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Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder Teaching Unit - For Educators

Pioneer Life With Laura
A Social Studies And Language Arts Unit

The teaching unit, Pioneer Life With Laura, was prepared with a grant from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. It is designed as a literature unit that can be used in conjunction with the study of the Westward Movement of the United States.

Unit Objective

Through literature, both fiction and nonfiction, the learner will develop an understanding of and an appreciation for:

Read Alouds for the Unit
Anderson, William. Laura Ingalls Wilder, a Biography. HarperCollins, 1992.
Conrad, Pam. Prairie Visions: the Life and Times of Solomon Butcher. HarperCollins, 1991.
Freeman, Russell. Children of the Wild West. Clarion, 1983.
Rounds, Glen. Sod Houses of the Great Plains. Holiday, 1995.
Schlissel, Lillian. The Way West: Journal of a Pioneer Woman. Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. By the Shores of Silver Lake. HarperCollins, 1939.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House On the Prairie. HarperCollins, 1935.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little Town On the Prairie. HarperCollins, 1941.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The Long Winter. HarperCollins, 1940.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. On the Banks of Plum Creek. HarperCollins, 1937.
Teaching Unit and Activities

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The Journey


Many of the states in which the Ingalls family lived are located in the Midwest Region of the United States and this unit may be taught as part of a larger social studies unit focusing on that region or as part of a study of the Westward Movement. Before beginning the unit, the teacher could present an overview of the Little House books, either by booktalking them or showing one of the sound filmstrips or the video included in the bibliography. The February 1986 issue of Cobblestone magazine has published an issue on Laura Ingalls Wilder titled, "Laura Ingalls Wilder: Growing Up on the Prairie." Multiple copies of this issue can be ordered from Cobblestone Publishing Co., 20 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Before Reading

Discuss Laura Ingalls Wilder's purpose for writing the books, which can be found in her Book Fair Speech in A Little House Sampler, by William T. Anderson. In the speech she states that she and her sisters were busy and happy as children but loved Pa's stories the best. When Laura was 60 years old, she wrote her first book, Little House In The Big Woods, so those stories would not be lost. She thought about how she had seen the settling of the frontier -- the woods, Indian Territory of the Great Plains, the frontier towns, the coming of the railroad, and homesteading on the prairie. She thought of writing the story of her childhood in eight volumes that would cover each aspect of the American frontier.


Discuss the travels of the Ingalls family and have the students work in pairs to plot the journeys of the family. The map, the Laura Ingalls Wilder timeline and directions for students titled, "Pioneering Journeys of the Ingalls Family," should be made available to each group. Using an atlas, students could estimate how many miles the family traveled to each site, and, if they traveled an average of 15 miles a day, how long it would have taken them to reach each site. Before reading aloud, have the students work in small groups to list what the Ingalls family would need to take with them on their journey from Pepin, Wisconsin, to Indian Territory, near Independence, in what is now the state of Kansas.

During Reading

Read aloud Chapters 1 through 4 from The Little House On the Prairie. As you read, stop to discuss these points:

Then read aloud excerpts from an actual diary of a pioneer journeying west. The Way West, by Lillian Schlissel, contains excerpts of the diary of Amelia Stewart Knight, written while she, her husband and seven children traveled from Monroe County, Iowa, to the Oregon Territory in 1853. Have the students compare and contrast the two journeys and write down their comparisons in a journal. Compare and contrast how the two families viewed Native Americans and discuss what happened to the Native Americans as a result of the Westward Movement.

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Life on the Frontier

Home and Family Life

Before Reading

Discuss with the students the Homestead Act and what pioneers would need to make a new life on the prairie. Students could brainstorm in pairs what the early settlers would need to survive, how they would find what they needed, problems they might have, and what happened to the Native Americans of the midwest and plains. Ask if anyone in the class has moved recently and talk about the kinds of housing families find today. Then discuss what kinds of homes the Native Americans had before the Westward Movement: bark houses, earth lodges, tipis, etc. and ask how these houses were suited to each region. Ask the students to compare houses that pioneers might build in prairie states such as Kansas and Nebraska and in eastern woodland states such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Show photographs and drawings of all the houses the Ingalls family lived in and discuss the changes in housing that took place from the time of the Native Americans, to early settlers and the development of towns and farms.

