Maya Civilization 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 Maya Civilization The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie Maya Civilization. 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.

Help children understand ancient history and draw conclusions about the past and present. This movie will explore the Maya civilization and share information about the Maya people and their culture. It will also address the large-scale abandonment of some Maya cities—considered to be one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of our time.

Explain to children that the Maya civilization dates back almost 4,000 years. Many experts believe that the first Maya communities were established around 1800 BC, but some Maya artifacts have been carbon dated to around 2600 BC. The civilization extended around Central America, in areas that are now parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Help children understand that the Maya civilization was made up of several city-states, or kingdoms, each with different rulers. In general, the nobility lived in the center of the cities. Their palaces, many of which still stand today, were constructed of limestone. The common people lived outside the cities, in homes made of wood and adobe. Help children understand the wide range of structures the Maya built. They constructed pyramids and temples where they held religious ceremonies, and built large platforms where they held sacred rituals, including sacrifices. They also built observatories where they studied the movement of the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets.

Explain to children that the Maya used the heavenly bodies to organize and track time in different ways. They tracked the phases of the Moon and the movement of Venus. The Maya established different calendars to keep track of time and calculated the length of the solar year of 365 days. They utilized several different calendars, including one that is based off of a 584-day cycle, organized around Venus’ movement. It may be helpful to compare our calendar to one of the Maya calendars. For example, our calendar groups seven days into a week, but one of the Maya calendars groups 20 days into a week.

Help children realize that religion was an important part of the Maya civilization. Temples were often built on top of pyramids, so they could be closer to the heavens. But, they also allowed people from around the city to witness ceremonies held at the temples. The Maya offered food and gifts to honor their gods and ancestors, and sometimes they offered blood through animal or even human sacrifices. Ball games were also an important part of Maya culture. Many Maya cities have a ball court with tall walls. Players used their hips and chest to advance a rubber ball up and down the court. Some courts had a stone ring through which the players tried to pass a ball. The ball games were often used to settle arguments between people and even kingdoms. Sometimes losing players were sacrificed.

The Maya traded with many other Mesoamerican peoples, including those in the Caribbean. They traded salt, seashells, jade, obsidian, and cacao, which was used to make drinking chocolate. Some Maya pottery and painting depict people drinking chocolate. The Maya created pottery out of clay, jewelry out of jade, and built sculptures out of stucco. They also built stelae, which are monuments carved out of stone. The stelae honored rules and other important people, and depicted images of war conquests.

Help children understand that the Maya developed a writing system that was made up of different symbols. They recorded their history on paper, as well as in paintings and on the walls of buildings and monuments. They also developed a number system made up of dots and bars—which included the concept of zero. Today experts have figured out how to read and understand some of the language, and much of what we know about today comes from the writings the Maya left behind.

During 250 and 900 AD, millions of Maya people were living in cities. New buildings were added and cities grew. The Maya recorded important events on monuments and walls. Then in the 8th and 9th centuries, some of the cities went into decline and eventually they were abandoned. Few buildings were constructed during that time and no new writings have been found during that time. Theories exist about why the cities were abandoned. Some experts believe it was war, disease, civil unrest, or the decline of trade routes. Other experts believe it was a drought that drove people out of the area.

It is crucial for children to understand that the Maya people never disappeared. Some of the cities were abandoned, but many flourished. Many continued to grow until the Spanish conquests, which started in the 16th century. Even then, the expanse and geographical separation of the kingdoms of the Maya civilization meant that the entire civilization was not overthrown. People continued to survive and thrive in their cities. Help children understand that millions of Maya live today throughout Mexico and Central America.

Help children learn about other ancient civilizations. We encourage you to explore the Ancient History unit to find out more.