Mayan Civilisation – Planning Overview

Written by Dan

Are you looking for an exciting and innovative way to introduce your students to the ancient Mayan civilisation? Look no further than this planning overview, which will provide you with everything you need to teach about the incredible legacy of the Maya.

From exploring historical artefacts like pyramids and hieroglyphs to discovering Mayan culture through math and astronomy, dive deep into this civilisation’s fascinating lore!

Whether it’s a full-unit exploration or a one-time field trip, your students will surely experience Mayan history in an engaging and fun way. So let’s get started!

Related: For more, check out our Planning Overview of The Indus Valley  here.

Timeline Of The Mayan Civilisation

Exploring the Mayan Civilisation

The Mayan civilisation was a Mesoamerican society that flourished in Central America and southern Mexico from approximately 2000 BC to 1500 AD. It is renowned for its remarkable achievements in architecture, engineering, mathematics, and astronomy — some of which have yet to be explained.

One of the defining characteristics of the Mayan civilisation was its advanced writing system. The script is complex and expressive, with symbols representing sounds, ideas, and concepts.

This allowed them to record their extensive knowledge and create elaborate artistic expressions such as intricate carvings on monuments or codices filled with stories, legends and prophecies.

In exploring this writing system, students can gain an appreciation for the artistry behind Mayan culture and a deeper understanding of their communication systems.

Another area that provides significant teaching opportunities about the Mayan civilisation is architecture. They constructed enormous structures like pyramids and developed innovative building techniques such as corbeled vaults — arched ceilings built without any mortar required for support — which remain unique today.

Furthermore, the design of these places often incorporated astronomical motifs providing insight into how the ancients viewed the cosmos beyond our world — something which can still be appreciated by visiting these sites today even though many are now in ruins.

Investigating their sophisticated calendars opens up further teaching opportunities around their view of timekeeping and how it affects other aspects of society, like cultural rites or agricultural cycles.

Students can also gain an appreciation for how mathematics was used during this period and why it continues to influence our current way of life today.

Timeline of Key Events from the Mayan Civilisation

  • 2000 BC: The Mayan civilisation began to form in what is now Southern Mexico and Central America.
  • 250 AD: Construction started in important cities such as Tikal, becoming the largest settlement in the area.
  • 300 AD: Mayan writing and hieroglyphics developed, which became an essential part of their culture.
  • 600 AD: Coba becomes one of the most influential cities in the Mayan empire, and its population multiplies.
  • 900 AD: Building iconic structures such as pyramids began, and religious rituals increased significantly.
  • 1300 AD: Trade flourishes across the region, exchanging goods such as cocoa beans over long distances.
  • 1440 AD: The last recorded effort to use the Mayan writing system occurred in Yucatan, Mexico.
  • 1500 AD: The collapse of the Mayan civilisation began with the abandonment of major cities around this time.

Goods Traded by the Mayan People

The Mayans were industrious people who engaged in various trading activities. Here is a list of some of the goods that they traded among each other and with other nearby cultures:

  • Cocoa beans: Used as currency and a food source.
  • Maise: A staple grain that was used to make dishes like tortillas.
  • Cotton: Used to make cloth and textiles for clothing and accessories.
  • Salt: Essential for preserving foods as well as making them taste better.
  • Spices: Various seeds, powders, herbs, and barks were traded for medicinal purposes or flavouring food.
  • Precious Stones: Used for jewellery and ceremonial purposes.
  • Weapons: Bows, spears, flint knives, and axes for hunting and warfare.

Teaching Opportunities From the Mayan Civilisation

Exploring the history of the Mayan civilisation can provide unique and engaging teaching opportunities. Here are some examples:

  • Geography: Compare ancient maps to modern-day maps, and discuss the physical geography of Central America and how it impacted resource availability.
  • Archaeology: Study artefacts left behind by the Mayans, such as pottery, weaving tools, sculptures and jewellery.
  • Writing System: Learn the basics of their hieroglyphic writing system and explore how their literature was passed on through generations.
  • Art: Recreate iconic artworks from ancient times, or create pieces inspired by Mayan art forms.
  • Religion & Social Structure: Understand how religious rituals were central to life in ancient Mayan society and their impact on politics and culture.
  • Science & Maths: Investigate the advanced mathematical and astronomical knowledge obtained by the Maya and learn practical applications of these principles.

Lesson Plans

Lesson Plan 1: Geography of Ancient Mayan Society

Learning Objectives:

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to identify critical geographical features in Central America, explain the environmental conditions present in Central America and discuss how they impacted the lives of ancient Mayans.

