Ancient African Kingdoms Unit

Here is a list of activities and resources we are using for a unit on Ancient African Kingdoms that I am co-teaching for a group of homeschoolers, ages eight through ten.  The class is a sixteen-week unit that explores the history and culture of eleven kingdoms.

We are using the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa and the PBS series Wonders of the African World as the primary guides for exploration of Ancient Africa, but we are reading broadly as well.  The class is a field trip heavy, and during the field trips we will learn about and experience the dance, food, and art of various African cultures, both old and new.  And a few of us will cap off the semester with a trip to Ghana.  This may be our best unit yet!

Throughout the course, we will focus on cultivating the following habits of mind:

  1. Exploring African history from an Afro-centric rather than Euro-centric perspective, and thinking about how perspective effects interpretation.
  2. Understanding and valuing the role of oral history.
  3. Privileging artifacts and primary resources over interpretation.
  4. Exploring art as a unique expression of the culture (by looking at epic poetry, dance, sculpture, and architecture).

Week 1: Introduction

Before class, students were instructed to complete or begin:

  • Read three folktales from Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales: “The Great Thirst;” “Mmadipetsane;” and “The Mother Who Turned to Dust.”
  • Watch four episodes of Tinga Tinga Tales, from the BBC: “Why Baboon Has a Bare Bottom;” “Why Lion Roars;” and “Why Giraffe Has A Long Neck.” They can be seen on YouTube.
  • Read Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid (due on Week 3).

Activity 1: Map (20 minutes)

Before class, blow up and laminate a large map of Africa, a map that shows the physical features of Africa without country borders.  Have it displayed where students can see it.

As students walked in, they should find a spot around the table and began to work on a map of Africa. African Physical Map from World Reference Maps and Forms, page 64.  Give them a direction list like the one on page 36.  As students are working, they can look at the laminated map and compare maps with one another.  Wander around to make sure they are doing it accurately.  

After they finish, ask them what they notice about the maps.  The key thing you want them to come away with is that the Earth did not come with country lines drawn in.  That humans did that for lots of reasons, which is what we’re going to be studying this semester.

Activity 2: Get-To-Know-You Memory Game (20 minutes)

Do you remember the Memory Card Game, where you flip cards that are face down in an attempt to find matching pairs?  In this game, the students will create cards that describe themselves to the group.  To begin, give each student eight index cards, cut in half.  They should write their name on all eight cards, and then write the following on each of four pairs: favorite food, favorite book, future job, and a fear (like spiders or lightening).  Collect all the cards, shuffle them, and place them face down on the table.  Take turns trying to find matches until all the cards have been turned over.

Activity 3: KWL Chart (15 minutes)

On a sheet of newsprint, draw a KWL chart.  (It’s three columns, with the words Know, Want to Know, and Learned on top of the columns.)  Tell students that you are going to fill in the first two columns today, and that you’ll fill in the last column during the last class.  Begin by asking students what they know about ancient Africa.  Don’t worry if they say things that aren’t true.  When you review the chart at the end of the semester, you can come back to the list to see if they should cross things off.  If several students disagree about something on the list, you can add the dispute to the Want to Know list.

Activity 4: Timeline (15 minutes)

Before class, make a 4.56 meter timeline that you can post along a wall of the room.  Begin on the right of your timeline and mark “Today.” Mark each centimeter to the left of today, where each centimeter is 10 million years.  The far right mark of your timeline will be 4.56 billion years ago, when scientists believe the Earth was formed.  

Show the students the timeline and make sure that they understand the scale.  Next, To lay out on the table sheets of paper with the following terms on them:  Earth formed (4.56 billion years ago), First evidence of life on Earth (3.8 billion years ago), First dinosaurs roam the Earth (250 million years ago), Last of the dinosaurs die out (65 million years ago), Primates originate in Africa (40 million years ago), First hominids, like Neanderthal man, originate (7.5 million years ago), Early homo sapiens (like Cro-Magnons, orginate (250,000 years ago), Modern homo sapiens develop, marked by things like their use of language (50,000 years ago), Farming begins in places like China and along the Nile (10,000 years ago), Pyramids built (2,600 bc), American Revolution begins (1776), We land on the moon (1969), Nina was born (2009).  Go through each one, asking students to place it correctly on the timeline. 

