Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

What Should a House Do?

Created September 29, 2010


The Lesson


Blackfoot Tipi

Blackfoot Tipi

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

At the time the first permanent English settlements in America were being constructed, Native American homes had already been built — and were still being built — throughout North America. How did the houses of natives and newcomers differ in design and material? How do they compare to contemporary housing? What can we learn about the nature of shelter from such comparisons?

In this unit, students will look closely at the design, construction and materials of at least one Native American house and one house built by European settlers. Students will also think about their own homes — and even their dream homes — to begin to understand why houses are designed the way they are, and to appreciate what is essential and what is desirable in any house.

Guiding Questions

What were the similarities and differences between the homes of Native Americans and the newly arrived European settlers? What connections can be made between house design, environment and lifestyle? What are the essential qualities of a house?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

  • Describe two different houses in use at the time the first European settlements were founded
  • List ways in which our lives differ from the lives of the Native Americans and Europeans during that period of history
  • Identify different ways people meet the basic human need for shelter


For Activity 4, Real Native American Houses, explore the materials and techniques used by Native Americans and European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both had to depend largely on local materials and the labor of neighbors. Some Europeans were able to import goods, but importing was slow and expensive. There were no Home Depots. There were no power tools.

Native Americans were faced with the challenge of building their houses from available natural materials, using readily available labor. One of the solutions to the problem of materials and labor was to build a smaller house in which all of the available space would be multi-purpose. Moving was also easier with such dwellings. A wigwam could be placed on mats and dragged to a new location. Tipis are very portable.

In Activity 5, Real European Homes in North America, students will look at some of the steps required in the construction of the homes of early European settlers. How does the process compare to the building of the Native American houses? How many people were needed? What tools were needed? What materials?

According to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, a link from The Plymouth Colony Archive Project at the University of Virginia, "There is no evidence that the Pilgrims adopted Native housing, in spite of the fact that it had been developed to suit the environment, and probably was warmer in the winter."

Though European settlers had difficulty rallying materials and labor, they chose to build more permanent dwellings. Why? If desired, encourage students to develop hypotheses. Were Europeans trying to recreate in the New World what they knew in the Old? As strangers in a new environment, did the settlers feel a greater need to build homes that did more to block out their surroundings? (Consider the difference between camping out in your backyard and camping out in a forest you've never been to.)

Some Native Americans, like the European settlers, invested time, tools and specialists into permanent dwellings. An introduction to such "permanent" structures will provide a more balanced view of Native American housing.

NOTE: The images in Activity 8 were created from 1792 to the early twentieth century.

The essence of Activity 9 is to summarize the common features of the various houses discussed during the unit.

Presumably, those features serve essential purposes. Students also are invited to conduct research about how their own houses are utilized. Adjust the lesson for your class as necessary.

Note: A number of the suggested questions below provide the opportunity for students to consider that big is not necessarily better. Nevertheless, as students discuss their own houses, remain sensitive to disparities in house sizes and levels of affluence.

