (and laminating, if desired). Next, use a pencil and a paper clip to create a spinner on the number dial and any small figurine or coin for playing pieces. Take turns spinning and having your child read the word you land on. First one to the treasure chest wins!

Lesson 5:

We’ll spend our last day of our unit having some fun…and for pirates, fun often involves treasure! If you haven’t already, tonight would be a great night to start a family read aloud with the chapter book Treasure Island or The Mysterious Voyage of Captain Kidd. First, though, let’s do a quick artist study.

Activity 1: As you’ve probably realized throughout this week, there are a lot of myths and folklore surrounding pirates and what they were really like in the Golden Age of Piracy. Where do all of these ideas come from? In most cases, they were invented by people who were extremely fascinated by pirates and liked to imagine them in creative ways. One of those people was Howard Pyle, one of America’s most popular illustrators and storytellers at the end of the 19th century, primarily of books for young people. You can read more about his life here.

Pyle’s pirate imagery, perhaps his best known work, is a unique combination of historical accuracy and his own personal vision. His interest in authenticity is demonstrated by his archive of costume books and historic manuscripts. Recent research has revealed, however, that there was very little visual information regarding exactly what pirates wore. Pyle filled in the blanks with his vibrant imagination to create images that still shape our view of pirate clothing today. (source)

Let’s look at two of Howard Pyle’s most famous pirate works. This one is called “The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow”:


And this one is called “Marooned”:


As a result of Pyle’s imaginings, many people actually credit him with inventing the modern-day idea of a pirate. “He created something out of mixing something from history and made something very seductive,” said historian and illustrator David Rickman. “So seductive that no pirate ever wore anything differently. When one person can change the world’s view of something—that’s remarkable. All the world only recognizes pirates because of Howard Pyle.”

But what if Howard Pyle hadn’t defined pirates? What if someone decided to reimagine them? As a creative thinking exercise, let’s redesign what pirates could look like. Have your child brainstorm a new look for pirates and then draw it or paint it (or create it by collaging fabric or paper scraps). Maybe their modern pirate wears jeans and baseball caps! Or maybe she’s a princess pirate! Let them be as creative as desired with their work.

Activity 2: Another common misconception about pirates? They didn’t usually bury their treasure (they were more spenders than savers!). Even so, maps were used to navigate the ocean and find waters where they might find their next big score of treasure. Let’s get a little map writing and reading practice by making your own treasure maps of of your home with this tutorial.
(+) Turn this into a literacy activity by hiding sight words that your child is working on and then having your child use the map to find them, or math practice by hiding math problems for them to solve when they find them!

Activity 3: End the week with a bang with these exploding treasure chests!

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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.