Step into a world of ancient wonders and mysteries as we embark on a captivating journey to uncover the secrets of the Ancient Maya Civilization in this homeschool unit study. We will delve into the rich history, vibrant culture and awe-inspiring achievements of this fascinating civilization.
We started this unit study immediately following our summer solstice unit as the research into the celebrations at Chichen Itza my kids did inspired us to dive into the rabbit hole and learn more.
The ancient Maya are shrouded in mystery, yet they stand as one of the most captivating cultures in the world. Flourishing in Mesoamerica for hundreds of years they left us with many mysteries, how did they know such advanced astronomical facts, build with minimal tools and create a writing system unique to their culture?
Let’s travel back in time to between 2000 BCE and 1500 CE. The Mayas ruled a kingdom that now comprises modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. A highly organised society they developed city-states, majestic pyramids and monuments dotted throughout the area.
They were masters of mathematics and astronomy with a precise calendar and amazing records of observations of the night sky. The writing wasn’t ignored and like the Ancient Egyptians, they developed hieroglyphs that we are slowly deciphering and offer us a glimpse into their history, beliefs and daily life. They embraced the natural world and worshipped deities that wove myth, nature and the things that they saw in the sky together. Their methods of worship are fascinating to learn about, but I will say this don’t believe everything you may have heard the Mayas were a lot less bloodthirsty than some of their neighbours!
They were amazing traders, trading by land and sea, this allowed them to exchange goods, ideas and practices with other civilizations in the area. They were amazing farmers, growing crops like maize, beans and squash as well as chocolate and chewing gum! And also artists producing sculptures, ceramics, murals and other artefacts like jewellery.
Despite how amazing they were, they faced challenges and difficulties leading a decline in the civilization and abandonment of many of their cities. No one is quite sure exactly why and the debate continues with theories ranging from environmental factors to political instability.
The Mayas still exist in small numbers throughout the region, but the remnants of the civilization stand as a testament to their amazing achievements.
Maya Unit Study for Homeschoolers
This is one area that our family has loved learning about, we were fortunate enough to combine it with a family road trip to Mexico and immerse ourselves in world schooling there was just the perfect accompaniment to this unit. When we returned from the trip we delved in further exploring in depth more of what we had learnt on our travels around the Maya Kingdom.
If you wish to plan a road trip to explore the Ancient Maya then you can read all about our Maya Discovery Road Trip for Homeschoolers and see where we visited.
So I wanted to share with you our unit study with resources, activity ideas, book recommendations and more that will let you discover the amazing history and culture of this ancient civilization.
Introduction to the Maya Civilization
Start with an introduction to the Maya Civilization, we’ve got some information above but this short introduction video from Bedtime History is a great starting point and we followed by the recommended videos to learn more.
Spend time discussing where Mayas were found, the time period they were found in and just touch on some of their achievement, we will delve into those much more later.
Using the printable map add the area of the Maya Civilization to it. You may want to use the world map in our FREE Printable Continents and Oceans of the World colouring pages or print off a map of Mesoamerica.
Timelines are fascinating to study – where does the Maya fit with what we know of European and Early Civilizations? They were around from 2000 BCE and 1500 CE so span 3500 years. Putting this into context, in 2000 BCE the Egyptians had built the pyramids at Giza but the Valley of the Kings wasn’t started yet. BY 1500 CE, it was the Renaissance period in Europe and the globe was being “discovered” by the Europeans. Rome, Greece, Egypt and more had fallen but the Ancient Maya stood strong for the time.
Over that time the Mayas moved from simple farmers – in fact, we visited a cave formation in Mexico where some of the earliest Mayas lived. Yes, they actually lived inside the caves it was fascinating to learn about these very early settlers and how they lived. Take time to read about the different periods in Maya history a good timeline introduction is here.
One of my favourite things to do was create a timeline journal with the kids where we could add all the events that happened at that time in history. Where periods crossed over we would use different colours of writing to show what was going on. Why not start a timeline journal today and place your Maya research into it first?
Like the Romans, the Mayas had a different system for recording numbers. Instead of written numbers, they used dots and lines to record the numbers. We base our number system on a base of 10, but the Mayas used a base of 20. This would mean that Maya children would have learnt to count using both their hands and feet. Discover much more about the Maya number system here.
