Teaching Dia de los Muertos

While we were living in England, we often found ourselves providing input into British friends about Halloween. Although many American customs originated in the British Isles, many have been forgotten or transitioned to Bonfire Night ceremonies. We therefore made it a priority to keep the traditions of Halloween alive in our house. Arriving back in the United States, our kids were all ready to carve pumpkins, dress up in costume, and trick-or-treat. But along with all of the Halloween decorations in our local stores, we saw items like sugar skulls, which peaked my girls interest to find out more about Mexican and Central American celebration of the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Dia de los Muertos is a multi-day festival focusing on the gathering of friends and family to remember loved ones who have passed away and to support their spiritual journey. The festival generally starts on October 31, when ofrendas are made and taken to the graves of children  (1 November, Dia de los Inocentes) or adults (2 November, Dia de los Muertos). The graves of the dead are cleaned and decorated with the ofrendas, which contain pictures of the deceased, and their favorite foods or drinks.


Ofrendas (alters) are an important part of the celebration of Dia de los Muertos. Families will visit the graves of loved ones where they would be cleaned and decorated. These ofrendas usually take the form of marigolds, small toys, bottles of alcohol for adults, candy (especially candy skulls) and dead bread. Students can make small ofrendas to be taken to the graves of family or placed on nature tables at home. To make a homemade ofrenda, you will need clear plastic hinged baseball card holders, decorative paper (cardstock is best), plastic jewels, glue, and pens or markers. There really is no wrong way to decorate the box, but we generally cut and glue paper to the inside of the box. Children can then write messages or draw pictures to be left inside.

Tissue Paper Marigolds: 

Marigolds (cempasuchils) are the traditional flower for honoring the dead. To make tissue paper Marigolds, you will need tissue paper (golds, yellows, reds and oranges), green pipe cleaners, scissors, and a vase to arrange your flowers. To make your marigolds:

  • Step 1: Lay three full pieces of tissue paper on top of each other.
  • Step 2: Fold the pieces of paper together about every inch so that the folded paper resembles a fan. You will need to fold 1″, then flip the paper over and fold 1″ again. Continue doing this until you have folded up all the paper.
  • Step 3:  Fold your flowers in half and then loop 1.5″ of a green pipe cleaner around the paper to form a stem and twist.
  • Step 4: Depending on how large you want your flower to be, you can either choose to cut your into half or thirds.
  • Step 5: Trim the edges of the flower, generally you can round them, but you can also get creative if you feel like it like when you make a Valentine.
  • Step 5: Holding the pipe cleaner, gently open up the paper one sheet at a time, starting with the top layer. Be careful not to rip the paper. Slowly separate the middle layer and pull up toward the center. Pull the bottom layer down.



Really the short film that got my kids interested in Dia de los Muertos was a short film on Youtube by Whoo Kazoo on the festival. The short really hits a number of the traditions practiced during the festival. Another great movie is the 2014 film The Book of Life, where the protagonist (a bullfighter) sets off on a journey on Dia de los Muertos to fulfill the expectations of his family.


Week Five – The First Sumerian Dictator

This week focused primarily on Sumer and the rise of Sargon who attempted to conquer the various city-states within Mesopotamia.

Story of the World:

Listened to The First Sumerian Dictator and completed the review questions and narration exercise. M1 and M2 completed the Sargon drawing page and M1 did the Sumer word jumble.

Read Together:

Unlike Ancient Egypt, Sumer doesn’t have a lot going for it with regard to children’s literature. So, we relied on SotW to provide some recommendations. Within their lesson plan were:

The Golden Sandal (A Middle Eastern Cinderella Story), by Rebecca Hickock. Both M1 and M2 enjoyed reading this book and instantly picked up the themes from the Cinderella story. This story is actually based on the Iraqi folktale of The Little Red Fish and the Golden Clog, but doesn’t necessarily take place during the time of Ancient Sumer. The illustrations are great and the morals are a bit stronger than the Disneyfied version.

The Three Princes: A Tale From the Middle East, by Eric Kimmel. I read this to M1 and I saw her pick it up a few more times on her own to read. She indicated that she really liked the bold colors in the story, especially those of the garments worn by the Three Princes. The story is actually based on a folktale from Africa called The Search, which leaves the reader with an open-ended conclusion to the story. Three Princes on the other hand has a firm conclusion, highlighting the selflessness of one of the Princes.

The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, pages 110 to 113 focus on the development of Mesopotamia from the development of cities to the flourishing of maritime trade and the rise of Sargon.

Watch Together:

We watched Crash Course in History’s Mesopotamia episode on Youtube on three occasions. Because Sumer was one of the first locations to develop pottery and the potter’s wheel, we watched several videos on making clay pots. Most focus on making pottery using electric potters wheels, so we really enjoyed this one, which was human driven.

Listen Together:

Although probably geared towards older students, I recently came upon a podcast focused on Maritime History. The first three episodes provide a great overview of the history of maritime trade, which flourished in Mesopotamia. Trade in Sumer was extremely important as the region contained little in natural resources to include metal or strong wood, but was rich in grain, wool, finished metal objects and pots. Boating through Mesopotamia’s canals and rivers brought about the first world trade. The Maritime History Podcast episodes I would recommend are:

Additionally, I would recommend listening to the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects podcast on The Standard of Ur.



