Teaching the Age of Exploration
If you’re a teacher, then you are probably familiar with this scenario: you look at your schedule and realize you’re supposed to teach about a topic you remember little to nothing about! Especially with U.S. history, you want to make sure you teach your students the important facts, but it can be overwhelming to know what needs to be covered. Researching and reading about large history topics like the Age of Exploration can take a lot of time, which we all know is so precious to teachers.
In this blog post, I will give you the most important things you need to know to help you start teaching the Age of Exploration in your classroom!
Age of Exploration Overview
What was the Age of Exploration?
The Age of Exploration, or Age of Discovery, refers to a historical period that began in the 1400s and lasted until the the 1600s.
The Age of Exploration is a period in European history of extensive overseas exploration. Portugal was one of the first countries to send explorers west, which led many other countries such as England, Holland (The Netherlands), France, and Spain to launch their own expeditions.
During this time explorers had more advanced technology that made exploration possible. Many explorers were searching for faster trade routes to Asia, increased access to trade goods, and wealth and glory for themselves and their countries.
During this time, Europeans encountered many new lands, most notably the Americas. Although most of the lands were already inhabited, European explorers were quick to claim these lands for their own countries.
Who were the famous European Explorers?
Famous explorers of this time include Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de León, John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado.
What were the Effects of the Age of Exploration?
The Age of Exploration led to many changes, both positive and negative. On the one hand, this era increased trade and made mapping the world possible. Negative effects of the Age of Exploration include the spread of fatal diseases, decades of warfare, the destruction of many Indigenous Peoples’ civilizations, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Other effects are more difficult to define as good or bad, such as the spread of religion, economic globalization, and migration of people between Europe, Africa, and the New World. Although people may argue about how helpful or hurtful this time in history was, no one can deny that the Age of Exploration changed the world forever.
Age of Exploration Timeline
When teaching the Age of Exploration, or any historical period, it can be helpful for students to have a general timeline of important events and when they occurred.
Here are some of the most important events to know when teaching the Age of Exploration:
- Early 1400s – Portuguese explorers begin sailing to new parts of the world, including sailing around the Atlantic coast of Africa in search of new trade routes to Asia.
- 1492 – Explorer Christopher Columbus is sent by Spain to find a sea route to Asia, but instead discovers the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola. This is the first of his four trips across the Atlantic ocean.
- 1494 – Portugal and Spain sign the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided up the unexplored parts of the world between Spain and Portugal.
- 1497 – England sends explorer John Cabot who discovers Newfoundland. He is the first European to explore the coast of mainland North America in 500 years.
- 1497–98 – Vasco da Gama sails to India and back.
- 1507 – A German mapmaker names the “New World” America.
- 1519 – Hernan Cortés lands in Mexico formally claims the land for the Spanish crown.
- 1522 – Ferdinand Magellan’s ship The Vittoria completes the first circumnavigation of the globe.
- 1525 – First slave ship sails from Africa to the Americas (Atlantic Slave Trade begins)
- 1526-1528 – Francisco Pizarro and his pilot Bartolomé Ruiz explore the west coast of South America and become the first Europeans to see the coasts of Ecuador and Peru.
- 1534 – Jacques Cartier discovers Anticosti Island and Prince Edward Island.
- 1600 – English merchants found the East India Company.
- 1602 – Dutch merchants found the Dutch East India Company.
- 1619 – First Enslaved Africans arrive in Jamestown
I recommend displaying a timeline like this in your classroom. Even better, have students help you create the timeline as you go through the unit!
Teacher Resources for Learning about the Age of Exploration
Now that you’ve the basics, it’s time to dig in deeper! After all, you can’t teach what you don’t know!
Here are a few wonderful resources which will help you better understand the Age of Exploration:
- The Age of Exploration: Crash Course European History – This informative YouTube video gives a great overview of the time period
- Free Online US History Textbook – Chapter 2 of this online textbook discusses important explorers, motivations, and consequences of the Age of Exploration.