“What’s the problem?”  Human history is so recent that all of it fits into the tiniest little slice on the 4.5 meter-long timeline.  Remind students that when we talk about ancient Africa, or any ancient civilization, it really wasn’t that long ago.  Tell them that next week, we’ll have a timeline of the last 5,000 years, to which we will add events as we go through the course.  Click here to see the master timeline that we are using for the semester.

Activity 5: Folktales (15 minutes)

Ask students to reflect for a few minutes on all of the folktales they watched or read for homework.  What did they have in common?  What were some differences?  Why do the students thing the folktales were written?  (Help them come up with three common purposes for folktales:  1) morality tales to encourage good behavior, 2) creation myths, 3) stories to explain natural phenomena.  

Homework Due Next Week:

  • Choose an animal for which you will write a folktale similar to one of the Tinga Tinga episodes. What trait of the animal will you explain with your folktale?

Homework Due In Two Weeks:

  • Watch Episode 1, Series 1 of the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Nubia. 
  • Watch Episode 1 of the PBS series Wonders of the African World: Black Kingdoms of the Nile.
  • Read from Kids Discover: African Kingdoms magazine: pages 2-5.
  • Finish Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid
  • Read African Voice: Northern EditionMake a list of 3 questions that you don’t think most grown ups could answer whose answers can be found in this week’s homework.
  • Complete the vocabulary packet (which you can buy from Kids Discover here).

Week 2: Museum of Fine Arts Field Trip

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offers these great classes for kids, Artful Adventures.  The three-week unit will look at both ancient and modern art from around Africa.  Each week, we will spend a forty minutes in the galleries, learning about art from different ancient cultures in Africa.  Then we’ll spend an hour in the studio working on painting a Tinga Tinga-style cover for a folktale each student will write.

Homework: Finish the homework assigned last week.

Week 3: Nubia  

Activity 1: Kushite Deities and Reading/Writing (10 minutes)

The following two activities will be layed out on the table for students to work on when they come in:

Some of these were the asme as ancient Egyptian deities while others belonged only to Kush.  Many of them had the head of an animal on the body of a man or woman.  Students will read descriptions of Kushite gods and goddesses and match them to pictures.  We got this activity from pages 6 & 7 of Step Back in Time to Ancient Kush.

Kush differed from many ancient cultures in that many people from all strata of life could read and write.  Students will read a paragraph about the their writing system, which today is called Meroitic, and will try to find three mistakes in a picture of Kushite children learning to read and write.  We got this activity from pages 16 & 17 of Step Back in Time to Ancient Kush.

Activity 2: Artifact Exploration (30 minutes)

In groups of two or three, students will look at pictures we printed from the artifact gallery from the online Nubia collection of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.  Each group will have two or three pictures to look at and try to develop ideas about what they were used for and what the culture was like that used them.  To guide their exploration, they will fill in a worksheet, which you can see here soon.

Activity 3: Dice Game For Red Pyramid (30 minutes)

We prepared six categories of questions, and laid them out on the table under colored index cards, labeled: 1) True/False, 2) Fill In The Blank, 3) Book Review, 4) Literary Elements, 5) Book-to-Book, and 6) Book-to-Life.  Book Review questions ask them to analyze the writing, make predictions, and focus on what makes a book work or not work.  Book-to-Book questions ask them to make connections between the book and other books they’ve read.  And Book-to-Life questions ask them to make connections between the book and their life.  Click here soon for a list of questions. To play, a student rolls the dice to see which type of question to answer.  They can decide whether to answer the question themselves or ask everyone else to answer.  Again, making it a game somehow makes it fun to have a relatively advanced discussion of literature.


  • Watch Episode 3, Series 2 of the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa: The Berber Kingdom of Morocco. 
  • Read “The Clever Snake Charmer” in Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.
  • Complete map worksheet.
  • Complete the folktale outline.  

Week 4: Berber Kingdom of Morocco

Activity 1: Animals on the Map (25 minutes)

We will describe three types of environments in Africa:  Grasslands – dry, inland savannas with short grasses and thorn trees, home to many of the largest and fastest animals; Tropical forests – which are hot, wet, swamps, rivers, and small mountain ranges; Deserts – dry and barren with scrub and grass suitable only for pasture part of the time, where animals can live without water for several days.

