PrimaryDesign & TechnologyGeography ...

Mayans KS2 – Ancient Maya facts and lesson plans

Mayan structure in the jungle, representing Mayans KS2 teaching resources

Who were the Mayans, where did they live and what happened to them? Explore all this and more in KS2 with these ideas…

by Teachwire
Ancient Maya KS2 lesson plan
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Ancient Maya KS2 – History lesson plan

We’ve got plenty of Mayans KS2 inspiration for you here – from facts and figures to inspiring lesson plans from history experts…

Mayans KS2 facts

Who were the Mayans?

The Maya of Central America were, according to many historians, the most successful Mesoamerican (Stone Age) society, much more prolific than the Aztecs or Incas.

Where did the Mayans live?

Maya society developed in what is today Mexico, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.

Mayans KS2 timeline

This Mayans KS2 history cheat sheet for teachers covers:

  • Life in a Mayan settlement
  • National curriculum suggestions
  • Key individuals
  • Mayan inventions
  • Possible trip ideas
  • Broader context

It also contains a helpful timeline of key events:

Date (approximate)Event
c. 2000 BCEThe Mayan civilisation emerges in Central America
c. 100 BCEFirst city states appear
c. 250 CEThe ‘classical’ period begins, urbanisation begins and continues
c. 300 CEMayan settlements become centres for trade across the region. Good such as stone and
chocolate are traded with neighbouring city states
c. 600 CEMayan settlements support an increasing population, growing at a fast rate due to plentiful food supply
c. 650 CECaracol, one of the main Mayan cities is increasingly populated and expands over a large area, becoming an important centre
c. 900 CEMayan centres become less important, perhaps because of a widespread drought, but no clear
reason has yet emerged

What happened to the Mayans?

No one can say for certain why Maya city life came to a sudden end, which is why it makes for such an intriguing study of a non-European society.

Mysteriously, cities were abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle. The surviving Maya people returned to a subsistence farming life in the rainforests.

“No one can say for certain why Maya city life came to a sudden end”

Many traces of the Maya were destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadores. They reused building materials in their own churches and monasteries.

It was only in the 19th and 20th centures that archaeologists began to excavate sites and try to interpret how the Maya lived.

Some Maya cities are now World Heritage Sites. New discoveries are forcing historians to re-assess their views on the Maya all the time.

The only written history of the Maya comes from Spanish times and these sources are hardly fair or balanced. Their written language, known as hieroglyphs, is particularly hard to translate into modern English, hence the uncertainty about many facets of Maya life.

KS2 history lesson plans

Mayans KS2 history lesson plan

Explore this real history mystery with Alf Wilkinson’s KS2 history lesson plan. Pupils will:

  • Explore evidence about the Maya
  • Try to reach some conclusions about Maya life
  • Attempt to decide why the Maya civilisation ended so suddenly

Alternatively, become history detectives with this Mayans KS2 history lesson plan from Adam Jevons-Newman. Task children with discovering the truth about Mayan life and beliefs. Children will learn to:

  • Draw on their prior learning
  • Analyse, unpick and draw conclusions from historical sources
  • Reflect on a range of historical possibilities

They’ll also learn about the:

  • Skills which underpin historical enquiry
  • Beliefs and behaviours of another culture and/or era

Mayan fact file

This two-week Y6 writing unit from Plazoom is created around a report about the Maya civilisation. It involves pupils reading a non-chronological report then writing their own report about Mexico, while covering learning about homophones and expanded noun phrases.

KS2 geography lesson plan

Rigoberta Menchú, a Mayan human rights activist who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, said: “We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected.”

Ensure your class investigation of the Maya is respectful and honest, and not part of a stereotypical ‘single story’ of decline and victimhood, by following Ben Ballin’s KS2 Maya geography lesson plan which focuses on what life is like for the Maya today.

