On more than one occasion, I have heard another teacher say, “you can’t make history hands-on.” When I hear this statement, it definitely catches my attention because it could not be further from the truth! As a teacher and a lover of history, one of my greatest passions is making social studies fun for students. So, starting with these early explorers activities, I am beginning a series about hands-on history lesson plans and units. This series will run throughout the school year, so make sure to sign up for my mailing list so that do not miss out on any social studies tips!


Do you teach early explorers? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Teaching early explorers is one of my favorite units because there are so many things you can do to get students moving and using critical thinking. Here are seven of my best early explorers activities!

Become New World Explorers

When teaching history, it is important to have students take mental pictures of the things they learn about. This camera activity does just that by putting students in the shoes of the famous explorers! At the beginning of my early explorers unit, I have students create a camera. Students easily assemble the camera using paper, scissors, and glue. By attaching yarn to the camera, students can then wear it around their neck during the lessons. I also give students small pieces of paper that look like blank Polaroid pictures.


At the end of each explorers lesson, students draw a picture that relates to the explorer they learned about on one of their Polaroid pictures. For example, a student might draw a picture of the Grand Canyon after learning about the Spanish explorer, Francisco Coronado. This is one of my students favorite early explorers activities! It also makes a great formative assessment throughout the unit!


Famous Explorers Map

Your early explorers unit is the perfect time to practice map skills! Make sure to use maps to show students where each explorer sailed from and where they landed. I like to have students keep a map nearby that they add onto throughout the unit. Students create a key and shade different areas of the map to show which parts of the Americas were settled by the Spanish, French, and English. You can even take this activity a step further by having students create 3D maps with playdough or food.


All About Explorers Activity

When learning about the early explorers, students have a lot
of facts to keep track of. They have to know where the person sailed from,
where they landed, what they discovered… it can be a lot to remember! An easy
way to have students keep track of all this information is by having students
create profiles or trading cards for each of the explorers they learn about.

Most years, I have a template students use to create a
profile for each explorer. Students create at least one Spanish, one French,
and one English profile. When I have access to technology, I like to save paper
and forgo the template. Having students create slideshows is a great way to
incorporate tech skills into my early explorers activities.


A Letter From a Famous Explorer

I am always looking for ways to integrate social studies and ELA. During my explorers unit, students select a famous explorer and write a letter from the perspective of that explorer. While including important information about that explorer, students should also consider what that person might have been feeling as they explored the new world. Remember, students should always use proper spelling and grammar, even when writing for social studies!


New World Explorers Timeline

Do your students have trouble keeping track of important
dates in history? It can be a challenge, even for adults! To solve this problem,
I use interactive timelines in my classroom. I use my timelines two different
ways. The first option is as a center activity. Students can work individually
or in groups to match the dates to the events. After matching, they sort the
events in the correct order.

The second option is to create an interactive bulletin
board. Using Velcro, I attach each of the pieces to the board. Like with the
center activity, students match the dates to the events. Then, they sort the
events in the correct order. Not only does this activity help students memorize
dates, but it is also an opportunity to practice teamwork.


Early Explorers Review

Task cards are always a great way to review social studies! These review tools are easy to set up and a great way to get students moving. I like to use task cards as a scoot activity. I place each task card at different stations around the room. Students rotate through each of the stations, recording their responses on a worksheet. It is up to you to decide whether students move in the same order or randomly move from station to station on their own.

You can create your own task cards on index cards. Or, if you want to save time, check out my Early Explorers Task Cards set. It comes with 28 task cards. Each card has a multiple choice, fill in the blank, or open-ended question. A student response worksheet has also been included for students to record their answers.

You can find these Early Explorers Task Cards here.

Early Explorers Escape Room

Another great way to have students review early explorers is with a classroom escape room. Escape rooms are some of my favorite social studies activities. Not only are they fun for the students, but they also get students using lots of critical thinking skills as they solve puzzles and challenges. To learn more about creating escape rooms for social studies, be sure to read my blog post “How to Create the Perfect Classroom Escape Room.”

I have created an Early Explorers Escape Room that has students complete seven challenges to review the early Spanish, French, and English explorers. Challenges include putting puzzles together to find hidden messages, using keys to decode facts, and sorting information about the great explorers and their discoveries. This is one of my students’ favorite social studies activities!

Need to save time? Click here to learn more about my Early Explorers Escape Room.


As you can see, there are lots of fun early explorers
activities to use in the classroom. While using these activities, your students
are sure to have a blast while investigating early exploration. And, you know
the best part? When students have fun learning about history, they are more
likely to retain the information!

If you are limited on time, I’ve got you covered! The
activities listed above can be found in the following resources:


I’ve enjoyed sharing a few of my favorite early explorers activities with you. If you are looking for even more creative ways to teach U.S. History, be sure to bookmark my blog! Next month, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite tips for teaching colonial America.

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