ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Pioneer America: Pioneer Living

What was life like for the pioneers?


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


In this lesson, students will learn about what life was like for early American pioneers. After reading about pioneers in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, students will conduct independent research on one aspect of pioneer life. They will write a letter to a friend revealing five things they have learned about their assigned topic. This lesson culminates in the creation of tableaux depicting various pioneer scenes.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Compare and contrast lifestyles of the pioneers with those of today
  • Conduct independent internet research about pioneer living
  • Create tableaux depicting scenes from pioneer life

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Research
  • Multimedia Instruction
  • Role Playing

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • DVD Player
  • Television
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should:

  • Have general knowledge of pioneer life
  • Be familiar with tableaux

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should know that the westward expansion of the U.S. involved families going to settle in undeveloped, often unpopulated, areas.

Physical Space



  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


  • Prepare slips of paper describing scenarios for tableaux: for example: two friends meeting in the street, a mother and child in the middle of an argument, a policeman chasing after a robber, etc.
  • Cue up sections of video(s) if using

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



Tableaux vivants, “living pictures” in French, are scenes in which actors are posed without movement or sound. The drama of the scene is conveyed with props, costumes, and the physical positions and expressions of the actors.

In this lesson, students will create tableaux showing life among the pioneers, the American settlers who participated in the Westward expansion of the 19th century.


1. Read the class chapters 6, 8, and 10 from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, which describe the Ingalls' family life and home, and Mary's and Laura's chores. Distribute the Vocabulary handout from within the Resource Carousel to the students.

2. You may wish to show excerpts of a film (or various films) depicting pioneer life, such as Sarah Plain and Tall, The Legend of Davy Crockett, Little House on the Big Prairie, or Old Yeller.

3. Lead a discussion about the hardships of pioneer life. Discussion points might include:

  • Lack of plumbing, electricity, other conveniences
  • Lack of material comforts; having to grow or make all household goods including food and clothing
  • Isolation from other people
  • Wild animals
  • Lack of health care and medicines
  • Chores, such as gardening, tending animals, making food and clothing
  • Lack of schools, roads, mail delivery, and other elements of urban infrastructure
  • Limited protection from natural hardships such as cold winters, tornadoes, drought

4. As a class, have students begin a chart to compare and contrast life today with the life of a pioneer.


1. Have students research one of the following aspects of pioneer life:

  • Recreation and entertainment
  • Preparing and cooking food
  • Farming
  • Jobs (i.e., farmers, laborers, miners, ranchers)
  • Chores at home
  • School
  • Effects of settlement on Native Americans
  • Homes (i.e., sod houses, log cabins, homemade furniture)
  • Transportation (i.e., covered wagons, stagecoaches, horses)

2. Divide the class into small groups so that three or four students are researching each of the above topics. Reserve class time in the computer lab and/or assign research to students for homework. The following Web sites will be useful for this activity:

3. Have students write a one-page letter to a friend in the character of a pioneer, focusing on the topic area they have researched. Inform students of the proper format for writing letters. Each letter should reveal at least five new things students have learned about the topic. Remind students that they must use proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.


1. Discuss the ways people show emotions with their faces and bodies. Ask students to model what an angry person looks like, as well as a sad person, a happy person, etc.

2. Introduce tableaux to students. Explain that tableaux is a dramatic convention in which individuals use their bodies to create a frozen scene that expresses actions, locations, feelings or situations.

3. Initiate two-person tableaux with the students. Pass out scenarios to volunteer students and ask them to pose as if they are in that scenario, but they cannot speak or move. They should not reveal the scenario to the rest of the class. (Students could act out the following, for example: two friends meeting in the street, a mother and child in the middle of an argument, a policeman chasing after a robber, etc.) After each scenario, the class should try to guess the scene that the two students are trying to depict.

4. After completing a few scenarios, talk with students about which tableaux were effective and why. Point out good examples of emotion conveyed through the body.

5. Have students create tableaux that reveal different aspects of pioneer life. Have students return to the small groups in which they conducted their research. Each team will depict one scene, which should reveal several aspects of everyday life for pioneers. Students should make an effort to portray a character, rather than just showing an action.

6. Give students time to prepare a monologue. Tell students that once all the characters are in position and "frozen," you will tap individuals on the shoulder, one by one. This tap signifies that the individual should recite a short monologue describing their actions and how they feel about their action. Give students time to write, or to practice orally with a partner, their monologues.

7. Encourage students to use props that will reveal more information about the scenes they are trying to depict.


1. Update the chart developed at the beginning of the class with new information learned in this lesson.

Extending the Learning

Have students record their thoughts in a journal from the point of view of a pioneer child.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade K-4 Theater Standard 2: Acting by assuming roles and interacting in improvisations

Grade K-4 Theater Standard 4: Directing by planning classroom dramatizations


Grade K-4 Theater Standard 5: Researching by finding information to support classroom dramatizations

National Standards in Other Subjects
Grades K-4 History

Grades K-4 History Standard 1: Understands family life now and in the past, and family life in various places long ago

Grades K-4 History Standard 2: Understands the history of a local community and how communities in North America varied long ago

Grades K-4 History Standard 5: Understands the causes and nature of movements of large groups of people into and within the United States, now and long ago

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Language Arts Standard 3: Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions

Language Arts Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Language Arts Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts



Rebecca Haden

Bernard Franklin
Original Writer

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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