Facts about modern day Mayan people

  • About 7 million Mayan people live in Central America
  • Before Columbus, there were about 8 million Mayans
  • About 1 million people in the Yucatán Peninsula speak Mayan languages
  • Educated Mayans often leave their local communities to seek work elsewhere
  • The population in Quintana Roo is growing almost twice as fast as in the rest of Mexico
  • Many modern Mayans are developing computing skills at schools and colleges
  • New health centres have brought great benefits to many Mayan communities
  • One of the state’s main exports is chicle, used in making chewing gum
  • Many homes in Quintana Roo lack running water or access to electricity


  • Many Mayan people are farmers, growing crops such as maize
  • The Mayan people have developed deep traditional knowledge of their land and climate
  • Large agricultural businesses often compete with local farmers in Quintana Roo
  • The soil in the peninsula is often poor, and it can be very hot and dry
  • Mayan farmers grow varied crops like maize, squashes, beans, sweet potatoes and fruit

Weather, climate and nature

  • There are frequent hurricanes on the Yucatán Peninsula
  • In 1989, Hurricane Hugo damaged many Cancún hotels, with winds of over 320 kilometres an hour
  • Yucatán’s coral reefs are a big tourist attraction, but easily damaged by climate change
  • Quintana Roo is rich in wildlife, such as anteaters, parrots, pelicans, alligators, manatees and spider monkeys
  • The main ecosystems in Quintana Roo are forests, savannah, mangroves and coral reefs
  • Quintana Roo has many national parks and wildlife reserves
  • A forest plan has helped Mayan communities manage forests while still making a living


  • Cancun is a popular tourist resort in Quintana Roo
  • New tourist areas are being developed south of Cancún
  • Tourism makes up over 80 per cent of the economy of Quintana Roo
  • Many Mayans feel that the rapid growth of tourism in the area has damaged their sense of who they are and where they belong

Design and technology lesson plan

A study of the Mayans and Mexico promises to be colourful and rich so don’t overlook the delicious cuisine of the area.

Combine the food of Mexico with the skills of website building and the key features of persuasive writing in this lesson. Pupils will have the chance to become restaurateurs as they imagine, launch and run their very own school restaurant.

This project sits perfectly at the end of a study of the ancient Maya.

Maya class read

The Chamber by Gareth Baker

The Chamber by Gareth Baker is an action and adventure novel that makes a great class read when you’re studying the Mayans. It focuses on Taylor Roberts, a 13-year-old adventure seeker, who discovers a lost Mayan civilisation in the South American jungle.

Cadbury World trip

Schoolgirl on Cadbury World Mayan Civilization school trip

Cadbury World in the West Midlands offers KS2 history school trips focused on the Ancient Mayan civilization. Before you go, try this fun Mayan Maths worksheet which explains the unique number system used by the Mayans.

Mayans KS2 – teach the history of chocolate

Chocolate in various forms, representing Mayans KS2 chocolate lesson plan

Use the Mayans as a starting point for a topic around cocoa, Cortez and Columbus with these ideas from primary history lecturer Karin Doull…

Maya gods KS2

Chocolate – it’s a gift from the gods. Or one in particular, at least. Kukulkan, the plumed serpent, gifted it to the Maya in Central America. See the below video for a retelling of the story.

Whether you choose to believe that or not, cocoa was certainly an important element in Mayan society. The Maya called the drink – made from cocoa beans and chilli peppers – xocoatl, or ‘bitter water’. They poured it from cup to cup in order to create a good froth.

In Mayan times, xocoatl was used for special occasions such as rites of passage and weddings, but it was not exclusive to these events.

Cocoa beans were also used as currency. Four beans would get you a pumpkin, and ten beans a rabbit.

Cocoa beans

The Aztecs used the beans to make a drink too, but it was reserved for those of high status. Thus, it was presented to Cortez on his arrival on the continent. However, as the raw beans look a lot like almonds, the Europeans did not immediately realise their worth.

In 1502, Columbus wrote: “They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen”.

The English were even more unwise. In 1579, English pirates stopped a Spanish galleon returning with goods from the new world but left the cocoa beans behind, thinking they were dried sheep droppings.