Week 4 Review: The First Writing

Last week’s focus was the development of the first formal writing by humans. Historically, writing developed in two separate locations, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia respectively. The form and function this writing took differed significantly though.

Story of the World: 

Listened to the audiobook version for Story of the World for Chapter 3, The First Writing. M1 answered the follow-on review questions.


M1 completed the map of Ancient Sumer and Egypt, which illustrates where writing first developed, based on the flow of the rivers in each section. For our project, both M1 and M2 wanted to write hieroglyphics (Egypt) instead of cuneiform (Sumer). I used a simple salt dough recipe to have the girls make cartouches. The girls then used a wooden skewer to press, not drag, the pictograms for their names into the clay. We then baked the cartouches in the oven for about 3 hours at 200° F. Keep an eye on them, because you don’t want them to puff up. I would also recommend flipping the cartouches after 90 minutes.


For a simple salt dough recipe, you can use the following:

2 cups flour

1 cup salt

1 cup water

1 tbsp vegetable oil

Mix flour and salt on low speed using a stand or hand mixer. Gradually add the water and then the oil. The dough shouldn’t be too wet, but pliable enough so that it won’t crack when baked. Leftover dough can be placed in an air-tight container and kept in the fridge for two weeks.

Read Aloud:

Seeker of Knowledge; The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs, by James Rumford is the story of Jean-Francois Champollion. The story, which is told in bright watercolors, highlights Jean-Francois’ earliest interest in Egypt and his intention to crack the hieroglyphs that capture his imagination. The story also places Jean-Francois in the historical context of Napoleonic Europe and North Africa and the rush to be the first person to decipher the Rosetta Stone. In addition the great illustrations, the text is filled with hieroglyphs that correspond to a word on the page. Well worth the read. Even though the discovery was made in the 19th Century, the linkages to the first writing are very apparent.

The Usborne Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, by Gill Harvey and Struan Reid. Read page 83’s section on Precious Reeds, which provides an overview of the Papyrus plant. We then read pages 84 to 87, which focuses on education and the role of the scribe in Ancient Egypt and the formation of hieroglyphics.

Listen Aloud:

For older learners, take a listen to the Rosetta Stone podcast on the History of the World in 100 Objects. The podcast gives a great overview of the invention of writing, the discovery of the stone and the attempts at deciphering the stone. There are also HotW podcasts on a Cuneiform Early Writing Tablet and the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which highlights the importance of writing to convey ideas like math as a means of teaching.


Week 2 Review – The Earliest People

Story of the World:

Listened to the audiobook version for Story of the World, The First Nomads & the First Nomads Become Famers on two separate occasions. Completed review questions and narration exercise.


Cave Painting: We actually did cave painting a few years ago, but it was a project that both girls really loved. SotW has you use black, ochre and yellow paint, so we upped the ante. We used raspberries (red), blueberries (purple), ground mustard (yellow), and charcoal (black) combined with a little water and some vegetable oil for an emulsion. There are a number of sites where you can get more exact measurements, but we just free-poured until we got the right consistency.

Map & Color Page: Both M1 and M2, shaded in geographic features of the Fertile Crescent and colored the provided SotW coloring page featuring a farmer using a shaduf.

Read Aloud: 

The First Dog, by Jan Brett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1988). My seven and four year old loved reading this book! First off the illustrations are great, incorporating images of some of the first tools and works of art created by early humans ring the periphery of every page. The story is also very approachable for young children, but parents can tie in questions related to the domestication of animals, what nomads may have worn in the Ice Age, and what tools they carried with them.

Little Grunt and the Big Egg, by Tommy dePaola (G.P. Putnam, 2006). I checked out this book based on the recommendation of SotW and because my kids loved Strega Nona and The Clown of God. Even though it is listed as a fairy tale that concept might be lost on younger children. The most problematic aspect is the presentation of early man and dinosaurs living together.

The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, by Jane Bingham, Fiona Chandler and Sam Taplin (Usborne, 2009). We own this book and our girls love looking through the pictures and reading the excerpts. Pages 80 to 101 focus on the periods from 5 million to 10,000 BC years ago, to cover the SotW’s First Nomads. Pages 108 to 113 cover SotW’s The First Nomads Become Farmers.

Watch Together:

Flint Knapping

Atlatl Throwing

The Agricultural Revolution: Crash Course World History #1 (little advanced in terms of concepts and sometimes content, recommend parents watch in advance)

Mesopotamia: Crash Course World History #3 (jumps some of the subjects that are later taught in SotW).

Horrible Histories –

City of Jericho 3D Tour

Listen Together:

Probably one of the best podcasts on history is the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects. Although more geared towards older students, you can play them in the morning at breakfast or while your homeschooler is doing other activities. The objects linked to early humans are the most extensive set, so playing one per day over a week is a good idea. You can find the podcast on ITunes or listen directly from the web page below:

Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool

Olduvai Hand Axe

Swimming Reindeer

Clovis Spearpoint

Bird-Shaped Pestle

Ain Sakhri Lovers (statuette)