Let’s Explore!

We’re gearing up to study American history this year and I am so excited! We’ll be starting with famous explorers, including Christopher Columbus, and using a variety of picture and chapter books to introduce topics.  For our Columbus study we are reading James T. De Kay’s Meet Christopher Columbus.  It’s very succinct, but it offers enough information to generate discussions.  Below I’ve chronicled the resources we’ll be using as we read the book.


The Early Years

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy. Take a video tour of Genoa to see what it looks like today!  You can see in the video why Genoa was a good place to learn about sailing as it was a busy seaport on the Mediterranean Sea. (Genoa is technically on the Ligurian Sea, which is an arm of the Mediterranean Sea.)

Occasionally you will see Genoa printed as “Genova” on a map; Genova is the Italian name.  Find Genoa on a map.

The Spice Trade/The Silk Road

Spices were an extremely important component of 15th century commerce. Not only were spices used to flavor food, they were used to make perfume, embalm the dead, preserve meat and as an ingredient in medicine. In some places, spices could even be used in place of money because they were so valuable!

The Silk Road, the network of trade routes used to obtain spices and other goods, became too dangerous to travel, so explorers wanted to find a faster, safer way.

Watch a brief video about the spice trade here.

Read an article about the importance of the spice trade and learn about some of the spices that were sought during the time of Columbus.  (If you want to skip to the portion about the most sought-after spices, scroll to page five after following the link.)

View an interactive map of The Silk Road or view a simple map here.

Play an interactive Spice Trade game (better for older learners).

Marco Polo

Inspired by the travels of Marco Polo, Columbus read Polo’s record, The Travels of Marco Polo, multiple times (in Meet Christopher Columbus, the author refers to this book as The Adventures of Marco Polo). Learn more about Marco Polo with this video from PBS.

Download a free activity book about Marco Polo from Nest Entertainment.

Listen to an old-time radio program: The Travels of Marco Polo

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain

Columbus’ plan to reach the Indies was rejected three times by Queen Isabella before she agreed to support him, but she ultimately agreed to meet his conditions. He wanted the position of Admiral of the Ocean Sea; governorship of lands he might discover; and ten-percent of the profits from the trip.  The success of his voyage marked the entrance of Spain into the Golden Age of Exploration and resulted in the use of Spanish as the lingua franca by millions.

Watch the this short Drive Thru History segment about Columbus and his quest for support for his journey.

Ships and Sailors

Two of the three ships Columbus used in his first voyage were caravels (the Nina and the Pinta).  Learn more about the caravel here, then create a paper version using this printable model (the paper model features an English caravel).  Instructions for building the caravel are here, and the instructions are great because they explain the different parts of the ship!  If your child prefers to decorate the caravel, you can print a black-and-white version here.  The caravel models are free courtesy of Howard Shirley.

The Santa Maria was known as a carrack or nao.  Learn more about these types of ships here.

Discover what life was like as a sailor in this video.

Food on the ship consisted of hardtack (sea biscuits), honey, hard cheeses, raisins, olives, garlic, dried lentils, salted anchovies and barrels of beer and wine.  A sailor’s daily ration of beer was typically over a gallon, but the beer was weak and only brought because fresh water would grow algae in the wooden tanks below deck.

You can make your own sea biscuits/hardtack using this recipe.

Because their diets were poor, malnutrition and resulting diseases were common among sailors. Scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, killed an estimated two-million sailors between 1500 and 1800.  In fact, scurvy struck Columbus’ second voyage crew and subsequently was likely the cause of the collapse of the first European town established in the New World.  It wasn’t until the 1700’s that they found the perfect defense against scurvy:  sauerkraut!

Since my kids won’t eat sauerkraut, we’ll be discussing vitamin C-rich foods and their benefits while enjoying homemade vitamin C drinks!


Besides using a compass, Columbus used an astrolabe (first voyage) as well as a quadrant to help with navigation.  You can learn more about these tools and make your own by following the links below:

Learn about the astrolabe and how to make one here. Then go here to learn how to use it.

What is a mariner’s quadrant?  Follow this link to find out!

Make your own quadrant using these instructions and watching this companion video.

If your learner wants to dig deeper, this site offers an extensive list of tools used on a ship.


The first place Columbus landed was an island he named San Salvador, which means Holy Savior. The island was originally called Guanahani by the Lucayan Indians.  A cross stands today in the spot where Columbus is believed to have landed.

After travelling to other surrounding islands, Columbus went to Cuba, which he called Juana after the King and Queen’s son, Don Juan.  A statue of Columbus stands in Havana, Cuba.

Following his time in Cuba, Columbus landed in what he called Hispaniola, meaning Little Spain; it was known as Haiti to the inhabitants of the island, the Taíno Indians.

The islands where Columbus traveled are known as the West Indies and consist of the Greater Antilles,  the Lesser Antilles, and an isolated island group of the North and South American continental shelf. You can view a map of the West Indies here.

On their return home, they got caught in a gale that turned into a storm.  See what a gale looks like aboard a modern-day ship.


Print and play these free roll-and-cover math games. (Pre-K – 2nd grade/Bilingual)

Use these free math and literacy activities for your K-3rd graders.


Study John Vanderlyn’s oil-on-canvas painting, Landing of Columbus.

Paint with spices!  This is a great opportunity to savor the scents and appearance of spices.  Use spices that were commonly sought during Columbus’ time.

Early navigators relied on celestial navigation as one of several options for charting their course.  Paint a constellation or star cluster with this simple watercolor art project.


Audio Resources

These old-time radio programs are from the 1940’s, so some of the ideas are older (for example, addressing the belief that many still believed the earth was flat).  However, they are a fun-listen if you enjoy audio dramas.

You are There:  Columbus Discovers America

Cavalcade of America:  Admiral of the Ocean Sea

Library Book Suggestions

Animals Christopher Columbus Saw

Stories of Christopher Columbus (FREE eBook)

First Voyage to America:  From the Log of the Santa Maria

Explorers of the New World:  Discover the Golden Age of Exploration with 22 Projects


The Voyages of Christopher Columbus

The Story of Christoper Columbus

If You Were There in 1492

Christopher Columbus, Mariner

Columbus, Finder of the New World

Pedro’s Journal (Click here if you want some activities to do with Pedro’s Journal, including a fun, printable game!)

Great Explorers Activity Book




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