To illustrate early pioneer housing read aloud Chapter 2, "The House in the Ground," and Chapter 7, "Ox on the Roof," from On The Banks Of Plum Creek. Good nonfiction read alouds about houses include Prairie Visions, by Pam Conrad, and Sod Houses On The Great Plains, by Glen Rounds.

To illustrate family life of early settlers, read aloud these chapters from Little House On The Prairie: "Little House on the Prairie," pages 56-70. Begin with, "For days Pa hauled logs", "The Wolf Pack", "A Fire on the Hearth", "Fever 'N' Ague"

Before reading aloud from these chapters, explain that when the Ingalls family came to the Kansas prairie they were settling on land that belonged to the Osage Indians who were away on a hunting trip. Although the land seemed uninhabited, it was not. Also discuss with students the stereotypes of Native Americans found in the book.

During Reading

Discuss how the Ingalls family made a home on the Kansas prairie in 1869 and 1870. Focus on the importance of family life and traditions by discussing these points:

Hardships and Problems

Before Reading

Pioneers on the prairie endured many hardships as they struggled to make a new life for themselves. Ask the students to think of some problems or hardships that the pioneers might have encountered and how they might have dealt with them. Make a list of problems or hardships in one column and solutions in another.

Mention that the Ingalls family encountered many hardships after they moved from Kansas. After spending a year in Indian Territory in 1870, the family back-trailed to their home in the big woods of Wisconsin when the man who bought their farm could no longer make payments on it. Laura Ingalls Wilder included some of the events from these years in Little House In The Big Woods. In 1874, the family moved to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where they lived in a dugout until Pa bought lumber on credit to build a house. He intended to pay for the lumber with money he would make from his first wheat crop, but swarms of grasshoppers invaded the area and destroyed all crops.

During Reading

Read chapters 25 through 27 of On The Banks Of Plum Creek. Discuss how the Ingalls family coped after they lost their entire wheat crop and had no money to pay their bills. Have the students journal about a difficult time in their family and how their family coped with their problems.

After the wheat crop was destroyed, Pa walked over two hundred miles to eastern Minnesota to earn money to send home. Then, in the books, he was offered a job working for the railroad that was being built into the Dakota Territory, and the family moved to the railroad camp. In real life, the Ingalls family spent a year in Burr Oak, Iowa, where for a time they helped run a hotel. Pa later did odd jobs in Burr Oak but could not earn enough money to support the family, so once again the family moved, this time back to Walnut Grove. For more information about the Ingallses stay in Iowa, read chapter 5 of Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Biography, by William Anderson.

More hardships followed. In 1879, Laura's sister, Mary, became blind after contracting what was then diagnosed as brain fever. In 1880 came the hard winter described in The Long Winter. To further illustrate how the Ingalls and other settlers coped with hardships, read the following chapters from The Long Winter:

Chapter 9 "Cap Garland"
Chapter 19 "Where There's a Will"
Chapter 21 "The Hard Winter"
Chapter 23 "The Wheat in the Wall"

The first blizzard struck De Smet on October 13, 1880, and the blizzards lasted until April. The train which carried supplies to the settlers stopped running in January and no new supplies were delivered to De Smet until the train started running again in early May after the melting of the heavy snows.

In a letter to her readers Laura Ingalls Wilder stated that she felt it is important to make the most of what you have, to be content with simple things, and to be cheerful and courageous when things go wrong.


Assign the Laura Ingalls Wilder timeline activity. Students could work in groups to construct a timeline of the life and times of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Download and hand out the Laura Ingalls Wilder Timeline research sheet and the Laura Ingalls Wilder timeline sheet.

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Building a Community

Before Reading

While homesteading in the Dakota Territory, the Ingalls family helped found a new town which was named De Smet for a French priest who had been a missionary to the Sioux. To help herself remember how De Smet looked in the year it was founded, Laura Ingalls Wilder sketched a map of the town. Ask the students to name businesses and services that would be needed in a frontier town on the prairie. Ask how goods such as flour, sugar, lumber, plows and other farm machinery would be transported to the new town. Students may wish to use the interactive map of De Smet to find out about Laura's town.

