Teaching Prehistory at KS2 (2): An Ice Age Icebreaker


Since I put up some suggestions for websites that might be useful for Teaching Prehistory in Primary School, I’ve had a lot of hits from teachers trying hard to cope with the new KS2 curriculum. So here’s a suggestion for an ice breaker that might help people get started.

 A mammoth idea

Most children seem to be fascinated with dinosaurs. The same will apply to other extinct animals. So why not start your prehistory sessions by talking, not about people, but about mammoths. This in turn gives us a hook to hang things on: most of your class will have seen the Disney Ice Age series of movies: it may not be history but it offers us an easy way to build on the children’s own knowledge and experience to make a serious teaching point. This is what I’d do.

Lesson outline

Start by asking the class whether any of them have seen have seen the Ice Age movies. Ask the children if they can tell you the story. There’s a link here to work you might do in English about understanding and recounting narratives. There’s also the very practical point that starting with something familiar helps build confidence. Children aren’t out of their depth from the start.

Now ask your class if they know what a real mammoth looked like. There are plenty of ways to tackle this but myself I’d be inclined to look at an artist’s impression and then ask ‘What’s the evidence for this?’ There are lots of sources for images. A Google Image search will turn up dozens and I’ve listed a few that I like below.

Follow this up with questions about the nature of the evidence. Remind the children about the work they did on dinosaurs in KS1. If dinosaur bones are under the ground, where might we find mammoth bones?

Make sure that the children know that mammoth bones have been found in several sites in Britain. Newsfeeds will give you examples of recent frozen mammoths found in Siberia. It’s important that the children understand that this relates to their past too.

Now you can bring in early man. These were huge powerful animals but there was one creature they must have feared. What do you think it was? Probably you’ll get the answer sabre-toothed tigers. Lead the children round to thinking about early humans and there you go: straight into hunter-gatherers without any fuss.

 Some other websites that might help

 Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire has a great deal of information about early man on its website. It also has a couple of  illustrations of mammoth bone  in its Online Exhibition. My Learning   also has an interactive Cave Hunter game based on material found at Creswell Crags.

 National Museum of Scotland: This site has a few factoids as it was intended to draw people into a recent exhibition about mammoths. However, it has lots of photos, a Save the mammoth game and an How to draw a mammoth activity. BBC News Scotland  also has a good gallery of images from the same exhibition.

 BBC Prehistoric Life has a useful series of short video clips about mammoths though I’m not sure I’d want to use all of them with KS2 but the animation sequence is particularly effective.

 Links to other curriculum areas

Once you’ve finished your topic on early man, you might want to return to the mammoth with the question Why did the mammoth become extinct? There’s no definitive answer, of course, but a discussion of the possibilities might help revise geography work on habitats and climate change. Alternatively, the possibility that the animal might have been hunted to extinction could lead to work on modern endangered species. Taking the topic as a citizenship issue would lead us directly from the actions of prehistoric peoples to the modern ivory trade.

To see an annotated list of other sites useful for teaching prehistory in the primary classroom, click here.



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