Teaching Young Children about Pocahontas

Costumes make history walks more fun!
Costumes make history walks more fun!

History Walk with Pocahontas

Experts agree that play is one of the best ways for young children to learn (see information from the UC Davis Children’s Hospital and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Northern Illinois University and Colorado State University in the article Learning Through Play – a Child’s Job by Jane Forbose). In our home my daughter’s favorite subject is science because it always involves a large component of play (the experiment). So in an effort to encourage her interest in history we added an element of play by taking a history walk with Pocahontas.

What is a history walk? That is an excellent question. A history walk is when the girls and I do our best to imagine what it must have been like during that point in history and “walk” for a time in the lives of people from the past (read dramatic play). But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Importance of Dramatic Play with Adult Involvement

Let’s begin with why dramatic play (play where you pretend to be someone or something else) is something you should be participating in with your children. According to the Action Alliance for Children pretend play is connected to early literacy, mathematical thinking, and problem-solving. In her book Smart Start the Parents’ Guide to Preschool Education Marian Edelman Borden says, “Research demonstrates that children who are active in pretend play are usually more joyful and cooperative, more willing to share and take turns, and have larger vocabularies than children who are less imaginative. Children in cooperative play learn to contribute to joint efforts. They also learn how to problem solve by working together to find a solution.”

So pretend play or dramatic play is important, but why can’t we just give our children some props and let them loose? As you most certainly know children enjoy their parents’ involvement which Sean Brotherson, Ph.D. of the North Dakota State University Extension Service confirmed in his article What Young Children Learn Through Play. However, he also said that children benefit from their parents modeling play. Children gain ideas from their parents’ feedback and examples. In fact Deborah J. Leong and Elena Bodrova believe that without adult support, the play of many children is destined to never reach the fully developed status that provides the benefits indicated in research (which they stated in their article Assessing and Scaffolding Make Believe Play).

Leong and Bodrova pointed out six things that children need to reach the highest levels of development in their dramatic play. First, there should be a plan. Children should learn to think about their play before they actually play. Second, there should be roles. What part is each child playing and what action, language and emotion are necessary for that role? Third, the children need props. It does not matter if the props are real, symbolic or even imaginary as long as the children can act out their roles with the props. Fourth, there should be an extended time frame for play. Children need time to explore and understand the roles they are playing. Fifth, children need the necessary language. More than just the language of the role (although that is important too), the children need the language to develop the scenario and coordinate the players. Which brings us to the last item, that is the scenario. Children need a scene with interactions between the different roles.

Jamestown Settlement

Simple Lesson Plan for Teaching Pocahontas

  • Read an age appropriate book about Pocahontas with the students
  • Visit the National Geographic web page allowing the students to explore the world of Pocahontas
  • Ask the students questions about what would be involved in a typical Powhatan day. Establish roles (or tasks) for each student that would have been performed in and around the village.
  • Prepare whatever costumes and props needed for the history walk.
  • Guide the students through a Powhatan day.
  • Allow the students time to play together and fully develop their roles.
  • Share a Powhatan meal together.

Developing a Plan for Dramatic Play

So if our dramatic play is a walk through history we needed to know a little something about the time period so that we can develop a plan for our play. As history texts have a tendency to be rather dry and uninteresting, we usually start our reading with a biography. And because the girls are young I look for short books with lots of pictures. In this instance we read The True Story of Pocahontas written by Lucille Recht Penner and illustrated by Pamela Johnson.

The book is only 48 pages long. It has colored pictures on every page. The reading level is first to third grade. But most importantly it reads like a story while managing to cover her life from childhood through adulthood.

After hearing about Pocahonta’s life we explored her village on the National Geographic interactive page America in 1607: Jamestown and the Powhatan. The village is a hand draw image of the Powhatan village with a magnifying glass that can be moved about for a more detailed view as well as links to more images, videos and information about the Powhatan people and Native Americans in general. While most of the videos were to advanced to hold their interest and the maps were to small to be useful, my girls did enjoy the information about cooking and looking at some of the different images of Native Americans. (The Jamestown image is set up much like the Powhatan village picture. But as our focus was Pocahontas we did not spend much time looking at the fort.)

Our props - some of the food my girls gathered
Our props - some of the food my girls gathered

Developing Roles and Language for Dramatic Play

After gathering our information we were ready to plan our play. To set the mood and establish our roles we got into our Indian costumes. Costumes are not strictly necessary but a lot more fun. Then we began imagining what a day might be like in Pocahontas’ village (more planning). I prompted the girls with questions about what we would do for breakfast since they did not have grocery stores (helping them establish the language of our play as well as setting our scene). We realized that the women would gather fruits and nuts from the forest as well as harvest the corn and other vegetables for their meals. So I set the girls out to “gather” the food items that I had stashed about the house for that purpose (our props).

Next we built a “fire” to heat the rocks that we would be dropping into our stone pots. (We used Easter eggs as rocks and pots from their play kitchen as our stone pots.) Together we “cooked” a meal for our village. Before having races and turning somersaults (the games mentioned in the book). At which time I allowed the girls to take over control of the play so that their imaginations could soar (allowing extended time for play). We ended our history walk be trying some real Native American food. (The recipes can be found on the National Geographic site.)

The girls spent most of the day learning about history without even realizing it. They had a great time playing, which helped them retain what we had been talking about (as well as developing the other skills enhanced by dramatic play). If history is not something your children usually enjoys (or just as a method of stimulating dramatic play) try a history walk of your own. Just a little research and you and your children will be having fun together while learning about history.

Do you use dramatic play in your history studies?

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Comments 2 comments

backporchstories profile image

backporchstories 4 years ago from Kentucky

Superb way of teaching. I was always a hands on kind of learner and this was wonderful. What I really appreciated was the research on the subject, instead of relying on established school books, you used other sources that can lead more to the truth of history! Well done!


Joy M profile image

Joy M 4 years ago from Sumner, Washington Author

Thank you.

I prefer starting with biographies because I find it is easier to remember the details of history if you have a person's story with which to connect them. And the interactive site was a great find. I was looking for something to provide those details and I struck gold with that National Geographic site.

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