Students will take pictures of various animals and try to tape them on a large laminated physical map of Africa.  After we get them all in the right places, we’ll talk about how the animals are adapted to those environments.  You can find a list of animals used on page 9 of Hands On Heritage Africa Activity Book.

Activity 2: Vocabulary Maps (25 minutes)

Using the vocabulary words from the homework, we will make extensive word webs.  We’ll put one word, like conquer, in the middle of a large sheet of newsprint and then see how many more of the words from the vocabulary list we can connect to it.  So we might draw a line from conquer to wealth, noting that groups often conquer other groups to gain wealth.  Then we could draw a line from wealth  to archeologist, noting that an archeologist might find Roman money in Ancient Egypt and conclude that Rome had conquered Egypt.  We’ll also draw green lines out from each word and add words that have the same root.  So we might add conquistadors and conquest.  We’ll draw purple lines from each word to words that are synonyms, like dominate  or defeat, and red lines to antonyms like lose to or liberate.

Finally, students will write two sentences that each use three or more words from the board.

Activity 3: Headbanz  (30 minutes)

We own the game Hedbanz, and have enough bands for each child.  Before class, we’ll prepare cards with the names of kingdoms, fictional characters, and historical figures that we have studied this far.  All students put on a head band and place a card in it without looking.  The first child begins by asking YES/NO questions in attempt to guess their character before the timer runs out.  If they do so, they get a token for the students. If there is still time, they can take another card and ask questions until the time runs out.  If time runs out before the player guesses their character, the teacher gets a token and the card remains in the band until Round 2.  After every player has a turn, round 1 is over.  Play for two rounds and count up the points to see of the teacher or the students with the game.

Activity 4: Eating Out

We’ll head to Baraka Café for a lunch of Tunisian food.


  • Episode 2, Series 1 of the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Ethiopia. 
  • Watch Episode 4 of the PBS series Wonders of the African World: The Holy Land. Read African Voice: Eastern Edition. 
  • Write intro paragraph to folktale.
  • Complete independent project planning project.
  • Start reading Trouble in Timbuktu, by Cristina Kessler (due Week 8).

Week 5: Ethiopia

Activity 1: Make a Mancala board (45 minutes)

Among the earliest evidence of the game Mancala are fragments of a pottery board and several rock cuts found in what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia and which are dated by archaeologists to between the 6th and 7th century AD, but many believe that it is much older than that.

Using egg cartons, paint and beans, the students will make a simple mankala board, learn the rules, and play the game.  Directions can be found on page 72 of Africa for Kids: Exploring a Vibrant Continent.

Activity 2: Timeline (15 minutes)

We will add important dates from Egyptian, Kush, Berber, and Ethiopian kingdoms to the classroom timeline.

Activity 3: Matching Game  (20 minutes)

Before class, we will fill two trashcans with 20 inflated balloons in each.  10 of the balloons will have descriptions written on slips of paper and taped to the balloons.  Ten of the balloons will have the names of the cultures, people, or events described on the first ten balloons.  Students will form two teams.  When I say go, the first person from each team will run to the trash can, pull out a balloon and bring it back to their team.  When they tag the next person, that person will go to the can and pull out a balloon.  This continues until they find have all twenty balloons.  While the team is getting balloons, members who are not running can pull off the slips of paper, and begin matching them to other slips.  They will tape the matching slips of paper next to one another on a poster board.  The first team to correctly complete their timeline wins.

Activity 4: Eating Out

We’ll head to Asmara for Ethiopian/Eritrean food.


  • Watch Episode 1 of the PBS series Wonders of the African World: The Swahili Coast.
  • Read the folktales “The Enchanting Song of the Magical Bird” and “The Lion, The Hare, and the Hyena” in Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.
  • Write draft of folktale.
  • Fill in independent project calendar.
  • Continue reading Trouble in Timbuktu, by Cristina Kessler (due Week 8).

