My 4th grade students recently completed an Olmec big head statue activity as part of our study of ancient civilizations in the Americas. I knew very little about the Olmec civilization before I started teaching it as part of my history curriculum, and students are typically not familiar with the group either. The Olmec settled in present day Mexico and were the predecessors to groups like the Maya and Aztec. They developed calendars, may have been the first to harvest the cacao bean, were wealthy traders, and carved giant head statues from basalt stone. To date, seventeen big head statues have been found along Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
In order to help my students understand the concept of the large head statues, I planned a hands on activity that let them build their own model of a big head statue using air-dry clay and Play-Doh. We reviewed photographs of the real statues and noted details about the facial features, helmets, and carving techniques to try to duplicate some of the key traits. The students were really excited about the project and demonstrated much better recall of the Olmec civilization after completing the heads. The activity could be adapted to fit with a study of other cultures such as the Easter Island statues, Ancient Egyptian sculpture, or the Leshan Giant Buddha in China.
Big Head Statue Materials
- air-dry clay
- Play-Doh in bright colors
- paper plates
- sharp pencils, bent paper clips, toothpicks, or other pointy tools for carving details
Big Head Statue Directions
- Give each student about 1/2 pound of Air Dry clay. I have 18 students and bought two 5-lb buckets of clay. I divided each bucket of clay into 9 clay balls of roughly equal size.
- Students put the ball of clay on a paper plate and molded the ball into a head shape.
- Using a pencil or other pointy tool, they carved eyes, nose, mouths, etc. into the face. They also used their hands to pinch and form facial features.
- After the basic design was finished, they took small amounts of colorful Play-doh and added details. According to researchers, the statues may have been painted with bright colors, so students used that detail from our readings to add to their statue design.
In addition to the hands on activity with the clay, I added supplemental readings like THIS ONE to enhance our study of the Olmec people. We practiced finding topic, main idea, and details while completing the reading. To see more of my reading comprehension passages and procedure for correctly identifying topic, main idea, and details in reading passages, CLICK HERE.