At the end of a recent school holiday workshop about Mayan pyramids, a parent approached me and after thanking me, she commented that she wasn’t quite sure what the workshop would be like when she booked her children in. She also wasn’t quite sure how I would manage to teach my young explorers about Mayan culture. The results surprised her: after just two hours, her children had not only created two unique models of stepped pyramids inspired by the Mayan architectural tradition but were also beginning to count in Spanish and recognise basic Mayan hieroglyphs. How did I manage that? She wondered.

A miniature Mayan-style pyramid made at a recent workshop

As I explained to her, my workshops follow a more holistic and integrated approach, which emphasises fun, play and creativity. My approach to learning has been greatly influenced by my experiences in the Andes. In more traditional Andean communities, children explore their environment with curiosity and their elders nurture their imagination. My observations match well with those of other researchers working in Peru and Bolivia. As anthropologist Inge Bolin has observed in her work in a small community outside of Cusco, from a very young age, children learn basic mathematics by counting features, such as animals, and also to describe their landscape in detail, focusing on colour and shapes. They also find creative and imaginative ways to express their growing understanding of the world; this includes building miniature scenes using readily available materials, such as vegetables.

A holistic approach to learning exposes children to a range of subjects, while also fostering connections between them. This means that a children’s learning is progressive: each experience and body of knowledge becomes a learning block that is built upon.

When designing a new art and craft activity, I too draw upon on my own imagination and creativity. I often first begin by imagining what artwork I wish children to create during the class and then I explore my art supplies and see what age-appropriate substances can be used to make it. Then comes my favourite part; I get creative and make an example of the artwork. This helps me to work how long the activity will take and identify what challenges my explorers might face when using the substances.

Another important part of the workshop preparation involves designing additional resources that will go along with the art. For a Mayan pyramid workshop, for example, I created a range of activity sheets that help children understand the architectural principles of their monuments, as well as Mayan writing and mathematics.

The most amazing part of giving these workshops is not observing children complete the activities I have designed but seeing them use their imagination to add their own personal touch to the project. Being part of this magical experience is what inspires me to continue working with children.

Do you love learning about the past? Or do you teach children or adults about the ancient world? If you do, comment below or write to us, as we would love to hear from you and find out how you love to learn and/or teach about the mysteries of the past.