- Britannica Online – Britannica’s Age of Discovery article gives lots of great details on the exploration routes of this time period.
- Slave Voyages – This detailed resource will help give you great information to teach about the Transatlantic Slave Trade
Age of Exploration Pacing Guide
One of the hardest things about teaching is time management! How much time should you spend on each subject? What topics are most important?
To help you teach the Age of Exploration, I’ve created a two-week pacing guide.
Suggested Pacing Guide:
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5|
|Age of Exploration Overview||Meet the European Explorers||Explorers' Technology & Routes||The Life of a Sailor||Risks of Exploration Simulation|
|Day 6||Day 7||Day 8||Day 9||Day 10|
|Native Americans and European Explorers||Native Americans and European Explorers||The Atlantic Slave Trade||The Columbian Exchange||Age of Exploration Reflection|
Note: Each lesson is around 45 minutes long.
This pacing guide is the same one I use in my Age of Exploration Unit.
Do you want it all planned out for you? My Age of Exploration Unit takes the stress out of teaching the Age of Exploration. Included in this unit you will find a helpful introductory PowerPoint presentation, engaging simulations, ready-to-print student worksheets, and an easy-to-use study guide and assessment to check student knowledge. I created this unit to help you and your students love learning about the Age of Exploration!
Free Age of Exploration Lessons
To get you started, check out my free Age of Exploration lessons!
In this lesson, students learn about the Columbian Exchange (the exchange of diseases, plants, animals, and people between the Old World and the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries). Specifically, this lesson focuses on how foods were exchanged between the Old World and the New World. Students learn that most modern-day meals (including pizza, tacos, and hamburgers) are made up of both Old World and New World foods. This means that these meals did not exist before 1492!
This lesson can be printed or assigned via Google Classroom!
In this lesson, students map the key areas of the Americas that were colonized by the English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish and compare their locations and relative size.
The second part of the lesson is about how the political boundaries of colonies have changed over time (Did you know that Delaware was claimed by Sweden and the Netherlands before it became a British colony?). Your students will love studying these mesmerizing animated maps.
This activity can be printed or assigned via Google Classroom!
Enter your email below to grab your free Colonization of the Americas lesson!
Age of Exploration Primary Sources
No matter what historical time period you’re teaching, primary sources are such an important resource! Primary sources help students connect with history and feel like real historians! However, with so many primary sources out there it can be time-consuming and overwhelming to find appropriate and relevant ones.
To help you when teaching the Age of Exploration, I’ve created a list of teacher-approved Age of Exploration Primary Sources.
One of the most helpful primary sources is the 1507 world map made by Martin Waldseemüller. Your students will learn so much by looking at this map and comparing it to modern-day maps of the world.
World Map (1507)
Description of Primary Source:
This map by Martin Waldseemüller is often called “America’s Birth Certificate” because it is the first map that labels America and shows it as a separate land mass.
Class Discussion Questions:
What do you see?
After looking at the map, what places do you see?
What decorative illustrations do you see? What could they mean?
Why do you think this map was made?
How does it compare to a current world map?
Resources for this Primary Source:
Lesson plan (Library of Congress)
Age of Exploration Videos
Another fabulous resource for teaching the Age of Exploration is videos. Videos help students visualize new information and are a great way to engage reluctant learners.
The only problem with videos is they can often include content that isn’t appropriate for the classroom. No one wants to accidentally show something like that in their class, so I’ve taken the time to find 5 Teacher-Approved Age of Exploration Videos for Students.
You can use these videos in so many ways. For example, I use the Atlantic Slave Trade TedEd video to introduce a class discussion on the slave trade during the Age of Exploration.
1. The Atlantic Slave Trade: TED-Ed
Ted Ed’s compelling and quick summary of the Atlantic Slave Trade
My rating: age 9+
Notes: The animation is excellent and the narration is concise and easy to follow. This would be a great introductory video for teaching about the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Age of Exploration Picture Books
The last resource I want to highlight for teaching about the Age of Exploration is picture books.
