The Ancient Olympics
Introduce your students to the fascinating world of Ancient Greece by studying the Olympic Games as they were then.
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
With the Summer Olympics around the corner, what a terrific time to study Ancient Greece, where the first Olympics were held more than 2,500 years ago! To get started, first gather materials for your classroom library. The Celebrate the Summer Olympics Book List can help get you started. Kick off the unit by sharing Olympic Fun Facts, then set a challenge for your students: They should look for any related news articles, bring them in to share with the class, and add them to an “Olympic Headlines” bulletin board.
Ancient Greek city-states competed against one other at the first Olympics. Your students will enjoy learning more about these colorful societies with this classroom activity. First, invite students to form five groups — Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Argos, and Megara, and then have them explore their city-state´s culture online by visiting different sites about Ancient Greece, such as this online unit from the British Museum or this fun kid-friendly site from the BBC. Then have the members of each group agree upon a behavior that will distinguish it as a city-state during your classroom Olympics, and let the competition begin! Host tic-tac-toe, trivia, or jacks events. Once the victorious city-state has been declared, discuss why the groups acted the ways they did.
Invite your students to imagine that it is 500 BC and they are citizens of Olympia. It is their responsibility to create a newspaper for those coming to the games. To begin, discuss the important sections of a newspaper, such as news, weather, and sports. Then challenge teams of students to cover one of these sections for your Olympic newspaper. News writers can report on special preparations, sports writers can interview star athletes, and style writers can cover what's hot at the celebration banquets. Encourage your newspaper staff to do research so that their stories are as accurate as possible. When finished, kids can compile the stories and print enough issues for all to read.
With this activity, your students will research the exciting pentathlon and learn about one way the Olympics have changed throughout history. First, invite one half of your class to research the ancient pentathlon and the other half to study the modern version. Then encourage the groups to do Internet research to find out more about the participants and judging of each of the five events. Ask both groups to make a book about their version of the pentathlon, with one page explaining each event. Finally, have the groups present their books to the class so that all can become pentathlon experts.
Chariot Race Writing
Challenge your students to use their knowledge of the ancient Olympics to respond to a learning-rich writing prompt in their journals. First, share this quote from Sophocles, a Greek playwright, describing the beginning of a chariot race:
“At the sound of the bronze trumpet off they started, all shouting to their horses and urging them on. The clatter of the rattling chariots filled the whole arena, and the dust flew up as they sped along in a dense mass. Each driver goaded his team to draw clear of the rival panting steeds, whose steaming breath and sweat drenched every flying wheel and bending back together.” –Sophocles
After discussing any unfamiliar words, invite students to imagine that they are a chariot driver in this race and write a first-person account of what happens next. Who wins?
Many different Greek gods and goddesses were worshiped during the ancient Olympics. A fun way to introduce this fundamental part of Greek life is to begin by discussing what present-day athletes do for luck. A runner may eat a certain meal before a big race, for example, or a basketball player may always look for her mom in the stands. Write your students' examples on the board. Then share Run with Me, Nike: The Olympics in Four Hundred Twenty, by Cassandra Case, or another title that explains the important role of mythology in the ancient Olympics. As a class, compare ancient and modern athletic rituals. Where do Olympians past and present find courage and strength?
A Mapping Challenge
Invite kids to practice their geography skills and learn more about where the Olympics have traveled — between the first games in Olympia and this summer's competition — with this fun mapping mystery. First, mark all of the Olympic cities over the years on a world map with push pins. Throughout your unit, ask teams of two students to figure out the year two of the cities hosted the games. Have the teams write the names and dates of the cities and include pictures of the countries' flags on blank cards. Attach the cards to the map with the pushpins to create an impressive Olympic display!
To wrap up your unit, consider talking to teachers in the grade level below or above about creating an Olympics-themed reading challenge. Students can clock the number of hours they spend reading Olympics-related materials, such as newspaper stories, articles in the magazine or on the web, and books from the school or public library.