Week 6: The Swahili Coast 

Activity 1: Scrapbook Page (40 minutes)

Before class, we will print out lots of pictures of Swahili coast (animals, buildings, beaches, etc) for scrapbook pages. We‘ll have a ton of scrapbooking materials available and pictures of Tanzania and Kenya.  Students can make one or two scrapbook pages that depict aspects of ancient Eastern Africa.  We’ll encourage them to write descriptive captions.

Activity 2: Bowl Game (30 minutes)

Before class, we’ll fill a bowl with 20 slips of paper.  Each kid pulls out a slip and gives as many verbal clues as needed for the other kids to guess the person, character, kingdom, or event on the slip.  Next, we put all of the slips back in the bowl.  In round two, when they pull out a slip, they have to act it out with no words.  The people and events on the slips:

Activity 4: Salt experiment to get ready for West Africa (20 minutes)

Salt was a highly valuable commodity in the ancient world.  It can be mined from seawater that lies in shallow ponds.  To see how it works, students will set up the following experiment and take it home to observe it for two weeks:

Each student should fill a small mason jar with hot water and stir in salt, one tablespoon at at time, until the salt will no longer dissolve.  Tie one of a string to a nail and the other end to the middle of a pencil.  Lay the pencil across the mouth of the jar so that the string hangs down but the nail does not touch the bottom of the jar.  They should bring the jars home (they can put a lid on it to get it home and place the string in it once they get it home) and place in a warm place.  They should write down an observation every day for two weeks.  

Homework (All of this homework is due Week 8):

  • Fill out independent study project.
  • Read “Sakunaka” in Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.
  • Fill out salt observation sheet.
  • Finish reading Trouble in Timbuktu, by Cristina Kessler.
  • Watch Episode 4, Series 1 of the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa: West Africa. 
  • Watch Episode 5 of the PBS series Wonders of the African World: The Road to TImbuktu.
  • Read from Kids Discover: African Kingdoms magazine: pages 6-13.
  • Read The African Voice: Western Edition. 
  • Read Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali, Burns picture book.

Week 7: Dance Complex Field Trip 

We’re working with an artist in residence at MIT.  He is from Senegal, and is from a family of griots.  He will lead two workshops on dance, drumming, and storytelling.

Homework: Finish homework assigned last week.

Week 8: West Africa, Part i

Activity 1: Check in on Independent Projects (30 minutes)

Have each student talk about their independent study projects.  Other students can ask questions or make suggestions.

Activity 2: Report on Salt Experiments (10 minutes)

Have students share what they observed.  How do they think this might have applied to ancient Mali?

Activity 3: Cup of Doom for Road to Timbuktu (50 minutes)

Find an old soccer ball and in each hexagon, write a discussion question with a permanent marker.  Have students sit in a circle and tell them that you are going to throw the ball to someone.  You will say his or her name before you throw the ball.  When the student catches it, he or she has to read and answer whatever question is under the left thumb.  After answer the question, students say the name of another student and throw them the ball. Eventually, you can click here to see the questions I wrote on the soccer ball.  If students don’t answer a question correctly or well, they have to draw a popsicle stick from the Cup of Doom.  Each stick has a different ‘punishment,’ like doing 10 pushups or dancing like a chicken for 30 seconds.  (Be prepared for kids to throw the question so that they can pick from the Cup of Doom.  They love it!)


  • Work on independent study project.
  • Revise folktale.

Week 9: MFA2 Field Trip

We will continue our three-week unit at the Museum of Fine Arts.


  • Work on independent study project.
  • Revise folktale.

 Week 10:  Dance/Drumming II


  • Work on independent study project.
  • Start reading Nzingha, Warrior Queen of Angola (Due week 13).

Week 11: Crocodile River Field Trip

Through several interactive activities, students will explore the art and music of two West African kingdoms.  They will also explore how West African music has influenced musical styles around the globe.

Homework (Due in two weeks, Week 13):

  • Episode 1, Series 2 of the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa: The Kingdom of Asante. 
  • Watch Episode 3 of the PBS series Wonders of the African World: The Slave Kingdoms.
  • Read from Kids Discover: African Kingdoms magazine: pages 14-15.
  • Work on independent study project.
  • Make final edits to the folktale.
  • Finish reading Nzingha, Warrior Queen of Angola.

Week 12: MFA 3

We will continue our three-week unit at the Museum of Fine Arts.


