Teacher Feature: PreK 4 Class Explores Archaeology

Today we’re featuring Pre-K 4 teacher Jessie Miller of the Honey Bear classroom. The class has been exploring topics related to digging, and I joined them for a lesson at the Freer Sackler Galleries about archaeology.  Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from Jessie. 


The children had recently shown a growing interest in digging and the creatures and objects they were discovering underground. To build on this interest, we decided to start a “can you dig it?”unit where we would explore a variety of topics related to digging, such as underground animals and insects, construction, gems and minerals, paleontology, archaeology, etc.


 The class visited the Freer Sackler Galleries for their lesson on archaeology. There are many wonderful exhibits at the Freer Sackler, but for this lesson, they looked for gallery 21: Feast Your Eyes: A Taste of Luxury in Ancient Iran.

Engaging the children throughout the entire journey from classroom to the museum and back to classroom creates excitement and curiosity. This also scaffolds their learning and gives them multiple exposure to a topic. For example, we will often tell them the name of the exhibit we are looking for before we leave the classroom, then ask them what we are looking for before we enter the museum, and once we find the exhibit inside. This gets the children looking for letters, words, and/or numbers, as well as sparks their interest about our learning topic for that day.


After finding the gallery, the class walked through it, stopping at artifacts that they wanted to look closely at. Jessie went with the groups’ pace and read information about each object that interested the children. They wondered and predicted together what each object was used for and from what materials they were made.

I chose this exhibit because it has a variety of objects to explore rather than just one. I also wanted the exhibit to provide our class with enough space to move around freely. This exhibit in the Sackler Gallery tends to have less foot traffic, and it has an array of objects to observe. The word ‘ancient’ in the title of the exhibit indicates the objects are from a long time ago, which was perfect for us to use in our exploration of archaeology.


Near the end of the exhibit, the class sat down in a circle in front of the photograph Panorama of Persepolis by Ernst Herzfeld. Jessie asked the children to remember what paleontology is and the class recalled that it is the study of fossils or things that were once alive. Jessie asked if they saw any fossils in the exhibit or in the photograph behind them. The children said that they couldn’t see any fossils, but perhaps there were some beneath the surface in the photograph. One child said that they weren’t sure about fossils, but that the pillars in the photograph looked old because she could see holes, scratches, and dents on them.

The children had learned about fossils and paleontology the day before this lesson. We explored the fossil hall in the Natural History Museum and observed a variety of things paleontologists study. The main learning objectives of this lesson were to reflect on what we had learned about paleontology, compare and contrast paleontology and archaeology, and provide the children with some authentic objects archaeologists would work with. These objectives provided the children with exposure to these two fields of science, and their similarities and differences.


Jessie told the group that the pillars or columns were old and in the country of Iran. All the artifacts they had seen in the galleries are from Iran as well. To better understand where Iran is located, the class looked at a world map and sang the song, “7 Continents“, which they often sing when locating a place on the map. Jessie told the group that Iran is on the continent of Asia and pointed out where it is.


Next, the group thought about the difference between paleontology and archaeology. While both fields dig into the Earth to find clues about the past, paleontology is the study of fossils, and archaeology is the study of objects that are human-made. To further explore this, Jessie gave each child an object to examine. Then, everyone had a turn to place their object either in the paleontology group if it would be studied by paleontologists, or the archaeology group, if it would be studied by archaeologists.   

I already had some previous knowledge about these two topics and had created related lessons in the past. However, I wanted to prepare myself a bit more for this lesson through online research and books to make sure my knowledge was up to date. I also relied on the exhibits we visited to provide us with information. For example, as we ventured through the exhibit before sitting down for our lesson, I made observations about the objects we were seeing along with the children, and then read the titles and descriptions from the labels so we could have organic conversations about the pieces in the exhibit.


 When the game ended there were two distinct piles for each field of study. The children understood that paleontologists study fossils, or things that used to be alive, while archaeologists study objects or buildings that were human-made.


Jessie reiterated that we know how people lived long ago because of the artifacts that archaeologists dig up and examine. She shared some pages from the book A Street Through Time by Anne Millard, which shows the same street and how it might have looked from the Stone Age to modern day. 


To end their lesson Jessie gave the children a challenge: pick an artifact in the exhibit that made them curious, observe it closely, and sketch what they saw.

Going into the lesson I wanted to make sure the children had time and space to complete structured as well as unstructured activities. Sometimes providing the children with too much freedom in a space can cause silliness but by preparing them for the sketching activity and giving them specific guidelines to follow they completed the activity with no issues.

 Back in the classroom, we asked each child to describe the object from the exhibit they had chosen to sketch. We wrote these descriptions on their paper with the date and a title, and then hung them up in the classroom. Once they were up in the classroom, we could refer to them later and encourage the children to share them with their families and friends. This provided multiple exposures to the topics we were learning about and enhanced their curiosity to learn more.


If another teacher wanted to try this lesson, I would recommend finding spaces for the lessons and activities that give the children enough space to move around and explore. I would also recommend being prepared with a few things, such as a book and activity or two, but also leave plenty of time for organic conversation to happen. By building in time to just wander around and chat about what you are seeing, the children get more unstructured time to simply enjoy the space and objects and share their thoughts with their classmates and teachers.

After this lesson, the children were provided with a variety of tools, such as paintbrushes, gloves, magnifying glasses, pencils, and sketch paper, that would help them to explore little “dig sites”with sand, and mini objects that an archaeologist would study. We also picked out books from the library related to digging and incorporated story times into multiple parts of our day. This lesson was one of our final explorations in our “can you dig it?”unit, so we spent the following days reflecting on and making comparisons between the digging topics we had explored over the previous weeks.

After exploring digging, it was time for our preschoolers to graduate! For more digging ideas, visit our Dinosaurs, Can You Dig it?, and Ancient RomePinterest boards.