It might surprise you to know that, throughout history, there has been so much more to quilts than simply fabric, batting, and stitches. In fact, quilts have played a prominent role in a variety of important historic moments. As you work your way through this unit, you’ll actually be introducing several important events in U.S. history to your child—events that you will likely cover again and again throughout their education.
We have also included many activities in this unit designed to encourage deeper conversations and imaginative play. As a result, you may find this unit takes more time to get through. Don’t worry about that—you are not running out of time. Instead, let your child’s imagination put them right inthe middle of history as they learn to relate to people who may have lived a very different experience than what they’ve known. Take your time discussing each historical period, examining how different people were affected and how it shaped the United States as we know it today.
As you read the books and get hands-on with the activities, we encourage you to observe how our child likes to learn about these historical events and look for opportunities to weave those methods into their homeschool journey for years to come. Want to keep track of your work? Download our printable tracker document here.
Note: Occasionally we include project upgrades (for kids ready for more) and modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings). We’ll mark those with the plus (+) or minus (-) symbols.
What you need:
Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):
- The Quilting Bee by Gail Gibbons (or you can find it here on OpenLibrary.org)
- Papa and the Pioneer Quilt by KH Pathways (or you can read it on OpenLibrary)
- The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud (or read it here on OpenLibrary) OR Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson (read aloud option)
- Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford (or read it here on OpenLibrary)
- The Quilt by Valériane Leblond
- (+) Jazz by Walter Dean Myers – This collection of poems introduces children to a timeline of jazz greats. While not required, it’s a lovely overview of this incredible genre. (And a great option for your next Tea + Poetry!)
Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):
- paper + access to a printer (don’t have one? we like this model)
- laminator + laminator sheets (optional, but recommended for repeating lessons)
- wool roving
- bubble wrap
- spray bottle
- cookie sheet
- rolling pin (you can also use a tall bottle)
- small to medium cardboard box (and Amazon box works perfectly)
- hot glue gun + glue
- 2 bamboo skewers
- permanent marker (optional)
- 2 glass jars
- coffee filters
- plastic cup
- medium sized binder clips
- paper cutter (optional, but it will make prepping the games go a lot faster!)
- ingredients for this recipe
- copper coins
- paper plates (at least 4)
- glitter glue (optional)
- toilet paper roll
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!
What is a quilt anyway? Read The Quilting Bee to learn a little about quilts and how they’re made. If you have a quilt at home, pull it out and tell your child its story. Do you have a relative with a special quilt? Ask your child to help you come up with two or three questions to ask your family member about their special quilt, and then call or video chat them to ask them your questions.
Activity 1: One important thing that makes a quilt a quilt? Well…the quilting! Let’s use a few common quilting stitches as inspiration for this pre-writing activity that will help strengthen little fingers for stronger writing in the future. Simply print out our stitch sheet here and let your child practice tracing the stitches.
Activity 2: As our book pointed out, there are a lot of quilt square patterns that are repeated in quilts around the world. For our next activity, we’ll use these artful designs to inspire a geometry lesson. The original post doesn’t include a printable for the triangles, so you can use ours here. Simply print a few copies on different colored cardstock, and then cut out the triangles.
Activity 3: Let’s work on a fun quilt of our own! Start by creating a few different original squares with this wet felting technique, and then let your child work on sewing the squares together to form a mini quilt.
(-) If your child isn’t quite ready to sew (or isn’t interested), you could do this simple “quilt” craft instead.
Quilts were an important heirloom for families who made their way across America during the Western Expansion, allowing them to carry their past as they wove in a new future. Let’s learn a bit more about pioneer life in Papa and the Pioneer Quilt.
Activity 1: Has your child ever heard of the Westward Expansion? This article provides a nice summary of how the United States began to grow as a country and how that moved people west, but here are the main points to cover:
- Westward expansion picked up speed in 1803 with President Thomas Jefferson and the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. With $15 million, Jefferson doubled the amount of land in the United States. He then commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to map the newly purchased land and find a way to the Pacific Ocean.
- Around the 1840s, the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was first coined by newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan. Manifest Destiny is the idea that it was the destiny of the United States to spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. United States lawmakers loved the idea, and they helped extend the railroad and created incentives to send people west.
- Westward expansion would ultimately involve more than 7 million pioneers living in the Trans-Appalachian West and the addition of 22 new states.
- People were motivated to move west for many reasons, including escaping persecution, overcrowding in cities, the desire for land to farm, and more.
