Columbus Day Background Information for Teachers and Parents

Grade Levels: K-3

This page contains information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day.  The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie Columbus Day. It explains the type of content covered in the movie, provides ideas for how teachers and parents can develop related understandings, and suggests how other BrainPOP Jr. resources can be used to scaffold and extend student learning.

There are many misconceptions that surround Christopher Columbus and his voyages. Even today, historians argue over Columbus’ personal history, his exact route across the Atlantic Ocean, and the places where he made landfall. However, historians do agree on Columbus’ pivotal role in connecting the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and the New World (the Americas and the surrounding islands). Columbus is known and celebrated for finding a route that connected two parts of the globe that knew little about each other. The new route is also infamous for being a path that many explorers followed and the devastating impact on the millions of people already living in the Americas, as well as the expansion of the slave trade.

It is widely believed that Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, although not certain. As a young man he became interested in sailing and learned about the adventures of explorers like Marco Polo who traveled to Asia and brought back spices, silk, and gold. Marco Polo traveled east across Europe and India to reach the Far East, and Columbus believed he could find a faster route to Asia by going westward.

Your children may have heard that everyone believed the world was flat and Columbus was out to prove them wrong. Actually, most educated people, navigators, and sailors at the time believed the world was round, including Columbus. Navigators and mapmakers argued over the size of the world, and this is where Columbus was mistaken. We recommend watching the Earth movie together as a review. He believed the world was much smaller than many of his fellow sailors thought. This is part of the reason why many people believed Columbus would not be able to make the journey to Asia by going west. The journey would simply be too long and hard to go west across what is now known as the Atlantic Ocean. What most people did not know was that the Americas stood between Europe and Asia.

Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain, agreed to give Columbus financial support for his voyages. They hoped to gain power for a fledgling Spain by controlling the new trade route to the Far East that Columbus would find on his journey. Columbus set sail from Spain and then down to the Canary Islands in 1492. After ten weeks across the sea, they made landfall in the Bahamas. Many historians believe they landed in San Salvador, though this has been disputed. There, Columbus met a native people, most likely Taínos. He believed he had landed in India and mistakenly called them Indians. When he traveled to other islands, including Cuba and Hispaniola, and believed he had landed in Japan and China.

Over the course of his four voyages, Christopher Columbus and his crew mistreated many of the native peoples they encountered, forcing them into slavery, stealing their food and valuables, in addition to raping and killing. Sadly, this was a common practice of most explorers at the time. Part of the process of claiming land on behalf of another country thousands of miles away was to enslave and convert its people. This was a practice that existed before Columbus and unfortunately continued long after him.

Columbus’ voyages and legacy can be a scary and angering subject for many children, so it is important that you have an open discussion and address any fears and concerns directly and answer questions as honestly as possible. While you probably want to avoid graphic descriptions with young children, teaching them to look at history from different perspectives is important to their growth. Conversations about this part of history will help children to understand the world and motivate them to instigate positive changes.

Your children may have also heard that Columbus discovered the United States. This is a grave misconception. Columbus never reached the land that is known as the United States. He did land on the mainland in Central America and many Caribbean islands during the four voyages he took to the New World. Columbus never did reach India and the Far East. It is important for your children to understand that we remember Columbus because of what his route connected and how that impacted on the world.