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Lesson: Building Up, Breaking Down

(The following is provided courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

These two lesson plans for grades 3-8 give elementary school students an early exposure to construction and the composition of building materials. By learning about construction materials used in their school buildings, students see, for instance, how rocks are modified into construction materials. They can also observe how these materials can deteriorate over time. At the end, teachers might want to take the students to a cemetery to witness the effects of weathering on a variety of monument stones. A PDF of the lesson plan, which teachers should familiarize themselves with beforehand, is available at

Construction_WorkersPhoto by Paul Keheler from Wikipedia


Buildings begin to break down
the minute they are assembled.
Weathering occurs as decomposition (chemical breakdown)
or disintegration (physical breakdown) or both.
One type of weathering can lead to another. For example,
a physical breakdown such as rock fracture makes
chemical breakdown more likely by exposing additional
surface areas to damaging solutions. Chemical
weathering, in turn, weakens the material, increasing
the likelihood of further fracturing.
Some chemical weathering is a consequence of acids
produced by living things growing on the rock. The
deterioration of structures such as bridges and statues
has increased dramatically in the last few decades, however,
because of chemical changes that produce acid
rain. Pollution from automobiles and industrial plants
adds sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and other gasses to
the natural carbon dioxide in the air.


In this guided-imagery lesson, students make drawings
of urban and rural environments. They use creative
thinking skills together with personal knowledge and
experiences to identify and interpret similarities and
differences in the drawings.

Student-made summary poster that includes:
 a pair of personal drawings taped to poster board
 names of objects common to both rural and urban
environments written on poster board
around mounted drawings
 a written summary statement outlining how people
modify natural materials
 poster board
 drawing paper
 colored markers
1. Explain to the students that they will be drawing
images and writing responses to the guided-imagery
text you will be reading aloud. Assure them that you
will pause and allow enough time for them to follow
the specific directions as they are presented.
2. After the activity, ask students to share their
paired drawings with the class. Have them mount the
drawings on poster board and collectively identify
which scenes are rural and which are urban. As a classroom
project, compare and contrast several mounted
drawings, writing student comments on the board.
Have each student annotate his or her own poster in a
similar fashion by naming features that appear, in one
form or another, in both of the drawings.
3. After students have written these comments on
their posters, ask them to discuss how they depicted
natural materials adapted for use in the urban environment.
Students should write a summary statement on
their own posters. Statements should be simple and
straightforward. For example, rocks cemented together
make buildings, sand melts to form glass, and river
gravel is mixed with cement to form concrete.

Encourage students to develop a mental picture
incrementally. They will build up the picture in their
minds as you read aloud. They will then illustrate
their impressions.
Allow plenty of time for them to draw and think.
Don’t rush. Encourage thoughts about the colors,
smells, textures, and sounds inspired by your reading.
Read slowly with lots of pauses. The first time
through, read the text printed in bold. The second
time, read the bracketed text printed in italics.

This ‘in-school field trip’ gives students hands-on experience
in identifying building materials. By playing
Building Bingo, they might see their school building
and school grounds in a new light. The game requires
them to identify the structural materials found on
campus, as well as the substances used to make each
material. To accomplish this task, teams of students locate
interior or exterior building materials on their
school grounds that they’d like to identify. They will
take with them photocopies of page seven. Referring to
the Natural Materials chart, they will complete the
Building Materials Facts label. They will attach a label
to each material they have identified.
The labels state the name of the building material
and describe the source materials from which it is
made. Students use the information from each of their
Building Materials Facts labels to play Building Bingo
by crossing off appropriate boxes on their Bingo cards.
Before the team receives a bingo, the teacher or a
student mentor must verify each identification as well
as check the accuracy of the information on the labels.
 at least one completed Bingo Building card
 properly identified (labeled) building materials
(approximately three to five sites)
 Building Material Facts labels
 Building Bingo cards
 Natural Materials charts

Review the idea that people adapt natural materials
for use in the built environment. To do this, guide
the students using copies of the Natural Materials.

Close your eyes and listen carefully as I read to you. Keep your
eyes closed until I ask you to open them. If you want to say
something, raise your hand. I’ll call on you. Speak to the class,
and to me, with your eyes closed.
Now . . . imagine yourself on a summer’s day outside
[in a large city.] Don’t worry
about how you got there . . . you’re just THERE. Now, try to
see yourself sitting quietly [on some steps at the
entrance to a tall building in the city.] What [do
the steps] look like? Open your eyes and draw what you’ve
imagined on your paper. Draw [the steps to the
building.] Close your eyes again when you’ve drawn
[the steps.] Your [steps are] in the shade. It is hot outside.
You’re hungry. . . it is noon. It’s lunchtime; your stomach
Focus on what is around you. What objects do you see from
[the steps?] Open your eyes and draw at least three of
them. Draw the things you see from [the steps.] Focus
on what you hear . . . write down the sounds you hear. You can
write things like leaves rustle in the wind. You may write
anywhere on your drawing.
Close your eyes again. Now imagine it begins to rain; the rain
comes harder and harder. . . the wind picks up strength. Do you
want to stay on [the steps?] Why or why not? Where
do you want to go? Open your eyes. On your paper, draw an
arrow pointing to a nearby location that is not on your paper.
Write a word under the arrow. The word is to. Draw a blank
after the word to. Now, fill in the blank so it says to the cave,
or whatever you decide to say.
Ceramic Tile
(silica sand)

This material
Shows weathering Yes No
(circle one)
Made with natural
materials Yes No
(circle one)
Contains or once contained:

? sand ? refined crude oil
? clay ? quarried rock
? lime ? ore minerals
? water ? aggregate
(or gypsum)
+ chemicals

At the end, review vocabulary, considering the students’ knowledge
level and the words that are presently familiar to

 Students get into pairs or small groups
 One team may play several identical cards at one
time; several students can mark off squares this way
 Scoring is the conventional all in a row (vertical,
horizontal, or diagonal)
 Students may mark off more than one square at
each stop
 If games finish too early, require students to mark
only one square at each labeled site or adopt a bingo
pattern that uses additional mark-offs
Allow students to spread out through the building
to avoid the marking of an architectural component already
claimed by another team. You may wish to assign
a specific school section to each group to ensure
that all students have a chance to identify building materials
independently. You might award a suitable prize
for each team’s completed Building Bingo game.

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