During Reading

To show how a frontier community developed, read the following pages from the Little House books:

By The Shores Of Silver Lake

The Long Winter

Little Town On The Prairie


Teachers may wish to download the cut-and-fold patterns for students to make their own prairie town.

Culminating Activity

Plan a Pioneer Day as a culminating activity for the unit. Students could share their projects on this day. A pioneer feast could be planned and activities such as butter making, sewing, bread-making, singing, a spelling bee, etc. could take place on this day.

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Individual or Small Group Projects

Make an illustrated guidebook for pioneers going west on the Oregon Trail. Include suggestions of what to take, the best kind of transportation, obstacles pioneers would encounter, and how various Indian tribes might help along the way.

Design an art gallery of pioneers and Native Americans. Use photographs of Native American beadwork, clothing, shields, etc. Include quilts and other folk art as well as works by famous artists. Artists to consider include Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Grant Wood, Harvey Dunn ( nephew by marriage of Grace Ingalls Dow ), who painted scenes of early South Dakota, and Red Horse, who made drawings of the Battle of Little Bighorn. This project can be done by hand or by using a computer program such as HyperStudio or Kid Pix.

Using HyperStudio or actual photographs, do a photo essay on types of housing found on the frontier. Include sod houses, dugouts, log cabins, tipis, earth lodges, bark houses, grass houses, etc. Include how to build each house and pros and cons for living in each house.

One of the reasons Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House books was to preserve Pa's stories. Read one of the stories from Little House in the Big Woods to a grandparent or an older relative. Then record a family story of your own and tell it to the class.

Before Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House books, she wrote down her memories of what it was like to grow up on the prairie. Interview several family members to find out what it was like when they were growing up and any interesting family stories they remember. Make an interview sheet to use and record your interviews. Then use your interviews to write a family anecdote.

Make an illustrated biography of a famous Native American from the Great Plains. You can use HyperStudio or do your biography by hand. Suggestions include: Sarah Winnemucca, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Quanah, Red Cloud, Sacajawea, Black Hawk, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, or Geronimo.

Choose several of your favorite chapters from the Little House books, write a script, and put on a Little House play for your class.

Pretend that you are an investigative reporter and that you have been following a group of former slaves as they seek land and freedom in the West. Then write a newsletter about your findings. Books to read include Wagon Wheels, by Barbara Brenner and Going Home To Nicodemus, by Daniel Chu.

Investigate the history of your own town or city. Then make an illustrated timeline or mural of the development of your town. Include information about the earliest inhabitants of the area as well as information about the earliest Europeans who came to the area.

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To assess how well students have understood the discussion questions, the teacher may keep anecdotal notes for each student. Reading conferences can be held as students finish reading the pioneer books they selected. Rubrics can be used for students to self-evaluate how well they worked in their groups as well as to evaluate their part of the timeline. Rubrics can also be used for students to self-evaluate their other group project. Sample rubrics are included below.

On Task: Student and Teacher
Expert I am on task and do not distract others.
Proficient I am on task, but sometimes I distract others.
Apprentice I need reminders to stay on task and not distract others.
Novice I often distract others and need to be separated from the group.

Creation and Communication: Spelling and Punctuation
Expert I used spellcheck and I proofread my computer project before printing.
Proficient I used spellcheck but I did not proofread my computer project before printing.
Apprentice I forgot to use spellcheck but I proofread my computer project before printing.
Novice I forgot to use spellcheck and did not proofread my computer project before printing.

 Timeline: Quality of Text
Expert People who look at our part of the timeline will enjoy reading our facts and understand all of them.
Proficient People who look at our part of the timeline will enjoy reading our facts but will have a few questions about some of them.
Apprentice People who look at our part of the timeline will have quite a few questions about our facts.
Novice People who look at our part of the timeline will have questions about all of our facts.

 Timeline: Quality of Graphics
Expert All of our graphics for our part of the timeline are eye-catching and colorful and illustrate our facts.
Proficient Most of our graphics for our timeline are eye-catching and colorful and most illustrate our facts.
Apprentice Our graphics for our timeline attract attention but are not directly related to our facts.
Novice Our graphics distract from our facts because they don't relate to each other.

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