The China Unit

Here is a list of activities and resources we are incorporating into our study of China as part our daily rhythm of subjects and activities.  The list is broken down by the following categories: History, Geography, Science & Nature, Arts & Literature, Sports and Leisure, and Religion.

To see a list of the learning objectives I think we will meet by the end of the year, some of which are addressed in this unit, click here. And to see a typical week’s schedule, into which I try to fit all of this unit study material, click here.


  1. Little Leap Forward – This is a great little novel by Barefoot Books.  It’s set in China toward the end of the Cultural Revolution.  We read a chapter a week and use it as a jumping off point for other explorations of China.  We made the potatoes it describes.  We find pictures from our trip to China that go with the book.  We mark events that it describes on our timeline.  We compare the description of Little Leaps house with the Chinese house model at the Museum of Fine arts.  We compare the brush paintings in the book with those that we observed and painted ourselves at the Museum.  No real curriculum, just lots of going back and forth between the book and the “stuff” from our other work.
  2. Ancient China Kit – This kit, which we rented from from the Children’s Museum in Boston, explores the life and times of ancient China from the beginnings of settled human activity to the time of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang-di around 221 BCE. The kit includes amazing artifacts like a brass mirror and coins, an oracle bone, a bamboo slip book, silk scarf, lacquered bowl, and much, much more.  The kit gave me the great idea of how make the timeline, has beautiful maps, and ideas for building early civilization homes and learning basic Chinese characters.  The teacher’s guide is first rate.  Well worth the $40 to rent it for a few weeks.
  3. Imperial China – We have books, and terra cotta soldiers we bought in Xian, a lego kit of an imperial gate, maps of the Great Wall, and lots of artifacts and activities from the Ancient China Kit (see above).  We are also going to spend a couple of Thursdays at the Peabody Essex Museum, where we will visit the Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old, 16-bedroom Chinese merchant’s home from the last 200 years of imperial rule, transported from China and reassembled at the museum. The house allows you to experience Chinese culture, architecture and art through the lives of eight generations of a single family.
  4. Books – Lots and lots of books from the library on all aspects of Chinese History.  The DK books can’t be beat.
  5. Weapons! – We read about ancient weapons, outlined military strategy from the Warring States period, and are going to learn about metallurgy and how China made all of those cool bronze weapons.  Zach is going to have his birthday party at the Museum of Fine Arts, where they will walk around to see a bunch of the weapons on display, and then go to the studio to make weapons.
  6. Giant Post-It Timeline – I got this great idea from the Children’s Museum kit.  I wrote years on post-it notes, in 100 year blocks (so one said 200 BC and another 1200 AD).  I had all of the notes to cover 8000BC to 2100AD.  The boys lined them up on the floor and then we taped them together and put the whole thing on the dining room wall.  Then we put in dates we knew, like Ezra’s birthday and the first emperor.  Next, we put in the first king of Israel, King Saul.  And we’ve been adding to it as we go.  When we’re done, it will have pictures from our trip, maps, notes, worksheets and lot of writing on it.


  1. A Wall Map of China – We bought one when we were in Beijing this summer and mounted it on foam board.  It’s all in Chinese so we can’t really read it.  But we do our best guessing from other maps and place garage sale stickers on places we have been or have studied.
  2. Map Study – In addition to the map of China, we are learning about maps in general.  So we are going to work out of book called Mega Fun Map Skills, make our own world maps with molds and spend a few hours at the Museum of Science exhibit Mapping the World Around Us.

Arts & Literature

  1. Art, Architecture, Brush Painting, and Shadow Puppets – The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offers these great classes for kids, Artful Adventures.  We went for three weeks, exploring the art, weapons, and buildings, and artifacts of ancient China.  The first week, after viewing some art, we went downstairs into a studio and learned how to mix ink and made some simple brush paintings.  The next week, after our viewing time, we made shadow puppets for a the story we are reading, The Five Chinese Brothers.The Story about Ping
  2. The Five Chinese Brothers – This classic Chinese tale is loads of fun.  We read it.  Jake used it at the MFA as an example of how Chinese values and beliefs show up in its literature.  We made shadow puppets and will perform a play we write based on the book.  I thought it was gory and frightening.  The boys loved it, and I’ve never heard Ezra laugh so hard from hearing a story.
  3. Fine and Folk Arts of China Kit – This kit, from the Children’s Museum in Boston, covers five areas: the development of Chinese writing and books, calligraphy, painting, personal seals, and paper-cuts.
  4. Lots and lots of books – Chinese folklore and stories about people living in important eras of Chinese history.  I get them from the library, Amazon, and the kits we rented from the Children’s Museum.