Picture books can wonderful for all ages and grade levels! They give information in a simple and engaging way, and they often give more personal perspectives on historical issues.To help save you time, I’ve compiled a teacher-approved list of Age of Exploration Picture Books that you can start using in your classroom today.
One of my favorite children’s books that does this is Encounter by Jane Yolen.
This Age of Exploration picture book tells the story of a young Taíno boy who experiences the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Through the boy’s eyes we see the apprehension and curiosity felt by the Taínos, as well as the fear they had of these newcomers.
The boy does not trust these men. He tries to warn them, but the others ignore him. In the end, we see how the Taínos lost their language, lands, and so much else to these explorers.
This book is appropriate for ages 8 and up.
Ideas for Using this Book:
Although many history books are told from the perspective of European explorers, this book tells the important and often overlooked perspective of an Indigenous group. I encourage teachers to talk to their students about what they learned from reading Encounter. How does it compare to what they already know about Columbus? What new things did they learn?
Note: The book link is an Amazon affiliate link. This means that I may earn commissions for purchases made through the link.
Age of Exploration Unit
I hope that these resources help you while you are teaching the Age of Exploration. And if you need more help, consider checking out my 2-week Age of Exploration Unit.
How would it feel to have your Age of Exploration unit completely planned for the next 2 weeks? I’m talking 10 lessons, worksheets, and answer keys completely ready to go.
I’m a former 5th grade teacher myself, so I’ve been in your shoes and understand the struggle of creating meaningful lessons. It often felt like I was running on empty. In particular, I did not have the time, energy, or support to teach social studies well.
Now I work full-time creating US History curriculum because I want to help you fall in love with teaching history and save you time!
My Age of Exploration unit has been used by hundreds of teachers and has 140+ positive reviews on Teachers pay Teachers. Keep reading to find out why.
What’s included in the Age of Exploration Unit?
- 10 detailed Age of Exploration lesson plans
- 2 weeks of activities
- Pacing guide
- Answer keys (of course!)
- 90+ pages
Your students will…
- …learn about various groups’ experiences during the Age of Discovery and their complex interactions with each other (No mindless memorization here).
- …be excited and engaged (For example, the “Risks of Exploration Simulation” where they experience storms, pirates, and mutiny are guaranteed to be a HUGE HIT!)
- …beg you for more history lessons. Seriously.
- …save TONS of time because I’ve done all of the heavy lifting for you (this unit took me months to create).
- …feel proud of the way you are teaching your social studies standards.
- …be able to focus on what you love—teaching!
Age of Exploration Table of Contents
- Age of Exploration Overview—PowerPoint presentation & KL worksheet
- Meet the European Explorers—Gold, Glory, or God article, informative task cards on famous explorers & student worksheet
- Explorers’ Technology & Routes—Foldable about technological advances & map activity where students draw routes of explorers
- The Life of a Sailor—article about sailing during the Age of Exploration, worksheet & identity cards where students adopt the role of a sailor
- Risks of Exploration Simulation—simulation activity where students experience the risks of exploration through drawing “fate cards” & a student reflection
- Native Americans and Europeans: Part 1—articles for 5 Native American civilizations (Inca, Aztec, Maya, Taino, Iroquois) and resources for students to create posters & presentations
- Native Americans and Europeans: Part 2—rubrics for student presentations and note-taking worksheets
- The Atlantic Slave Trade—informative article, artifacts from the slave trade, and reflection worksheet
- The Columbian Exchange—informative article, opinion writing, and interactive notebook sort
- Age of Exploration Reflection—reflection worksheet and discussion instructions
Here’s what teachers are saying about the Age of Exploration Unit:
This is a super, engaging resource! The PPT is great and the activities are such a great way to have the kids very involved in their learning!
This was such an awesome resource. Made my social studies time so much more engaging and meaningful. Thank you for all the time and effort put into this unit!
Wonderful resource with engaging activities. My class absolutely loved it. So teacher friendly and easy to use, too!! Thank you!