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Upper Elementary Early Explorers Lesson Ideas

One of my all-time favorite units to teach is my Early Explorers unit. I’ve always covered this content in 4th grade and it’s the perfect upper elementary unit because there are so many ways to integrate the content into reading, writing, and math.

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One of my all-time favorite units to teach is my Early Explorers unit. I’ve always covered this content in 4th grade and it’s the perfect upper elementary unit because there are so many ways to integrate the content into reading, writing, and math.

Before we get started on my top teaching ideas for my upper elementary early explorers unit, let’s talk a bit about why this unit is so valuable.


Why You Need to Teach Early Explorers in Upper Elementary

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

I remember this little rhyme from my childhood.  And your students might know it too.  But can they recall where Columbus traveled from, who sponsored his trip, and what were the motivations for him to sail to the “east?”  And why is it important for students to know these things anyways?

Let’s talk first about why students should learn about early explorers.  We know that it is important to recognize the contributions of those who have come before us. Furthermore, learning about our past can help us make wise decisions in the future. 

In fact, Theodore Roosevelt said it well when he noted, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.”

By examining and studying the Europeans who first sailed toward the Americas, we should help our students to consider these things:

  • Why did the Europeans travel in the first place?
  • Who were early explorers, and what were their routes?
  • What obstacles did European explorers face, and how did they overcome them?
  • How did European knowledge contribute to the development of America?
  • What were the effects of the Europeans meeting Native Americans? 

Ideas for Your Early Explorers Lessons:

So how can your students learn about early explorers in a meaningful way?  Here are a few tips to get you started:

Read primary and eyewitness accounts. 

Your school and community libraries should contain examples of these true and verifiable resources.  There are also websites, such as AmericanJourneys.org, that consist of thousands of firsthand accounts.  You can download and read narrations from the travels of explorers like Jacques Cartier and Hernando de Soto there.

Practice geography and map reading skills. 

A simple way to engage somewhat reluctant learners is to pull out some maps and crayons.  Allow students to research and trace the travel routes of early explorers.  Have students use different colored crayons for each explorer, and then ask them to draw some conclusions based on what they observe on their maps.

Complete research projects. 

Having students read and analyze biographical information about early explorers not only allows them to hit Social Studies standards but address English Language Arts and Writing objectives too.  I have created an Early Explorers Unit that will engage students in learning more about famous voyagers such as Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, John Cabot, and many others!

This project will take students through the  research and writing process.  Students will read through a biography of an explorer’s life and then will complete this flip book to help them organize their ideas.  

After completing these prewriting activities, students will compose a written piece about the explorer they researched.  Students will then go through the revising and editing process with their peers or the teacher.  A rubric is provided so that students have clear expectations for the project and teachers have a set of standards to use when grading. 

You can purchase my upper elementary Early Explorers packets by individual explorer or you can choose the entire bundle which includes 14 voyagers in all!  Just click here to access this awesome resource.

I hope you’ve learned some valuable ideas to help with your early explorer studies.  I know that my Early Explorers Unit will provide meaningful, engaging learning experiences for your students too.