- In 1848, the California Gold Rush began. The gold rush attracted opportunists, miners, and businessmen. It also brought much needed goods to the West and created small mining towns. Pioneers came on several routes, the most common being the California and Oregon Trails.
- In 1862, the Homestead Act was created. It allowed pioneers to claim 160 acres of free land as long as they were listed as head of the household or who was at least 21 years of age. The homesteader had to stay on the land for five years and make various improvements, such as building a house. The only money spent was an $18 filing fee.
- While the Westward Expansion brought about a lot of growth for settlers, it also brought about many conflicts between white settlers and Native people who had been living on this land for centuries. If you were with us with our Level 1: Native and First Peoples of North and Central Americas Unit, your child has already had an introduction to some of this culture. Use today’s lesson as a spring board for your own conversations about how Westward Expansion was not a good thing for all the people living in what would become America.
Let’s make our own simple covered wagon craft. As you build, discuss with your child what it would be like to move from everything you’ve known for the promises the Homestead Act and Westward Expansion offered. What would be the pros? What were the cons?
(+) Or you can try this upgraded wagon tutorial.
Activity 2: Now that your child has their wagon, let’s fill it with the needed supplies! Our next activity is our Oregon Trail Money Game, but it’s really more of an imaginative play (with some money math snuck in!). Start by printing and cutting out the pieces to create your “supply store” and give your child the “money” they’ll need to buy their supplies. You can explain that, to safely make it through the Oregon Trail, migrants needed to stock their wagons with everything they were bringing from their old homes and everything they might need along the way. The total expense was usually around $1,000 per family, and often there wasn’t enough money left for backup supplies. (source)
For our game, have your child pretend to be getting ready to start the trail. Follow the instructions to determine how many people are in their family and how much money they start with, and explain which supplies they need to get started. If they have extra money, discuss the pros and cons of buying other items. Why might it be important to save money for the journey itself? (As they traveled, there would be other options to make needed purchases along the way.) What would be the dangers of being on the trail without needed supplies or extra money? How could they support themselves along the way?
There is no “winning” this game—the purpose is to get your child to think critically about what it would really be like to be a settler on the Oregon Trail, as well as to learn the basics of budgeting and arithmetic.
(+) Want to try an upgrade? You can play a free version of the Oregon Trail game you likely remember as a kid here!
Activity 3: Life on the pioneer trail was very difficult and dangerous. Wild animals, disease, weather, and a lack of resources could mean disaster for a family heading west. Their quilts were important for warmth, but there weren’t many places to buy food or fresh water, so the pioneers had to get creative. One way was by learning to filter their own water. Let’s learn how this was done with this simple filtration experiment.
Activity 4: While there was not a lot of time for play, one way the pioneers could keep themselves entertained without needing much was dancing! Let’s learn a simple square dance with this video.
Another important moment in history where quilts played a life-saving role was during the time of the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was not an actual railway. Instead, it was a secret organization that existed in the United States before the Civil War. The people of the Underground Railroad helped escaped enslaved people from the South to reach places of safety in the North or in Canada. This article has more important facts you can share with your children to help them understand the impact of the Underground Railroad.
Because the Railroad was illegal, information such as routes had to be kept secret. One way that abolitionists (people who wanted to abolish, or end slavery) passed on information such as routes to take and the location of safe houses was through quilt patterns. Let’s learn more about how this was done in The Patchwork Path or in Under the Quilt of Night (whichever book you were able to find).
Note: Want a little help talking to your kids about slavery? Try this link. Read the material ahead of time so that you feel prepared to answer their questions. Not sure if your child is ready for this topic? Check out this article to learn more about why it’s important to start having race conversations with children while they are young.
Activity 2: Let’s do a little map work by examining the routes many escaped enslaved people used to find freedom. This webpage has a map that shows some of the different routes that were used on the Underground Railroad. Next, use an atlas or a physical map of the United States (like this one) to discuss the pros and cons of the different routes. Next, pick a southern state and pretend you are escaping slavery. Which route would you take to freedom?
Activity 3: Using the route you planned in the previous activity, pretend you are recording your path for others to use and color your own freedom quilt with this tutorial.
In spite of the hardships and injustice of slavery, African Americans maintained many elements of their culture and contributed greatly to art, music, and cuisine in ways we still enjoy today. Let’s look at some of these elements in today’s activities.
