A close look at Ancient Egypt can provide an exciting learning experience for younger students. From the mystery of tombs and mummies, to the colour and wonder of strange gods and personalised cartouches, the Land of the Pharaohs offers pre-teens a chance to develop skills in maths and the humanities, and to express themselves creatively. Along the way, they may even learn that people who lived long ago were not so different from themselves.
It’s always a good idea to begin any new area of study with a quick check of what the students already know. A convenient and thought-provoking way of doing this is to draw up a DUB chart. ‘DUB’ stands for ‘Do-Use-Believe’, and the chart simply consists of three columns, into which the students write everything they already know. In the ‘Do’ column, for instance, they might note that the Egyptians made mummies and pyramids. In the ‘Use’ column, they might write about gold, and in the ‘Believe’ column, they might comment about pharaohs being like gods. With younger students, it is important to set up this activity in small groups in order to pool knowledge and, later, share ideas, because what they’ve done so far is only stage one of a process. (For students aged six and older, a movie like “Prince of Egypt” (1998) can help them get started.)
At this point, the teacher should copy a few suggestions into a chart on the whiteboard, before asking a few obvious questions. So Egyptians made mummies. What do you think they used to do this? What did they believe would happen to the mummified person? So they used gold. Where did they find it? What did they make with it? With a little bit of thinking, and a lot of guesswork, the groups may be able to fill in a lot more information on their charts.
By this stage, the class should be aware of what they know, and what they’d like to find out. And fortunately, finding out can be a lot of fun. Here are a few suggestions for lessons and activities to help students understand the wonders of Ancient Egypt.
Using toys and models – It can be great fun to mummify a Barbie doll, or any sort of action figure, and place them in a shoebox sarcophagus. But it can also be useful to turn the process on its head. If the teacher has any toys or dolls at home, they can be used as ‘artefacts’ that were ‘recovered’ from a mysterious tomb. The challenge to the students is to act as archaeologists, trying to work out what the artefact might reveal about a long-dead civilization. (Note that this can be done with almost any small object; a toy car, a postcard, or even a fork.) As with the DUB chart activity, guesses are to be respected and encouraged. The message behind this activity is that the students should be thinking carefully about everything they uncover through their studies, as there is often more to something than meets the eye.
Building pyramids – A great opportunity for constructive creativity, and also a chance to learn about triangles. Pyramids can be built from almost anything; cardboard, modelling clay, building blocks. As a special treat, try making a pyramid cake, with jelly babies buried deep within it to represent the pharaoh and his household retainers. Have the students think about what difficulties they had in making their pyramid fit together uniformly, and then imagine the same problem many thousand times larger.
An interesting way to help students understand the significance of pyramids is to organise a visit to a local church or cathedral. Talk about how pyramids and churches are really quite similar. They each have pictures on the walls that tell stories, for instance, and texts written in a strange and symbolic language. They may contain valuable and ornate treasures, and have the bodies of dead leaders buried in a crypt below. Discuss how the church might have been built, and walk up the nave towards the apse or altar to explain that the class is now facing the exact same direction as the Sphinx.
Hieroglyphics – Students will enjoy making a cartouche of their name to hang on their bedroom door or use as a bookmark. They may also like to craft secret messages that can be displayed around the classroom.
Egyptian maths – Egyptians had quite a different way of showing numbers, although it was a decimal system too. Students can try to solve some elementary problems using Egyptian notation, or create their own maths system using familiar modern-day symbols.
Gods and masks – Making and colouring a mask to represent jackal-headed Anubis, falcon-headed Horus or catlike Bastet is a good way of sharing and developing knowledge about Egyptian gods. Students can take turns telling the class who their mask represents, or they can create brief role-plays that feature their god-character. (Egyptian drama commonly told stories about the gods.) Keep in mind that the activity is not just about mask-making (though this is quite worthwhile in itself); it should be a springboard to understanding the importance and variety of gods in many ancient, and not-so-ancient, cultures.
The Nile – The value of the Nile to Ancient Egypt was incalculable. Use maps to show how the civilization developed along its banks, and find other big modern cities that have been built next to rivers. Talk about the importance of water in everyday life, and introduce some basic ecological concepts. Make a model, using clay and small toy figures (including animals), to show how the people used the river.
Other things to make – The Egyptians were great craftsmen, and the students should get the chance to be artisans too. Craft canopic jars with decorative tops and sculpted body parts inside, or make an ankh necklace complete with golden glitter. Make papyrus from a paper bag, as a way of introducing ideas about Egyptian schools and scribes.
As a final activity, students may like to design their own board game that can show off their learning. A good basic concept is to make it a little like Trivial Pursuit, with question categories for different aspects of the culture, famous tombs marking the end of each spoke, and blocks or jigsaw pieces that complete a pyramid instead of a wedge wheel. Alternatively, students may care to make their own version of senet, a famous Egyptian board game.
Teaching young students about Ancient Egypt offers untold opportunities for creative learning. Although a lot of enjoyment can be had in drawing and modelling, teachers should always be striving to provide their students with something that will remain valuable long after the masks and the mummies have been consigned to the dustbin.