Preparation Instructions


  • Review each lesson in this unit and select archival materials you'd like to use in class. If possible, bookmark these materials, along with other useful websites; download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • For Activity 2, find some photographs of "show" houses from magazines.
  • For Activity 4, mark off a circular area in the classroom with a diameter of about eight feet, the approximate size of the smallest wigwam. If your class is going to explore tipis, mark off a circle about 10-12 feet in diameter.
  • This lesson concentrates on two types of Native American houses. Obtain background information and extensions on these and many other types of houses from the following EDSITEment resources:
  • Indian Crafts & Skills: Illustrated Guide for Making Authentic Indian Clothing, Shelters, Ornaments by David Montgomery (Horizon Pub Co, 1985; ISBN: 0882902741) can be a helpful resource if you want your students to make models of authentic Native American shelters.
  • As there is a broad range of abilities from kindergarten to second grade, feel free to adjust the lesson as needed to fit the needs of your class. Use read-alouds and pictures to help make the concepts in this lesson more concrete, especially for younger students. In the following books, many rich in photographs and illustrations, you will also find Native American words that can be pulled to put onto word charts or in word banks.
    • Cohlene, Terri. Quillworker: A Cheyenne Legend (Native American Legends). Illustrated by Charles Reasoner. Troll, 1991 (reprint edition). (Reading level: Ages 9-12; ISBN: 0816723583)
    • Cohlene, Terri. Turquoise Boy. Illustrated by Charles Reasoner. Troll, 1991 (reprint edition). (Reading level: Ages 9-12; Paperback: 48 pages; ISBN: 0816723605)
    • Goble, Paul. The Girl Who Loved Horses. Aladdin Paperbacks, 1993 (reissue edition). (Reading level: Ages 4-8; Paperback: 32 pages; ISBN: 0689716966)
    • Hirshfelder, Arlene. Native Americans: A History in Pictures. DK Publishing, 2000. (Hardcover: 192 pages; ISBN: 078945162X)
    • Murdoch, David and Stanley A. Freed. Eyewitness: North American Indian (Eyewitness Books). Photographs by Lynton Gardiner. DK Publishing, 2000. (Reading level: Ages 9-12; 64 pages; ISBN: 0789466090)
    • Martin, Rafe. The Rough-Face Girl (an Algonquin Cinderella story). Illustrated by David Shannon. Paper Star, 1998 (reissue edition). (Reading level: Ages 4-8; Paperback: 32 pages; ISBN: 0698116267
    • Smith, Carter, ed. Exploring the Frontier: A Sourcebook on the American West (American Albums from the Collections of the Library of Congress). Millbrook Press, 1996 (reprint edition). (Reading level: Ages 9-12; Paperback: 96 pages; ISBN: 0761301526)
    • Smith, Carter, ed. Native Americans of the West: A Sourcebook on the American West (American Albums from the Collections of the Library of Congress). Millbrook Press, 1996 (reprint edition). (Reading level: Ages 9-12; Paperback: 96 pages; ISBN: 0761301542)
    • Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. Dancing Teepees: Poems of American Indian Youth. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Holiday House, 1991 (reprint edition). (Reading level: Ages 4-8; ISBN: 0823408795)

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What's In and Around Our Houses?

Shortly before you are going to begin this unit, ask students to bring in photographs of their homes, or any house. Start the lesson by encouraging students to share their pictures. As the students talk about the homes, make a list of common elements (walls, roofs, doors, windows). Once you have compiled a reasonable list, engage the students in discussion. Ask such questions as, "What is a house?" and "Why do we need houses?" as well as "What kind of house do you live in?"

If desired, ask students to draw pictures of their own homes without looking at the photograph they brought. Have students include as many elements from the list as they can. When they are done, have students sit together in a circle with their pictures. Ask questions about items from the list of common elements, such as, "Who drew a front door?" Students who drew a front door can then point to the front door on their drawing.

Activity 2. Dream Houses

Children love to talk about, fantasize about and design their dream homes. Most students dream of huge, extravagant mansions. This lesson will lead them from this dream to thinking about what is essential and what is desirable in a house.

Share with the children some pictures of "show" houses from magazines. If you have enough photos, give one to each child. Get them talking about the homes. Can they find the items from their list? Can they tell what materials were used to build the houses? What do the students like about any particular show house, and in their own houses? What makes these houses so special that they are featured in magazines? Then give the students a chance to design/draw their dream houses and to share their ideas. Save the drawings.

Activity 3. Real Houses of the Recent Past: A Survey

As a homework assignment, have students take home a survey/interview with questions for an adult to answer. Include questions such as the following:

  • Describe or draw the home in which you lived when you were a child.
  • Describe or draw ways in which that home was different from your current home.
  • Describe or draw ways in which that home was similar to your current home.
  • What do you know about your parents' childhood homes?

After the surveys have been completed, encourage volunteers to share answers they received to the survey questions. How have houses changed? What about houses has stayed the same?

Activity 4. Real Native American Houses

Take the students outside to any area that is natural; if that is impractical, use pictures instead. Compile a list of the materials students might be able to utilize if they had to build a house using only items found there.

Show the class the wigwam-sized area you marked off in the classroom (a circle about eight feet in diameter; see Preparing to Teach This Unit). How many students can comfortably sit inside the circle? Would it be big enough to house 2-4 people? The size of the circle is the same as that of a small wigwam, a Native American house built in the area in which the Pilgrims settled.