  • Finish homework assigned last week.

Week 13: West Africa, Part II

Activity 1: West African meal with member of the Asante people (20 minutes)

We will make jollof rice and banana cake, from pages 16-17 in Hands-on Heritage Africa Activity Book.  It will be ready by the end of class, when we will eat with a member of the Asante people.

Activity 2: Adinkra Stamping (40 minutes)

Working with a local artist, and using traditional adinkra designs from Ghana, we will make our own
stamps to keep, and create a personal cloth, or join together as a group to make a large cloth. We will also use real adinkra stamps
carved from gourds in Ghana.

 Activity 3: Skit Charades (30 minutes)

Before class, make a list of 7 or 8 scences from the Nzinga book, write them on slips of paper, and place them in a bowl.  Place students in groups of two or three and have one person from each group come up and pull out a slip from the bowl.  Then they’ll have five minutes to prepare their charade.  Finally, groups will act out the scenes without talking and the rest of the class will guess.  There may be time to chose another scene and do it again.


  • Watch Episode 3, Series 1 of the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Great Zimbabwe. 
  • Watch Episode 6 of the PBS series Wonders of the African World: Lost Cities of the South.
  • Read from Kids Discover: African Kingdoms magazine: pages 16-17.
  • Read The African Voice: Southern Edition.

Week 14: Great Zimbabwe

Activity 1 – Folktales (45 minutes)

In groups of 3 or 4 (with one adult) students will read the folktales they’ve worked on all semester.  After each student reads, we will give them warm and cool feedback.  For warm feedback they can start with: “I really liked it when…” and  “A detail that I really appreciated was _____ because it made me ___________.”  For cool feedback they can start with: “I would have liked to hear more about…” and “A detail that was confusing/distracting to me was….”

Activity 2 – Pop Quiz on Great Zimbabwe (15 minutes)

Students will take a “pop quiz” on great Zimbabwe.  Then have a discussion about testing, and how it’s just a way to discover what you’ve learned.  “What’s the difference between the pop quiz and the bowl game or the soccer ball game?”  Eventually, you can click here to see the quiz.

Activity 3: “Bingo” (30 minutes)

We created Bingo-type cards, with the names of: Kingdoms, Characters, People, Geography, and Artifacts & Buildings.  I put clues on slips of paper, and pulled them out of a bowl.  Students used highlighters to fill in their cards.  We played until someone had a bingo.  Eventually, you can click here to see the cards and clues.

Homework: Finish independent study projects

Week 15: Presentation/Celebration

Students will set up stations with the work from their independent study as well as other work from the semester of which they are particularly proud.  Half the students will stand by their stations while all of the parents, friends, and the other half of the students walk around with clipboards and fill out feedback sheets.  At the midway point, we’ll switch the presenters.  Eventually, you can click here to see the feedback sheets.

Every family will bring a traditional dish, food, or drink from an ancient or modern African culture or country.  We’ll party!


  • Watch Episode 2, Series 2 of the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa: The Zulu Kingdom. 

Week 16:  Zulu

Activity 1: Review Activities (15 minutes)

Students will complete the review activities in Kids Discover: African Kingdoms magazine: pages 18-19:  1) They fill in a timeline, placing eight kingdoms in the order in which they were in power. 2) They match the kingdoms with something for which they are known.  And they do a word search with the names of nine ancient African rulers.

Activity 2: Dolls, Shields, and Spears (50 minutes)

Sotho brides carry a beaded doll, which they name.  They then use that name for their first child.  The Zulu tribe makes long painted shields covered with goat hide.  The spears of Maasai warriors can be used as peace symbols when a black ostrich feather is attached to the tip of the spear with a string of beads.

Students can make a version of either a bridal doll, a shield, or a spear using instructions from pages 26-29 of Hands on Heritage Affrica Activity Handbook.  

Activity 3: KWL (25 minutes)

We will revisit our KWL chart from the first day.  Were there things we thought we knew that were wrong?  Did we learn everything they wanted to learn?  What else did they learn?  What might they continue to learn about?


If you want to read more about some of the ideas on this page, you may want to read these posts:

How And Why To Run A Book Club For Kids

On How Much 8-Year-Old Boys Love Art Museums