Recently we looked at children’s books about the Aztec. Today we’re reaching further back into the history of Mesoamerica (that is, Central America and Mexico) to learn about what is often considered the “mother culture” of this culturally rich region: the Olmec. We learned some of the background of this ancient people and looked at the art they left behind. We focused on some of their most important carvings with a simple but fun jaguar craft that helps reinforce the history lesson but can also be used for younger children to learn about the letter “J.”
The Olmec: Mother Culture of Mesoamerica
The Olmec civilization prospered in the swampy region along the Gulf of Mexico from 1200 BC to 400 BC, more or less at the same time as ancient Greece and the New Kingdom in Egypt. Many of the elements we associate with later civilizations like the Aztec and Maya – sacred ball games, pyramids, human sacrifice, and foods like corn and chocolate – actually began with the Olmec.
If you have heard of them at all it is probably due to the massive stone heads they constructed, most likely in memory of their rulers. (A fun craft to do with your kids would be to make their own “stone heads” with play dough!) The Olmec were also known for smaller stone carvings that seem to be related to their religion. Many of these are believed to represent deities, often associated with powerful animals like the eagle, the snake, and the jaguar.
The jaguar in particular seems to have been significant, and there are many jade carvings of a were-jaguar, that is, a cross between a human and a jaguar.
Now, who could resist such a perfect subject to bring my boys to the crafting table? This craft works well for different ages, because my older son was really focused on capturing all of the elements of the ancient carvings. With my preschooler I focused mostly on the “J is for Jaguar” aspect and let him just have fun building with the dough.
J is for Jaguar: Olmec Jaguar Craft
This is a very simple jaguar craft, and you could make it even simpler by substituting play dough for salt dough, or even just making masks out of construction paper or craft foam. Go with what is easy! I picked salt dough because in the end it would have a similar feel to the stone masks we were copying (without having to carve any stone ourselves!) and we would have the option of making them permanent creations.
If you are making salt dough, I recommend this recipe. To color our dough green like the jade that was often used, I used all of a small tube of liquid food coloring. Some people recommend using powdered paint or gel food coloring so you aren’t adding more liquid to the recipe, but ours turned out fine. Be aware that once the creations dry overnight the color will fade somewhat, though it still is a nice shade of green.
Be sure to look at images of the were-jaguar for inspiration. For younger children, you can leave it at that, but for older children you can ask them to incorporate the major elements from the Olmec were-jaguar carvings:
- a cleft head (that is, a notch cut on the top of the head)
- somewhat slanted eyes
- an open mouth, either with fangs or toothless
The Olmec carvings varied on how much they looked like a jaguar and how much like a human, so leave that to their imaginations. When they are happy with their work, set them out to dry overnight and bake, if desired.
After taking a break last year due to the arrival of Baby #3, we are back with one of my favorite series, the 31 Days of ABC! You can look forward to 31 more days of activities, crafts, books, apps, and more, all dedicated to teaching young children the alphabet.
I am so happy to be working with an amazing group of kid bloggers, who will be sharing their amazing ideas with us in the coming days. And this year for the first year we are also adding a giveaway, so be sure to scroll to the end and enter for a chance to win!
So join us as we jump, skip, hop, and read our way through the alphabet this October!
Don’t forget to follow our 31 Days of ABCs Pinterest board for even more great ABC ideas!
31 Days of ABC
Teaching the ABCs – October 1
A – October 2
B – October 3
C – October 4
D – October 5
E – October 6
F – October 7
G – October 8
H – October 9
I – October 10
J – October 11
K – October 12
L – October 13
M – October 14
N – October 15
O – October 16
P – October 17
Q – October 18
R – October 19
S – October 20
T – October 21
U – October 22
V – October 23
W – October 24
X – October 25
Y – October 26
Z – October 27
123’s – October 28
Prewriting – October 29
Books, Songs, & Apps – October 30
Alphabet Clip Cards – October 31
Don’t forget to enter for a chance to win this great prize package, open internationally!
3 month subscription to the Kidloland app, which includes 575+ interactive nursery rhymes, songs, stories, and educational activities to help children learn ABCs, animals, fruits, vegetables, shapes and more!
The Alphabet Experts Mega Bundle from Kindergarten Connections contains 500+ of alphabet printables, including tons of activities for each letter of the alphabet! ($58.50 value)