Level 2: Native Peoples of Mesoamerica + South America

One of our favorite things about homeschooling is getting to introduce our children to places and cultures they might not have experienced yet. This week, we’re sharing books and activities about Native people of Mesoamerica and also learning about the Incas of South America. 🌎 There are many cultures that originated in this fascinating part of the world, but we will be focusing on just a handful for our lessons. This lesson also provides a lot of opportunities for map work, so we encourage you to help your child find the countries and sites mentioned on a globe, map, or atlas to deepen their understanding of the world around them. 🗺️ Ready to explore? Download our tracker to keep track of the books you read and skills you work on.

Note: Occasionally we include project upgrades (for kids ready for more). We’ll mark those with the plus (+) symbol.

What you need:

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

Optional additional reading:

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!

Lesson 1:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the geographic areas making up modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It is located in the thin area of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico that connects North and South America. The climate there is hot and dry, becoming more tropical as we move farther south. It is part of North America even though it is commonly referred to as Central America. (source)

Let’s begin our week with a little mapwork. Using a world map, atlas, or Google Earth, find the area of the world referred to as Mesoamerica. 

For our first two days of lessons, we’ll be taking a closer look at the Maya Empire. The Mayan civilization began as early as 2000 B.C. and was located in Central America, made up of southern Mexico, Guatemala, the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and northern El Salvador. To start, help you child find where this empire existed on your map, globe, or atlas. This map can also help you know where to start. Next, let’s read Rain Player to learn about a famous Mayan legend.

Activity 1: Pok-A-Tok literacy game.

Activity 2: Mayan maize math activity.

Activity 3: The Maya were also master sculptors, making pots, cups, and even parts of their architecture out of clay. Let’s make our own simple clay pot using this coil method. This is a great way to improve fine motor strength and make something useful!

Lesson 2:

Let’s learn more about the Mayan culture, from how they collected salt to the structures they built to even their language! Start by reading Rainbow Weaver.

Activity 1: Mayas had many ingenious ways of gathering or creating the materials they needed to live. One example is how they collected salt: They would heat salt water in clay pots (or leave it out in the sun) until the water evaporated and the salt was left behind. Let’s recreate this method an introduce using the scientific method with this simple experiment.

Activity 2: The Mayas are also famous for their architecture, including their famous pyramids. Let’s make a model of a Mayan pyramid! You can either build it with cardboard using this tutorial, or you can use LEGO (use this photo as inspiration) or even Minecraft! Show your child this photo of a real pyramid to inspire them—and to give them an idea of how massive these structures are.

As you build your pyramid, use this as an opportunity to introduce a new shape: the trapezoid! A trapezoid is a four-sided figure with only one pair of parallel sides. This means that it has one long side (on the bottom), one short side (on top), and two diagonal sides on the left and right. As you cut out your pieces, show your child how you can start with a triangle and then turn it into a trapezoid by cutting off the top point. There are several other shapes in this project as well that you can review, like a square (the top of the Mayan pyramid) and rectangles (the step folds). Compare and contrast these pyramids with the ones you saw in our Egypt lesson.

Activity 3: Though they have an ancient history, the Mayan culture is still alive today. In fact, their language, called Yucatec Maya, is still spoken! Click here to learn how to say some simple greetings in Maya.

Lesson 3:

The Incas were an civilization that flourished from 1400 A.D. to 1533 A.D. Their territory was one of the largest of the ancient South American civilizations, stretching from modern-day Colombia to central Chile. Help your child find these countries on a map, globe, or in your atlas. This blog post has many interesting facts about the Incas, but here are few to focus on with your child:

  • The capital city was Cusco, which translates to “belly button of the world”!
  • At its peak, the Inca population is estimated to have been between 6 and 14 million people!
  • The Incas had no written language. Instead, they used a system of knotted and colored strings, called a khipu. The khipu has never been deciphered, and it is thought that they provided an inventory of the assets of the empire. (You can see a picture of what they looked like here and here.)
  • The Incas spoke Quechua (or ‘Runa Simi’ meaning ‘mouth of the people’ in Quechua itself). Nowadays it is spoken widely across the Andes in various regions of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina, though different areas speak different dialects.
  • The Incas called their empire Tahuantinsuyo  (pronounced: Tah-whan-tin- SU-yo). It translates as the four corners of the earth.
  • Even after the conquest, Inca leaders continued to resist the Spaniards up until 1572, when its last city, Vilcabamba, was captured.

Activity 1: One of the most famous about the Incas is the city of Machu Picchu. The city is built on a high mountaintop and consists of more than 150 buildings, including houses, baths, temples, sanctuaries, and over 100 flights of stairs with about 1,600 steps!  The name is a compound name made up of two Quechua words: machu and picchu.  “Machu” means “old” in Quechua, and “picchu” means “peak.”  So “Machu Picchu” means “old peak!” Let’s pretend to take a visit! Start by touring the city virtually on this website.

