Colonial Toy Project : A History Lesson

For the past three years, I have given this project to my 11th graders. It is one of the very projects that I do for the year. Usually by the time we get to this project, we have learned about the Native American tribes, The Europeans “discovering” the New World, and the establishing of the 13 Colonies. This is usually around chapter 3, 4, or 5 of the textbook. The main topic of the chapter is Colonial life and culture. I find that this topic though important can get a little redundant and a lot of it is common sense for the students, who have been taking US history off and on throughout their education. Depending on rather you have a 90 min. block or a 45 min. everyday schedule will determine how much time in class you give your students. This year with a 90 min. block system I would do some kind of activity to give them notes (PowerPoint, Reading activity ect.) and then give them time in class to work on their project. I only gave them about a week (spread out over a weekend) to complete the project.

At first the students are always lost and confused as to how they will make a HANDMADE toy. Yes, I did say handmade. Using all material that they would find during the colonial era. Their toy also needed to be a replica of a toy that would be found in Colonial America (hence the researching portion of the project). Once the students get researching, they discover a wide variety of website dedicated to Colonial toys. Then they choose a toy and find a way to make it. Again there are a lot of helpful resources out there for this and the kids are great at finding “how to videos”.

Jacob's Ladder
They then go and make the toy (I usually tell the kids that they cant bring knifes, or dangerous tools to school. (trust me it is better to be clear on this instead of having them get in trouble for bringing a “weapon” to school.) I encourage the students to put effort into their project, add color and make it look like they actually cared about it. I do grade on effort, however, I do not grade rather the toy works properly or not. You will find that the kids will work super hard and their toy will show it but still just doesn’t work. We have to remember that our students (and us for that matter) do not have the skills that Colonial Americans had. So the toys don’t always work.

You will also get those students who find the easiest toy (usually a yarn doll) and be finished making it within the day. I usually tell them that their effort was not seen and encourage them to build companion toys to go with it.

Ball and Cup
I then have the students present their toy to the class. They have to answer these questions in their presentation:
1. Why did they choose that toy to make?
2. How did they make it?
3. What did they learn about Colonial America from making their toy? or How does your toy connect to Colonial America? (the first part often gets the same answer…”making toys is hard.” the second part makes them have to think a bit more.)

I usually finish out the assignment with a quick or long reflection essay, depending on the class. I also make sure they turn in their rubric (usually 5 points of the project) and a bibliography (also 5 points of the project). The students always have fun and I am always surprised about how much they learn from this project. Let me know if you would like a copy of the rubric (I usually make slight changes to it every year). I hope you enjoyed seeing some of the samples from my students this year. 🙂
Thanks for reading!

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