Beyond Stereotypes: Teaching about Native Peoples in Practice

As we discussed in our previous blog, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center have teamed up to provide teachers with a framework for exploring culturally diverse topics in their classrooms. We believe that early childhood educators are in a unique position to craft experiences for young children that will help them appreciate the diverse world around them. We also feel that it is important for children to see themselves reflected in their classroom in order to develop a positive sense of self.

Though we published the first blog just before the Thanksgiving holiday, we specifically wanted to post the follow-up afterwards as a reminder that teachers can explore American Indian culture throughout the school year.

Before we look at the lesson, it is important to note that I had only a week to implement it and I struggled with how to use the limited time frame best with the students. Ultimately, I decided that it was important to begin the lesson with what was familiar to the students and build on that.  Had I had the opportunity to continue the lesson, I would have most certainly spent more time exploring Wampanoag culture and ensuring that the children were introduced to the Wampanoags in a contemporary context.

Lesson Objectives

  • observe natural materials and weather in our own environment and how these elements vary in other environments
  • demonstrate that not all homes look the same, but all homes do have the job of protecting us.
  • introducing three different types of American Indian homes and explore the natural materials out of which they are made.
  • investigate the materials used to construct wetus and how those materials serve as protection against their environment

Day 1

We began our morning with a visit to the National Mall where we used our senses to explore what was part of our environment. I wrote down the children’s responses and then we headed to the National Gallery of Art where we sat in front of Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Corcoran. Together, we recreated the landscape with representative objects and worked as a group to create a “soundscape.” To create the soundscape, we identified a sound for each element of the landscape. Once complete, we assigned a sound to small groups and then produced our soundscape all-together.

Day 2

When we were on the Mall, I observed the children were noticing elements of their environment that were man-made, so I thought it was important to use day two’s lesson to distinguish between the natural environment and human-made environment. This discussion transitioned nicely into a conversation about weather, which was another natural component of our environment. We identified different types of weather by making a list and then creating our own weather movements. We watched a weather report and read Sky Tree by Thomas Locker. While we read the book, we paused to use our weather movements when they were mentioned.

Day 3

Before heading out for the morning, we reviewed the different types of weather and discussed the weather that day. We walked to the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden to visit Roy Lichtenstein’s House I. We spent a few minutes walking around the house and then I asked the students to share what they noticed. Following their observations, I asked them if they thought that the house was a good one. There was a consensus that it would not be a good house to live in because it wasn’t real – it was open on the backside. I agreed that I didn’t think the house was doing what a house or home needed to do. I asked them what homes were for, to which I heard responses like: “to play in, eat in, sleep in.” I agreed and pulled out a blanket – I said the blanket was a lot like a home – it could keep me warm when it was cold, it would keep me dry if it rained. I concluded that both the blanket and the home could protect me from things in my environment.

I asked the group whether they thought that everyone lived in the same type of home. We had a short discussion about what our homes were like, the other educators with us shared that they lived in an apartment. We then began to make a home collage. Students shared photos of their homes and we placed them on large sized paper. I also brought photos of homes from around the world and as we placed them on our collage. When we finished, we discussed the similarities and differences.

Day 4

I began this class by asking the students about the Thanksgiving holiday that was coming up. Each child excitedly shared what they were planning to do for the holiday. I shared was formed around the idea that two groups of people came together to have a meal.   One group had come to America from a place called Europe and another had lived on the land we call America for a very long time. I explained that these people who had been living here for a long time were often referred to as American Indians and that in fact, there are many groups of American Indians. I shared a map and said that each group has their own language, clothing, traditions, and of, course, homes. I also pulled out our sensory bins that were representative of a Eastern coastal environment, a desert environment, and an Arctic environment.  We looked at the bins and discussed their physical features and imagined what the weather would feel like.  We wondered together whether the homes in these environments would be the same or different.

We then walked to the ImagiNATIONS Activity Center at NMAI and invited them to play in the Native homes area.  When we sat down, I asked them what they noticed about the different homes. After sharing their own observations, we talked about how each of these homes came from a different type of environment – a lot like our sensory bins. I brought objects that demonstrated the connection between these homes and their environment. For the iglu, I had a simple bottle of water; for the tipi, I had a photo of a buffalo, and for the adobe house, I had some mud and straw. I shared my objects with each student in the circle and left them with the reminder that Native peoples live in many places throughout the country and their homes tell us a lot about their environment.

Day 5

On our last day together,  I reminded them about that Thanksgiving meal. I said that many people assume that the American Indians who ate with the Europeans during that meal lived in tipis. We paused to recall the tipi we had seen the day before and then I shared with them that the Native peoples who were at the meal so long ago actually lived in wetus and they are called Wampanoags.  Using 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace, we explored some of the photos of what life for the Wampanoags looked a long time ago. I was careful to note that the photographs were of people pretending to be from a long time. They were helping teach people today about what life was like in the past.

We proceeded to watch parts of this video. We looked at the materials of the winter and summer wetu. We decided that all of the materials were from nature and we took a closer look at cattail reed mat provided by NMAI that would have covered the roof of the summer wetu. We talked about how the rain water would slide off the reeds and keep the house dry. We also blew through the mat so we could feel the way the breeze could come through and help keep the space cool.

We ended our morning by taking a nature walk and collecting materials. We broke out into smaller groups and built houses out of our materials.

In addition to the lessons, the teachers planned the following learning centers for the children to interact with during free-time.

  • Dramatic Play – Kitchen, office, or playing house
  • Fine motor – blocks or other loose parts for building (include photos of different types of houses from all over the world)
  • Environment – This sensory station recreates three different types of environment
    • North Eastern – Wampanoag – inland/coastal environment with forest, ponds, grass, sand, and water
    • Choose two others.
  • Dramatic Play – weatherman
  • Puzzles and Maps – United States

By no means is the lesson an all-encompassing study of Native Peoples or the Wampanoags, but it is a realistic snapshot of how with a little planning we, as educators, can begin to develop lessons that share more accurate information that help our students see that the world from multiple perspectives. Let us know what you are doing in your classroom to help combat stereotypes and create an inclusive environment.