Next, let’s see how long it would take us to climb all the steps in Machu Picchu. Using whatever stairs you have available, see how many steps your child can climb in one minute. Divide that number into 1,600 to see how many minutes it would take! Note: Your child will likely not be able to do these calculations themselves, but you can show them how you find the answer.

Activity 2: Llamas were very important to the Incas as they provided meat and carried their cargo on the narrow and steep roads that the Incas built. Their relative, the alpaca was bred for its fine fleece, and the Incas wore woven alpaca clothing. Now let’s do our own llama weaving craft! As you weave, you can also watch this video about the difference between llamas and alpacas.
(-) If you have a younger child learning with you, let them wrap the yarn instead of weaving.

Activity 3: On Monday, our math activity talk us about grouping and counting by fives. But the Incas were an ancient civilization that used a base ten number system. Let’s make some math application and learn more about the place value of ten and hundreds. For this activity you will need these manipulatives (or, if you built the pumpkin seed manipulatives in our Fall Harvest Unit, you can use those!). Using your place value template from that activity (or print it here), demonstrate how to work up from single units to tens to hundreds. You can also watch or review our video demonstrating how to introduce this skill here.

Once they understand the relationship between single units and ten-bar you can start this activity. Start by writing a number from 10-99 into the place value template and ask your child to find the manipulatives that match the written number. Next, erase all written numbers and start by building a number using your manipulatives, and then ask your child to write the number in the correct box. Once your child has a good understanding of numbers under 100, move onto the hundred-bar.

Lesson 4:

Today is all about the Aztecs! Known for a variety of ingenious technologies and discoveries, there is much to learn about this ancient civilization. The Aztecs called themselves Culhua-Mexica and spoke the Nahuatl language. They flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries in what is now central and southern Mexico. (source) Let’s start learning more about this culture by reading a famous Aztec legend, The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes.

Activity 1: Worship of gods and goddesses played a huge role in Aztec culture. In fact, historians have identified over 200 different gods from Aztec artifacts! This article outlines the 10 most important—there’s also a short video at the bottom of the page with more information.

Activity 2: One of the most fascinating discoveries about Aztec culture has been the Aztec Sun Stone. A large round stone depicting two calendars, we don’t know for sure today how it was used, but many think it may have been some kind of sundial as well as a calendar. Click here to read a bit more about it, and then create your own Aztec-inspired sundial with this tutorial. Once it’s set up (maker sure the top of the dial is pointed north!), check back throughout the day to see if it works. This is also a great time to review telling time to the hour.

Activity 3: Hot chocolate was a big part of Aztec culture, but it’s a little different from what you might normally drink. First, let’s read Blue Frog: The Legend of Chocolate to learn a little Aztec folklore. Next, watch this video to learn about how cocoa is harvested, then make your own Aztec hot chocolate (or xocolatl) to enjoy with the next activity. Note: You may want to omit the chili if your child is sensitive to spice, or make two batches—one with and one without chili.

Activity 4: Now that you’ve made your hot chocolate, let’s have some Hot Chocolate + Poetry! Read these Aztec poems as you sip.

Lesson 5:

There are too many Mesoamerican + South American cultures to cover them all in a single week, but for our last day, we’ll tackle some fun activities inspired by other cultures!

Activity 1: Nazca Line craft. The Nazca culture is a pre-Inca civilization that flourished from 200 to 600 A.D. in modern-day Peru. The lines are a series of 300 massive designs, depicting hummingbirds, sharks, and more over an area of nearly 500 sq kilometers or 190 sq miles. But the really amazing thing? They can only be seen from miles in the air! You can learn more about them here (note: you don’t need to read the whole article to your child—just pick out some of the main interesting facts), and then let’s make our own Nazca line-inspired craft.

Activity 2: The Olmecs are one of the most ancient cultures in Mesoamerica, prospering from about 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C., and one of the ways we have been able to learn more about them is through their art. This post shares a bit more of what we know about this culture, along with several photos of their famous stone heads. Share the pictures and information with your child, and then try the stone jaguar craft at the bottom. (If you don’t want to use salt dough, you could also make the jaguar face out of playdough.)

Activity 3: Speaking of ancient art, we’ll end our day looking at a Zapotec urn that currently resides at the American Museum of Natural History. The Zapotecs were an indigenous culture in Mexico that lived about a thousand years before the Aztecs. Click here to see an urn that archeologists discovered in the tomb of a high official—the urn now lives in the American Museum of Natural History. Read through the “interview” with your child to learn more about the Zapotec people and the purpose this fascinating discovery.

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Published by learnandliveletter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-11.

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