Science and Nature

  1. Pandas – In addition to checking out lots of library books about pandas, we spent nearly three hours at the National Zoo in DC at the panda exhibit.  We’ve are completing an activity book from the zoo’s website.  This semester, we’re talking a lot about habitats, life cycles, and endangered species, all of which work well with pandas.   We also get to connect what we are learning about the habitat in our back yard with what we are learning about panda habitats.
  2. Endango – This is the kids’ favorite game right now.  You work to move endangered species, including the panda, to safety before they become extinct.  I modified it so that they don’t compete, but instead work together to save the animals.  You can now overhear them saying things like: These hand-me-downs are great cuz you don’t have to make new clothes and destroy the environment! and Mom, we HAVE TO eat the leftovers to save the endangered animals.
  3. Bees – Beekeeping is very popular in China and is promoted now as a way for local people to make money without cutting down the bamboo of the pandas’ habitat.  Jeff is taking the boys to the bee exhibit at the Museum of Science. They are reading the Magic School Bus Bees book and watching the video.  They are reading Beekeeping for Dummies and, drumroll please, they are going to build a beehive in the backyard in the spring.
  4. Silkworms – We are going to do something with silkworms, life cycles, and The Silk Road.  Not sure what yet.
  5. Bronze – Using the Ancient China kit, we are exploring the ores used in bronze production and some of the basics of alloy production.
  6. Tangrams – Lots of fun ideas on playing with tangrams in the Chinese Games kit.
  7. Wild China – This six-part series from the BBC reveals the little-known natural treasures and secret wildlife havens of China’s wildest regions.  We are streaming it from Netflix.  Only seen one so far, but it got 10 thumbs up from the peanut gallery.

Sports & Leisure

  1. Cooking – We made a recipe from a novel we read.  And we are going to schedule a couple of cooking classes with Kathy and Helen, who make great Chinese food.
  2. Chinese Games Kit – This kit, from the Children’s Museum, introduces five popular games that were invented in China. We are really enjoying two, the simple game of “To Catch the Thief,”  and”Go.”
  3. Badminton – The boys bought rackets in Beijing last summer, and are getting lessons from our friend Rui once a month.

Religious & Philosophical Beliefs (which, depending on your worldview, could be entertaining)

  1. Chinese Religions and Philosophy – We are using lots of materials from the Ancient China kit from the Children’s Museum. We also talked with Jake about how philosophical and religious ideas show up in the artifacts and art of a culture.  We have a few books, and we are going to use several sayings from Confucius for handwriting and memory practice.
  2. Chinese Celebrations Kit – This kit, from the Children’s Museum in Boston, is organized around three major traditional Chinese celebrations: Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival, and Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.   Students learn about the science and mythology of the Chinese lunar calendar, the animal zodiac signs.
  3. Hudson Taylor – For better or worse, he was probably the most famous Christian missionary in the 19th century and he went to China.  You can’t talk to the rising tide of Chinese Christian without talking about Hudson Taylor.  We are reading about him and have learned his favorite hymn, Jesus, I am resting. (This hymn is not, shall we say, catchy and fun.)

No doubt, you’ll have noticed that many of the activities could fall into several categories. Life is so much messier than board games, yes?

The above list doesn’t capture the connections and randomness of it all.  Everything is interconnected, which is great, but hard to write about.  There is a lot of, “Hey, that’s just like…”  And then someone runs to find a photo album, or science journal, or book and we try to put it all together in our heads.

Every once-in-a-while I get nervous that all of the randomness of this unit means that Zach’s frequent assessment that “We aren’t learning anything!”  is accurate.  And then I take out my list of learning objectives for the year and realize that just by immersing ourselves in one topic for so long, we are learning tons.

Note as of 9/12: The Children’s Museum in Boston no longer allows  you to borrow the kits mentioned in this post.  But they are still available to use at the museum.