Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Mexico

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Every summer, my kids and I pass the time by learning about different countries around the world. This week, the kids chose Mexico.

We've always heavily relied on interlibrary loan to make it happen, but because of Coronavirus our library isn't doing interlibrary loan right now. Luckily the Internet is a very big place, so between that and the books on the shelf at our local branch of the library, we're making do.

During the week, I planted these books set in Mexico in strategic locations around the house, knowing that the kids would pick them up and read them:


On Monday, we put on mariachi music (so. much. mariachi this week) and the kids looked at Mexico on our big wall map.

They used their passport pages to write down everything they could find out about it on the map: continent, capital city, major cities, bordering countries and bodies of water, and other physical features like deserts, mountains, rivers, and so on.

Download free printable blank pages here.

We reviewed how to say "please" and "thank you" along with how to count to 10 in Spanish with this video, then we watched the DVD Mommy Teach Me Spanish from our library. I'm guessing there was a filmmaking budget of about $20 here, but it was still cute in a campy sort of way.

We then watched a 29-minute documentary on Mexico that was free for us on Amazon; if you have an Amazon Prime membership and want to learn about virtually anything, check what documentaries you can watch for free with Instant Video. They have a lot.

In preparation for today, I'd gone online and bought the game Lotería. It's like Bingo, but with pictures instead of letters and numbers. And of course you yell "lotería" instead of "bingo."

Lotería helped us with our Spanish pronunciations and vocabulary.

My 6-year-old loved this game and wanted to play even after the older kids were gouging out their eyes with spoons asking if we were done yet.


Do you know the difference between the Maya and the Aztec? I knew they were both ancient people in the general vicinity of present-day Mexico, but I actually wasn't even sure whether they were the same thing or not before today. I had to Google it.

Mexico is actually named after the Aztec, because they called themselves the Mexica.

Legend has it that they built Tenochtitlan (today it's Mexico City) after seeing an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake, which is the symbol in the middle of today's Mexican flag.

I thought it was cool they honored their indigenous heritage right on the flag.

We watched this video on the Aztecs (but set the playback speed to 1.25 because she talked REALLY slowly!) and then read Montezuma and the Fall of the Aztecs by Eric A. Kimmel.

I also gave the kids the following books to read independently later on:

The kids and I played a popular game in Mesoamerica at the time of the Aztecs called Patolli. We printed out a game board here and followed these rules because they were simpler. I have no idea if we did it "right," but the official rules haven't survived and all we have are educated guesses so isn't really a "wrong."

The kids thought Patolli was a lot like Trouble, but with beans instead of dice.

Then we talked about the Maya. We read The Ancient Maya by Jackie Maloy (if you don't have the book, this website is good) and watched a History Hamster video (the fact that there is a YouTube channel called History Hamster makes me smile.)

The most famous Mayan ruin is an ancient city called Chichén Itzá, with a famous pyramid built to their snake god. My son was very interested in this video about it:

Right about now, my teenagers were like, "Waaaaait a minute... remember that book we used to listen to in the car all the time when we were little? There was that guy who played a game and there was a jaguar and Chac the river god?" And then it all came back to me.

For a few months they listened obsessively to a picture book-on-CD from the library that was, in fact, Mayan. With a little research we found out the name of it and checked it out from the library again. It's called Rain Player by David Wisniewski, and I highly recommend it.

My 8-year-old also really enjoyed Me Oh Maya from The Time Warp Trio series.

I split the kids into two groups. While the the older ones assembled and figured out how to use the Mayan religious and solar calendars with this link, the younger ones colored Mayan masks (here, here, and here.)

Mayan calendar.

Mayan face masks.

A few hours later, I noticed that this was happening while reading on the iPad, so the kids must have really liked their masks:

Bridging two cultures.

That night for dinner, we ordered Mexican food from a local restaurant. I know everyone else has ordered takeout a billion times during quarantine to save the economy, but this is the first time in probably 6 months that we've eaten out and it was delicious.

So good and so many leftovers.


Every winter, millions of monarch butterflies migrate south to Mexico from as far away as Canada.

We watched a video of this guy taking us inside Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and it was pretty incredible. There were so many clumps of monarchs on the trees it almost looked gross.

The kids also really liked this video, mostly because it used a drone disguised as a hummingbird to get close to the butterflies and they thought that was funny.

I read Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons to the kids while we ate leftover Mexican food for lunch (Gail Gibbons writes the best kids' nonfiction books,) and right after we cleaned up the table we got it messy again with this coffee filter butterfly craft.

While we waited for the butterflies to dry, we took a field trip to a nearby indoor butterfly garden. 

My teenage daughters liked sitting still to see if the butterflies would land on them. My 12-year-old liked walking around with the picture guide identifying all the different species of butterflies. And the younger kids stole my phone and took a hundred pictures of blurry butterflies with their thumb covering half of the lens.

A good time was had by all.

After we came home, the last thing we had to do was assemble our coffee filter butterflies.