Main Teaching Points:

  • Describe the physical geography of Central America, including mountain ranges, rivers and coasts.
  • Explain how geography and climate affected settlement patterns, transportation routes, agricultural practices, and resource availability.
  • Analyse how physical geography shaped ancient Mayan culture and history.

Reflection & Adaptations:

Have students draw a map or diagram illustrating vital geographical features of the region. Ask open-ended questions to get students to think critically about how these features impacted life for the Maya. Ask them to consider other areas with similar geographic characteristics and compare their societies.

Key Questions:

  • What are some essential mountain ranges in Central America? How does geography influence where people live?
  • How did climate impact agriculture among the Maya?
  • How have advancements in transportation technology changed over time, and what effects should this have on our current understanding of ancient societies?

Lesson Plan 2: Artifacts Left Behind by The Ancient Maya

Learning Objectives:

At the end of this lesson, students will understand ancient art forms used by the Maya and be able to identify critical artefacts used by them, such as pottery, weaving tools, sculptures and jewellery.

Main Teaching Points:

  • Explain different art forms used by Ancient Mayas, such as stone carving, stucco sculptures, mural painting etc.
  • Identify artefacts left behind by Mayans, such as pottery, weaving tools, jewellery, etc.
  • Understand why certain items were made from materials like jade or obsidian rather than clay or stone.

Reflection & Adaptations:

Have students draw a mural or create a sculpture reflecting ancient Maya culture. Ask them to research specific artefacts from archaeological sites around Central America, analyse their design elements, and use various media such as painting, clay or sculpture to recreate them. Guide them through connecting artefacts found today with those from ancient times.

Key Questions:

  • What type of material was used for pottery among the Maya?
  • Why is jade considered so precious?
  • How can we tell that an artefact is thousands of years old?

Lesson Plan 3: Understanding Religion & Social Structure Amongst The Maya

Learning Objectives:

At the end of this lesson, students will understand religious rituals practised by ancient Mayans, explain why they were so important in their society, illustrate their social structure, and explore how religious beliefs shaped politics and culture in their communities.

Main Teaching Points:

  • Describe religious rituals practised by ancient Mayans, such as ball games, human sacrifice, offerings etc.
  • Explain why religion was central in society amongst the Mayas – connected to royal lineage, social status & obligations etc.
  • Investigate political systems reflecting divine authority, such as monarchy & priesthood.
  • Understand gender roles, including warriors & religious rulers called ‘Ahau’.
  • Develop critical thinking skills related to historical themes pertinent to cultural opinions.

Reflection & Adaptations:

  • Invite experts from local universities involved with archaeological digs, which can conduct interactive activities related to archaeology & anthropology — digging up artefacts; discussing social structures; looking at hieroglyphic writing systems; analysing artefacts relevant to religious practice etc.
  • Ask students questions that allow them to reflect upon implications related to understanding religions within any given society today – discuss interpersonal relationships within families, communities & countries about topics such as gender roles or power dynamics etc.

Key Questions:

  • What types of religious rituals did Ancient People practise?
  • Why was religion significant for establishing or maintaining power structures?
  • In what ways is understanding our past relevant for life today?


Q: What are the key topics related to Mayan culture that could be taught in schools?

A: Major components of the Mayan civilisation include geography, archaeology, writing systems, art and religion. Each part offers unique teaching opportunities that students can engage with and explore.

Q: How can students learn about the Mayan writing system?

A: Students can begin by learning the basics of hieroglyphic writing and how the ancient Maya used it. Follow this up by having them explore how literature and stories were passed down for generations using such a writing system.

Q: What types of art forms did the Maya use?

A: Ancient Mayans used stone carving, stucco sculptures, mural painting, ceramics and jewellery to create their artwork. Have students recreate iconic pieces from ancient times or design their own inspired pieces to appreciate how these objects reflect the ancient culture.

Q: What is the best way to teach about religion among the Maya?

A: Understanding religious rituals amongst the ancient Maya is an excellent way of appreciating how religion was central to life in this society and its impact on politics and culture. Invite experts such as archaeologists or anthropologists who have conducted digs in Central America to talk to your class to bring this part of history alive.

About The Author

I'm Dan Higgins, one of the faces behind The Teaching Couple. With 15 years in the education sector and a decade as a teacher, I've witnessed the highs and lows of school life. Over the years, my passion for supporting fellow teachers and making school more bearable has grown. The Teaching Couple is my platform to share strategies, tips, and insights from my journey. Together, we can shape a better school experience for all.






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