With some students sitting inside the "wigwam," read to the class a book about Eastern Woodland natives, such as People of the Breaking Day by Marcia Sewall or An Algonquin Year: The Year According to the Full Moon by Michael McCurdy.

Now share with the students Building Our Wigwam on NativeTech, a link from the EDSITEment resource NativeWeb. How is the wigwam being made? What's good about this construction method? (Materials are at hand, the dome-like structure is surprisingly strong, shelter can be erected quickly, no outside specialists are needed, only one special tool is needed, and so on.) What are the disadvantages? (Small in size, and so on.)

If desired, give students the opportunity to construct a small model of a wigwam using authentic materials (flexible sticks, bark). Construct the wigwam on a base of soft clay so you can put the "saplings" in the "ground." If practical, make the saplings about 14 inches long to construct a house 1/12th the scale of the wigwam shown. Bark soaked in water may adhere to the framework; otherwise, use glue.

Let students know that they will soon look inside a wigwam to get an idea of what else this house does for those who live in it.

For further exploration, you can show the class another style of Native American house — the tipi. Though the earliest drawing listed below is from 1837, the basic design and construction of tipis has remained constant to this day. The lifestyle related to tipi-dwelling was made possible by the introduction of the horse to North America by the Spanish. The following images are all available via a link from the EDSITEment resource NativeWeb unless otherwise noted.

How is the tipi framed? How is it covered? What's good about this construction method? (Materials are at hand; the structure is surprisingly strong; shelter can be erected quickly; no outside specialists are needed; can be painted for beauty; can be disassembled, carried with you and easily re-erected; and so on.) What are the disadvantages? (Small in size, and so on.) Why was animal hide used to cover the tipi?

It would be possible to construct a tipi in the classroom or to denote an area the size of a tipi, as with the wigwam. Tipis have heights of about 12-25 feet and diameters of about 10-25 feet.

If desired, give students the opportunity to construct a model of a tipi using similar materials (sticks, cloth or leather). Construct the tipi on a base of soft clay so you can put the sticks in the "ground."

Let students know that they will soon look inside a tipi to get an idea of what else this house does for those who live in it.

Activity 5. Real European Homes in North America

On The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, an EDSITEment-reviewed website, there is a photographic record of a project in which authentic building materials and techniques were used to meticulously construct a house from the Plymouth colony, as might have been done in 1627. (For detailed background on this house and its construction, see the essay Seventeenth-Century Timber Framing.) Select as many or as few of the following images from the record as you deem appropriate to share with students. The images are listed here in order of construction; the starred items are recommended.

Compare the construction of this house to that of a wigwam or tipi. With all materials properly prepared, a tipi can be raised in less than an hour. The basic frame of the European house only took a day to erect, but what part of the work is not shown? How many people appear to be involved? What tools were necessary? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such construction? How does this house compare in size with the wigwam and/or tipi? (It's only slightly bigger than the small wigwam, though there is an additional loft.) Why didn't the settlers build houses like their Native American neighbors?

Which house design — wigwam or European frame house — would students build if they had to make a home quickly? Which would they rather live in? What does each house do for the people who live in it? What don't these houses do that our houses do today?

If desired, students can conduct a home survey, with the help of parents. What materials went into the construction of their homes? When discussing their findings in class, emphasize how much processing the materials in a typical contemporary home require.

If there are any homes under construction near your school, students could see how contemporary homes are framed. The Pilgrims used post-and-beam construction, in which large pieces of lumber were notched into one another; most contemporary houses are framed using studs and joists nailed to one another.

Note: Building a model of a frame house might be accomplished with Popsicle sticks, but only with great difficulty and, most likely, a lot of glue (which was not part of the construction technique of the time). The difficult construction is quite to the point since the European construction was much more complex and labor-intensive than the Native American.

Activity 6. In and Around a Native House


What might you find in a wigwam? What was done inside wigwams? What surprises you about wigwams? What did people do just outside wigwams?


What might you find in a tipi? What was done inside tipis? What surprises you about tipis?