Take a Maya Maths Challenge
Ready to test your knowledge of the Maya Maths system then why not head over to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and try their Maya Math Game?
The Mayas were master mathematicians and one of their most amazing “inventions” was the Maya Calendar. Composed of interlocking cycles and sophisticated timekeeping systems, the calendar allowed the Maya to accurately track celestial events, agricultural cycles, and significant cultural and religious occasions.
Maya Writing and Language
Mayas used Hieroglyphics to write and spoke Mayan, although there were many different variations of the language. The hieroglyphs unlike the Egyptians weren’t all pictorial representations of words instead some were sounds that formed the words and others the complete words. There’s much yet to discover and understand about the Maya writing system, as the Ancient Maya spanned such a long time their language and writing changed, but as different people produced the writing this also changed as there was a lot of variation in the same symbols.
Write your name
Using the link to the Maya Writing System above scroll down to the Children’s Activities and use the resources there to write your name in Glyphs. Read about the direction and how the words are formed first.
Looking at the Maya Writing System it is an ideal time for older kids and those with an interest to conduct their own research and present in a poster, presentation or report the differences between the hieroglyphs of the Maya and those of the Ancient Egyptians.
The Ancient Maya were great astronomers. They built observatories (you can see the one at Chichen Itza in the picture below), monitored the skies over the millennia that their civilization flourished and predicted many astronomical events. This is a great time to delve into astronomy and look at the stars.
Study the Stars
Take some time out at night and learn about the constellations that you can see in your area – would they be the same or different than the ones that the Ancient Maya would have seen? Plot them, and maybe look at the myths that we have as well as the ancient Maya about those constellations.
The society of the Maya was highly structured with rulers, priests, farmers and artisans each tier had different roles and levels of education. They lived in large Maya cities. As a family, we were astonished by the size of the complexes that we visited. Having explored Egypt and Greece as well the biggest difference to me was that these complexes weren’t just temples or monuments to rulers’ lives but instead, whole communities lived and functioned in these large cities.
Chichen Itza is vast, there are so many different areas including the Pok-ta-Pok court for games and an observatory for studying the skies! Why not take a virtual tour with “Google Earth” of the complex and see what it is like today? And then explore the British Museum all about the main buildings and their function.
Build a Pyramid
Why not make your own version of El Castillo the main pyramid at Chichen Itza? We made a sugar cube pyramid so easy to do and great for a little mathematics added in as well.
Although the cities are amazing today, it would have been incredible to walk through them and see them in their full glory and how the people lived. To really know about society and civilization it’s important to know about their daily lives, what they ate, wore, and where they lived.
Make a Mayan House
Maya houses were simple, but from seeing them and exploring inside they were so cool, something that was needed in the heat of the jungle in Mesoamerica. Follow these instructions to create your own replica of the houses that they lived in.
Their food was something that fascinated my kids when we visited and it’s something that you can explore in your homeschool too. Why not try some of the recipes below:
- Maya Hot Chocolate to Make with Kids
- Read about how the Ancient Maya would have made corn tortillas and then use a modern recipe to make your own as well.
Maya Religion and Myths
The Maya were religious, there were a few gods and goddesses, and each of these was linked with something that happens or that you could see. A way of explaining the world to others. Each region and city may have had a different name for the same god or goddess making it hard when explorers first started to learn more about the ancient Maya. This resource is great for giving an overview of some of the most important of them.
Read Some Maya Myths
Read all about the different Maya folktales and myths and then create a comic book of your favourite from the stories. Check out our Maya Books for Kids for some of the individual tales our favourite book of all.
The Maya were prolific artists, from decorated buildings to jewellery, pottery and clothing. Take time to look at different types of art that the Maya created, and don’t forget that music and dancing is a form of art and the Maya had many musical instruments as well as using these art forms in their religious ceremonies.
Take a moment to listen to some Ancient Maya music.
Make a Stela
A Stela is a statue that is a portrait of a person that was created on a large slab and then stood up. There are many examples some great ones for inspiration can be found here. Using this inspiration why not then create your own Stela with clay?
Other ideas for arts and crafts you could do:
- Make a Maya Death Mask
- Create a feathered headdress fit for a ruler or priest
- Make a Maya musical instrument – here’s a great one to make
You may want to check out our Rainforest Activities for kids for some ideas about the region and the creatures and ecosystem that the Maya would have encountered.