First Californians and How They Lived

It's the time of year to learn about Native Americans! One of my favorite activities to teach the importance of natural resources and the barter system is a lesson on trading:
  • Students are divided into tribes (4-5 students per group work best). This is a great time to divide by learning modalities (put a kinesthetic learner in each group) or by Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (put a visual/spatial learner & interpersonal skills learner in each group). 
  • Explain that each group is a tribe that lives on an isolated island. Each island has only 1 “natural” resource. Their task is to build a shelter using only their resource. Depending on what I can find around my classroom, resources might include a roll of masking tape, a stack of paper towels, straws,  plastic cups, popsicle sticks or pipe cleaners. Set the timer for 10 minutes. 
  • As tribes begin to finish their structures, the teacher walks around to administer the Natural Elements Test: California earthquakes (shake the table) or wind (blow on the shelter).  Personally, this is my favorite part of the lesson! :)
  • Students give an “open house tour” to the rest of the class and describe the features of their shelter. 
  • They will complain that “it’s not fair” and they need other materials for their shelter to be viable. Ask them what they need & how to go about obtaining. Eventually students will ask, “Can we trade with other tribes?” 
  • Once they realize they need other materials, set a ground rule: only one member of the tribe may leave at a time in a canoe (remember each tribe lives alone on an island). They may go to another island to politely ask for that tribe’s resource, but they can’t go empty-handed! They must bring some of their tribe’s resource to barter with. 
  • Allow students time to brainstorm the advantages of their resource. (Why would another tribe want it? What can it be used for?) Each tribe gives a brief mini infomercial about their tribe’s resource. 
  • Give 5 minutes planning time for tribes to decide which other resources they need and how they envision their shelter. 
  • Allow another 5-10 minutes to trade/barter, then build their new shelter. 
  • Again, students give an “open house tour” to the rest of the class and describe the features of their shelter. Discuss pros and cons of their shelter. 
  • Teacher can administer the Natural Elements Test again. 
  • Pull the class back together to debrief. 
If you'd like to try this lesson, you can grab a FREE copy of the recording sheet HERE. 
For more ideas and a differentiated unit on First Californians, click HERE.
Since my students always learn best when they are DOING something with their hands, another great activity is teaching your class how to weave. They read so much about Native Americans weaving: weaving baskets, then later weaving on a loom at the missions. Until my kids actually learn to weave (over, under, over, under), they don't fully understand the skill and patience this takes! 
Here's a terrific video to show YOU how to weave (I would use it as a tutorial for you, then teach your students.)
Whew! Sorry this is such a long post, but there SOOOO much you can do with Native Americans (First Californians, Indians, etc)!! I love to tie in literature with all the Social Studies I teach and one of my favorite books is Pasquala: The Story of a California Indian Girl by Gail Faber and Michelle Lasagne. Both authors are former fourth grade teachers! This is THE PERFECT novel to teach about Indian tribes and the relationship to their region, as well as how their lives changed once the missions were established in California. This historical fiction novel unit includes a pre-reading activity, projects, writing, tiered independent menu. Student samples, forms, rubrics, and comprehension test with answer key included! You can purchase this Novel Unit here.
So excited to have found a GREAT resource for teaching about Native Americans!! Thanks to Fifth in the Middle for this Linky Party!! Although my 4th grade curriculum is specific to California tribes, many of these ideas are general enough to apply to any Indian tribe! Click on the linky to discover MORE ideas!!
Native Americans LinkyThis is a wonderful time of year to teach about Native Americans and to motivate children's understanding with hands-on, differentiated activities! Happy Fall!


  1. I totally pinned this linky this morning! I don't know how I missed your 2 for 2 sale the other day! I just added both of these to my wishlist though. So glad we found each other. I'm actually moving to San Diego at the end of this school year. I'll definitely be doing this barter activity with my class in Nov. Thanks so much for sharing! XO

    A Teaspoon of Teaching

    1. Thanks, Melissa! Glad we found each other, too and we'll have to meet up once you're in SD! Love all the RAK activities and resources you share! Would love to know how the barter/trade lesson works out!

  2. What a great way to teach about Native Americans!

    1. The kids love this unit because of all the hand-on activities! :)

  3. I love these ideas! Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. This is how all learning should be - fun, interactive, and true to life. I enjoyed reading this blog post. Appreciate your time to share this wonderful learning activity on Native Americans.

    1. I agree, Laurane; if all learning could be like this! Thanks for stopping by!