Primary evidence

There is a surprising amount of primary evidence related to Aztec and Maya chocolate. This includes contemporary accounts of what the beans looked like and images of Maya and Aztecs with beans and the equipment for using them.

Ask children to look at such pictures, and try to identify what is happening and what tools are being used.

Image via
17th century lithograph showing Aztecs preparing chocolate, via

Amazon also sells raw cocoa beans and cocoa nibs, so you can compare the beans to shelled almonds to see how similar they are.

You can also try using the nibs/chilli peppers and water to make xocoatl – though it doesn’t sound very appetising…

Chocolate in Europe

Chocolate came to Europe between the 1580s and 1670s. It took almost 100 years for it to make its way from Spain to England – hardly surprising, given the rivalry between the two countries at this time.

By then, sugar had been added to chocolate to suit European tastes, but there were also other more-exotic combinations made, such as vanilla, citron, cinnamon, jasmine, musk and ambergris.

As you might expect, these were all luxury items used only by the very wealthy, so when chocolate finally got to England it became the drink of the rich and famous.

Chocolate houses were set up as places for men to meet, discuss politics and gamble. The painter Hogarth used chocolate as a metaphor for a decadent and exploitative society – something that can be seen in his painting of Marriage A-La-Mode: 4 La Toilette.

Historians at Hampton Court Palace rediscovered the Chocolate Kitchens in 2013, which had lay hidden for years. It reopened in February 2014, and is the only royal chocolate kitchen in Britain.

Having been originally built for William and Mary around 1689, it mainly served the Georgian kings.

Through videos you can see how drinking chocolate was made for the king using the same sort of tools as the Maya/Aztec used.

You can even find some recipes to try yourself with the children.

Trading standards

The Victorian period brought further changes to the status of chocolate. It became a commercial item, available to the middle classes for the first time.

It was also promoted as a health product, with Baron von Liebig, one of the best-known writers on dietetics, saying: “Parents who value the health of their children should give them this cocoa, so as to build up a strong frame and constitution, the best safeguard against illness”.

Around this time, Cadbury also started to promote cocoa drinking. What do adverts from the time tell you about how people saw cocoa at this time?

The 1920s and 30s was the golden age of chocolate making. Most of the brands we know now developed at this time, with the Quaker families of Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree leading the way.

As Quakers were teetotal, manufacturers promoted chocolate drinks as an alternative to alcohol for working men. Manufacturers then developed chocolate bars and mass production, and chocolate became something for everyone. Watch the below film produced by JS Fry & Sons.

How do the production methods shown differ compared with chocolate making today? What jobs did men and women do in the factory? Would it be the same today?

Company men

The history of Bournville is an interesting area to focus on. What would it have been like to work and live there? There is wealth of documentary information available to search for online, including maps, paintings, adverts and photographs.

Take a series of images and a map of Bournville village and investigate the idea of garden towns and why it was important. What could you do in the village? How did the factory owners try to provide additional facilities for their workers?

Did George Cadbury live up to his quote, “No man ought to be condemned to live in a place where a rose cannot grow”? You can download a detailed history of Bournville from the Bournville Village Trust.

More ideas

  • Another area to explore is the rationing of chocolate and sweets during the war. Why did this happen, and where was the cocoa coming from?
  • Compare and contrast advertising of brands between then and now. The current debates about tooth decay and obesity have had a profound effect on chocolate advertising – we certainly don’t see it as a health product anymore. Carry out scientific investigations around the idea of healthy living.
  • Look into Fair Trade and cocoa-producing countries today.
  • If you have a local artisan chocolate maker, arrange a visit or invite them to demonstrate chocolate making techniques in your school.
  • Above all, the important thing is to go beyond just the product and see what chocolate tells us about us and our society.

Karin Doull is Principal Lecturer in primary history and Holocaust education at the University of Roehampton. She is also a member of the Historical Association’s primary committee, and serves on the editorial board of its journal, Primary History.

You might also be interested in...