Making World History Fun: Lesson Plans for Fifth Grade on European Exploration

Making World History Fun: Lesson Plans for Fifth Grade on European Exploration
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About the Age of Discovery

The period between the early part of the 15th century and the end of the 17th century is commonly known as the Age of Exploration or the Age of Discovery. Early explorers, from England, Portugal, France and Spain, set out searching for wealth and increased power in Europe and beyond.

“They sought a route around the southern coast of Africa to India; when they encountered Arab traders on the sea route, they looked westward. Ironically, they could travel by sea because of adaptations in shipbuilding and navigation, a result of borrowing Arab innovations such as the lateen sail. These adaptations would continue to play a significant role by facilitating the European explorers’ ability to cross the Atlantic Ocean.“1

The European governments paid for the explorers' journeys with the goals that they would:

  • Increase opportunities for trade, especially spices and silk
  • Build European empires
  • Learn more about the world
  • Prestige
  • Expand Christianity
  • Find animal furs

Prince Henry the Navigator, Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan are some of the more famous European explorers whose discoveries helped to advance of geographic knowledge in that part of the world. Lesson plans on the Age of Discovery can encompass not only learning about these prominent explorers, but the lands they discovered and journeys that took them there.

Age of Exploration Report

At the beginning of this unit, either assign students a European explorer to research or let them pick their own. Depending on the size of the class, students can pair up to work on the report together. They can include topics such as:

  • History: Who is this explorer and why is he famous?
  • Geography: Where did he explore? What is that land known as today?
  • Culture: What was it like when he arrived and what is its religion, customs, food, spoken languages today?
  • Agriculture: What was the land like in terms of agriculture? Were the early settlers able to farm on it or raise animals?
  • Industry: What economic goods and services did the explorer find? Did he produce any?

The research is written according to the teacher’s guidelines on such reports. Students can present their papers at the end of the unit using props and visual aids.

Mapping the Expeditions

The best way to actually understand the route taken during the expeditions is to have the students chart their chosen explorers' expedition on a classroom map. This is done in one of several ways:

  • Purchase a full-color, laminated classroom map (51 inches by 40 inches) that you can hang on a wall or large bulletin board
  • Collect various colors of yarn or string; a different color for each explorer or divide them up into four groups: Spanish, English, French and Portuguese explorers
  • Using thumbtacks or tape, have each child chart an explorer’s expedition, pinpointing all the major stops on the journey

Mapping is an important lesson to teach. In today’s world, students have so many electronic and digital devices telling them how to get from one location to another. “The fact is, maps provide students with much more than just an idea of where they are on the globe. At the very basic level, map-reading gives students a sense of perspective.” 2


This skill also gives students a dose of reality and urges them to thinking outside the box. “Maps introduce elementary school students to abstract thinking. All maps include symbols, from street signs and drawings of houses on the simplest of maps to legends indicating water levels, mountain ranges, and soil content on complex environmental maps. Teaching students to interpret these signs is an integral skill that translates to abstract interpretive abilities in all disciplines later on.” 3

Colorful Translation

An alternative to using strings to map the explorers' journeys is to use colorful game tokens. Place your map flat on a desk or table and have the students place color-coordinated markers on the place or places where their explorer journeyed. Use one color for Spanish explorers, one color for English, and so on. Your map will look something like this one.

Bringing It All Together

To culminate the study of European explorers, set aside a day where the students can present their reports. This can also be a day when they celebrate their explorers and what they’ve learned.

Oral Presentation

Each child should get up in front of the class and present his or her explorer to the rest of the students and teacher. Students can give a condensed version of their written report, complete with costumes, visual aids and props. Students should ask questions about each explorer so they may gain a further understanding of European explorations.

Cultural Day

Bring the entire unit of European exploration of the East home with a fun cultural day celebration. Students can bring in snacks or drinks related to a location where their explorers stopped along their journeys. Examples of this are:

  • China: Fortune cookies
  • Saudi Arabia: Flat bread
  • Turkey: Baklava
  • India: Coconut rice
  • Persia: Fereni (rice pudding)

If possible, find music at your local library or online from these countries and have play during the event. Students can dress in traditional European garb or as close to it as they can get.

Additional Studies

Once you finish this unit on European explorers in the East, plan on studying other types of world explorers. A lesson on early American explorers is the perfect complement to this.