Sometimes when we do crafts the kids just go "that was fun" and chuck them over their shoulders never to look at them again, but my 4- and 6-year-olds played with their butterflies for the rest of the night, flying them around and landing them on me saying, "There's a butterfly on your head!" (Which is only cute the first 10-15 times, BTW.)


You just can't be sad when you listen to mariachi music. It's a fact.

Today we watched the mariachi videos here and here, paying attention to the instruments and the clothes traditionally worn. Then we watched some videos of the Mexican hat dance (called the jarabe.)

I conned my 6-year-old into trying out the hat dance with me. He wore a big floppy sunhat, and I used a blanket for a big skirt, and when he dropped his hat and I picked it up he had great fun kicking his leg over my head. I love having kids young enough to like doing that kind of stuff with their mom still.

My younger kids designed costumes for the female jarabe dancers:

8-year-old's on left; 4-year-old's on right.

while my teenager did some sketches of the dancing couples in motion:

For dinner tonight, we had Mexican casserole. I give it a B+. But I could never hack it as a food blogger because I always eat it before I remember I should have taken a picture.


Today we covered two important holidays in Mexico: Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead.

We read Cinco de Mayo by Linda Lowry, where we all learned that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico's Independence Day. Independence Day is on September 16th and commemorates a day 50 years earlier; Cinco de Mayo celebrates a single battle fought on May 5, 1862.

Next, we read Days of the Dead by Kathryn Lasky. We watched this video about Dia de los Muertos on YouTube and then made sugar candy skulls using these directions.

When they were dry the next day, we decorated them with gel tubes from the cake decorating aisle:

The 4-year-old did the best he could.

I had no idea that "sugar skulls" were basically pure sugar. Does Mexico have a diabetes problem? If so, I know why. I let the kids each take a taste but then threw them out because each skull had to have half a cup of sugar in it.

We also learned about papel picado, the colorful tissue papers with cut-out designs that hang on banners at Mexican celebrations.

After Googling some pictures and learning a little more about them with this video, we learned how to make them here. We didn't follow the video step-by-step like a tutorial, but used it more or less like a rough guide.

Our papel picado didn't always turned out like we'd planned, but put them together on a banner and they looked great.

I gave the kids Magic Windows by Carmen Lomas Garza, a pretty book that tells about her Mexican childhood with papel picado pictures. It was nice that my kids had to look for the English words, since Spanish was more prominent on the page!

Then we watched a video explaining the symbolism in Disney's Coco. Coco takes place in Mexico during the Days of the Dead and is definitely one of the best Disney movies ever. There's a lot in there you might miss if you're not familiar with Day of the Dead or Mexican culture.

After a dinner of refried bean tacos, we sat down to watch Coco.


Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist who is sometimes called "the mother of the selfie." There was actually a running gag about her in Coco, and if I'd known that I would have done today first so the kids would've gotten it!

If you go to there's a biography of Frida Kahlo and a "masterpieces" tab with her paintings and a blurb about each. (Be aware that some of them have nudity, gore, or both, so maybe pick some beforehand that won't keep your kids up at night.) We reviewed some of those and talked about common themes in her art.

Frida Kahlo often did self-portraits with symbolic objects in them, so I asked each of the kids to create a self-portrait that used symbolism to tell about their character or some significant event in their lives.

"This is me, and I'm happy." -the 8-year-old

Frida Kahlo often painted herself with flowers in her hair and animals on her shoulders, which is where I think my daughters got their inspiration:

"The swollen face and wasps represent when I got stung in the face last week. And I like monkeys and naked molerats." -the 14-year-old

"The flowers are poppies, which make you tired. Snails can hibernate for 3 years, and represent sleep. My shirt is purple, which represents naps. And the background is white, representing how I'm too tired to finish it." -the 16-year-old

After we were done, I gave the kids a copy of Who Was Frida Kahlo? from the Who Is? series and also The Tree Is Older Than You Are, a book of Mexican poems accompanied by Mexican paintings so they could see more examples of Mexican artwork.

For dinner we had spicy Mexican rice. I doubled the recipe and added pinto beans to make it a full meal. I was worried about the "spicy" part, but two of the kids asked for seconds and one told me I should make it again so I guess it was fine.

Overall, visiting Mexico for our Educational Summer Vacation was even more fun than I thought it would be. We had tasty Mexican food almost every night, the kids had lots of opportunities to be creative, and that papel picado banner in the living room makes me happy every time I see it.

Learning about Mexico is fun and hands-on with these free crafts, ideas, and activities for kids! #Mexico #spanish #educational
Building the perfect Mexico lesson plan for your students? Are you doing an around-the-world unit in your K-12 social studies classroom? Try these free and fun Mexico activities, crafts, books, and free printables for teachers and educators! #Mexico #spanish #lessonplan
This Mexico unit study is packed with activities, crafts, book lists, and recipes for kids of all ages! Make learning about Mexico in your homeschool even more fun with these free ideas and resources. #Mexico #spanish #homeschool
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Sonia Hobbs said...

Good bblog post

ac4prez said...

I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this blog post! I am a teacher who is teaching Global Studies at the elementary level for the first time this year. This helped me organize my Mexico unit and your one click resources were a blessing! Thank you!