Activity 1: Like quilts, music also played an important role in the lives of enslaved people. From the time many of the people were taken from their homes in Africa, music became a way for the prisoners to communicate with each other without their captors knowing what they were saying. When enslaved people were making plans to escape plantations, these songs also became a means of passing on secret messages about routes and the locations of safe houses. (source) A combination of African tribal chants and Christian hymns, these songs became known as spirituals. Here is a popular example of one of these spirituals, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which told enslaved people looking to escape to follow the stars, specifically the big dipper, to travel north:
These spirituals became the roots of other music genres such as gospel, blues, and jazz. In fact, jazz is considered one of the few genres with American roots. But what is jazz? This website has a lot of information, but here are some key points to share with your child:
- Jazz developed in the United States in the very early part of the 20th century.
- Jazz is a genre in which musicians use a lot of improvisation. This means that in most jazz performances, players play solos which they make up on the spot.
- Most jazz is very rhythmic, has a forward momentum called “swing,” and uses “bent” or “blue” notes. You can often hear “call-and-response” patterns in jazz, in which one instrument, voice, or part of the band answers another.
- Jazz can express many different emotions, from pain to sheer joy. In jazz, you often hear the sounds of freedom because the music has been a powerful voice for people suffering unfair treatment because of the color of the skin or because they lived in a country run by a cruel dictator.
- Jazz musicians like to play their songs in their own distinct styles, and so you might listen to a dozen different jazz recordings of the same song, but each will sound different. Jazz is about making something familiar sound fresh.
Let’s learn about one of the most impactful jazz musicians of all time in Before John Was a Jazz Giant.
Activity 2: Let’s use some of John Coltrane’s music to inspire an art project! Listen to him play the below song, “In a Sentimental Mood.” As the music plays, give your child drawing or painting materials and encourage them to “draw” the music. You may want to give them a long sheet of paper so they can illustrate the way the music changes throughout the song. When they are done, ask them what made them draw or paint certain sections the way they did.
Activity 3: The world of southern food has also been incredibly impacted by African American culture, giving birth to what is called soul food.
“The term ‘soul food’ was coined in the mid-1960s when ‘soul’ became a common word to describe the African-American culture, especially when jazz and gospel music became popular on radio and television. The cuisine is deeply rooted in the historical significance of the Black Power Movement. People enslaved on plantations during the American colonial period up until the civil war adapted the foods available to them into what became a unique class of food. Blacks that picked up and moved on during the Great Migration found comfort in recreating the dishes they had grown up with.
Staples include greens, beans, peas, cornmeal (maize), grits, potatoes, fried chicken, and pork offal.” (source)
Has your child ever tried any soul food? You may have without realizing it. Let’s make a staple in soul food and southern cooking, corn bread, with this recipe.
(+) If you purchased Jazz, enjoy your cornbread with some Southern Sweet Tea + Poetry!
For our final day, let’s look at another time period where quilts accompanied some very important American history in late 1800s and early 1900s. Start by reading the book The Quilt.
Activity 1: One of the most historic immigration moments in U.S history happened between the years 1900 and 1914. This is when the Ellis Island immigration station experienced its peak years of operation. Located at the mouth of Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, Ellis Island saw millions of newly arrived immigrants pass through its doors. In fact, it has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island. (source) Do you have any relatives that came through Ellis Island? Find out with this passenger search! If you do discover a connection, turn it into a research project. Try to find out as much as you can about this relative and what their life was like after coming to America.
Activity 2: When people emigrated to the United States, they did it for a variety of reasons, including to escape war, drought, famine, and religious persecution, and they all had hopes for greater opportunity in the New World.
After an arduous sea voyage, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were tagged with information from their ship’s registry. They then waited on long lines for medical and legal inspections to determine if they were fit for entry into the United States. (source) Could you pass the Ellis Island immigrant interview? Let’s find out! Download this printable, but only print pages 4 and 5. Answer the questions (let your child write as much as they want to, or you can scribe for them) to see if you would have been admitted. After taking the quiz, discuss the questions. What kinds of people would have been prohibited from entering the country? Is this fair? Why or why not?
Activity 3: Near Ellis Island in New York Harbor is the Statue of Liberty. A worldwide symbol of freedom and friendship, Lady Liberty became an inspiration to many immigrants who sailed past her coming to America. Let’s learn more about her history in this video.
Did you catch the part of the video about why the Statue of Liberty is green? Let’s bring it to life with this science experiment.
Activity 4: Let’s end the week with a Statue of Liberty dress-up! Use this tutorial to make her famous crown and torch.
***Post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through a link, we may receive a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you for supporting our small business!***