Activity 7. In a European Settler's House

Have students take a closer look at an artist's representation of the interior of the Plymouth house — Henry Glassie's drawing of the proposed Billington house (1973), available on The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, an EDSITEment resource. What does this house have that the Native American houses do not? (Not much ... it's hardly bigger, has no kitchen or bathroom facilities, locates the bed on the floor, has little in the way of windows and so on. Note that the fire is central to all the houses.)

Activity 8. Not All Native Houses are the Same

Show the students the following images without identifying them. Only one is not a Native American house. Can the students tell which it is? On what do they base their hypotheses?

Activity 9. What Should a House Do?

Take another look at students' dream houses. Then consider all of the housing designs discussed in this unit. What did the dream houses do for their occupants that the other houses did not? Which of those things were really important? What did the wigwam and Pilgrim house do for the people who lived there? Did they provide shelter from the elements? A place to work? A place to sleep? Which houses did the students consider most beautiful? What other things did they like or not like about the various houses?

If desired, have students conduct surveys of home usage as a homework project (adjust the complexity of the project depending on the class). For example, ask students to spend time in one or more public room of their house and to keep track of the activity in that room. Which room gets used a lot? For what purposes? Which rooms are hardly used?

In a world of limited resources and limited space, how would students redesign homes to avoid waste? Would some students now change the design of their dream house?

Extending The Lesson

  • Though this unit focused on wigwams and tipis, the long house was also a common design for Native American houses in the Northeast. In fact, the Iroquois called themselves Haudenosaunee, meaning the People of the Longhouse. Share photos of longhouses with students and compare and contrast the structure with other types of houses. Did longhouses have advantages or disadvantages over wigwams and/or tipis? What were they?
  • Have students look at a variety of other Native American houses and, when relevant, the houses of Europeans who settled in the same area. For example, students could compare a Hopi pueblo with the adobe structures of Spanish colonials. Begin your exploration with the following resources:
  • Arrange a field trip to a museum with re-creations of dwellings.
  • Students whose ancestors were not Native Americans or early European settlers can uncover the housing styles of their family ancestors.
  • There are many famous houses in the U.S., including the White House, Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s boyhood home, and others. Students can research these using the following EDSITEment resources and links:
  • Building Big, an EDSITEment-reviewed website has sections on building domes and skyscrapers — architecturally sophisticated extensions of the wigwam and the framed building, respectively. The site includes interactive activities designed for students in intermediate grades that might be suitable or adaptable for younger students.
Other Resources:
Recommended non-fiction reading:
  • Anderson, Madelyn Klein. North American Indian Games. NY: Franklin Watts, 2000.
  • D'Alelio, Jane. I Know That Building! Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1989.
  • Hakim, Joy. The First Americans. Second Edition. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Philip, Neil, ed. A Braid of Lives: Native American Childhood. NY: Clarion Books, 2000.
  • Shelby, Anne. Homeplace. N.Y.: Orchard, 1995.
  • Wilson, Forrest. What It Feels Like to Be a Building. Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1988.

Recommended reading from Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Page:

  • Baker, Olaf. Where the Buffaloes Begin. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Viking Press, 1985 (reprint edition). (Reading level: Ages 4-8; Paperback: 44 pages; ISBN: 0140505601)
  • Sewall, Marcia. People of the Breaking Day. Atheneum, 1990. (Reading level: Grades 2+; ISBN 0-689-31407-8)
  • Sewall, Marcia. Pilgrims of Plimouth. Macmillan, 1986. (Reading level: Grades 2+; ISBN 0-689-31250-4)
  • Sewall, Marcia. Thunder from the Clear Sky. Atheneum, 1995. (Reading level: Grades 2+; ISBN 0-689-31775-1)

Recommended reading from Native Web

  • Bruchac, Joseph. Fox Song. Illustrated by Paul Morin. Paper Star, 1997 (reprint edition). (Reading level: Ages 4-8; Paperback: 32 pages; ISBN: 0698115619)
  • Flanagan, Alice K. The Wampanoags. Children's Press, 1998. (Reading level: Ages 4-8; Paperback: 48 pages; ISBN: 0516263889)
  • McCurdy, Michael. An Algonquian Year: The Year According to the Full Moon. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. (Hardcover: 32 pages; ISBN: 0618007059)

The Basics

Time Required

6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Interview/survey skills
  • Oral Communication
  • Research
  • Using primary sources