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Rivers as Roadways

Before roads crossed our nation, rivers served as roadways to move cargo. Learn about the engineering of the canal era of transportation.

  • Grade 3
    Grade 4
    Grade 5
  • Multiple Lesson Periods
  • Directions

    1. Early in the history of the United States, canoes were used to move cargo from one location to another. As the need to move heavier loads increased, wooden boats that were stronger and larger were constructed to fit the needs of the day. Invite students to work in small groups to investigate the evolution of transportation during this time period. Ask them to compare and contrast pictures of canoes and wooden boats. How do they differ? How are they similar?
    2. Unfortunately, the route of the rivers and natural barriers like waterfalls or rapids limited the areas a boat could travel. At these obstacles, goods would have to be unloaded onto a wagon to complete the trip. This process was costly and time consuming. What are some solutions you think could fix this problem? Allow time for students discussion.
    3. Artificial waterways called canals were constructed around these natural limitations. Invite students to discuss how the building of canals improved the delivery of goods. Look at the pictures of some canals. What do they look like? What features do they have in common? Discuss the engineering of a canal system.
    4. Use Model Magic® modeling compound to create a visual representation of a canal. Roll a long log of blue modeling compound to represent a river. Arrange the river on the table top. Students use a different color Model Magic to create a canal connecting two parts of the river. Model Magic that is fresh from the pack will stick to itself.
    5. Students add additional engineering elements like locks to help the canal look more realistic. Need inspiration? Look at pictures of different canal systems.
    6. Be creative! Encourage students to embellish models with a boat, mules or historical elements from the canal era.
  • Standards

    LA: Read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grade level text complexity band independently and proficiently.

    LA: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher led) with diverse partners on grade level topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    LA: Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate.

    LA: Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking clearly at an understandable pace.

    MATH: Solve problems involving measurement and conversion of measurements from a larger unit to a smaller unit.

    SCI: Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

    SS: Identify and use various sources for reconstructing the past, such as documents, letters, diaries, maps, textbooks, photos, and others.

    SS: Examine the interaction of human beings and their physical environment, the use of land, building of cities, and ecosystem changes in selected locales and regions.

    SS: Describe how we depend upon workers with specialized jobs and the ways in which they contribute to the productions and exchange of goods and services.

    SS: Identify and describe examples in which science and technology have changed the lives of people, such as in homemaking, childcare, work, transportation, and communication.

    VA: Intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of experiences and ideas.

    VA: Select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of ideas.

  • Adaptations

    Encourage student groups to investigate the use of canals in Europe, where this technology was used for years before it was introduced in the United States. Investigate how Europeans used their canals to improve transportation in their countries.

    The National Canal Museum is located in Easton, PA. If possible, organize a field trip for students to see first-hand how canals work. A virtual field trip can be experiences online at

    Students groups investigate the building of the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. How did the building of this canal improve transportation for goods as well as people? Does the canal still meet transportation needs as well today as it did when it was built?

    Prior to the development of canals, goods were transported by mules. Students investigate why mules were used rather than other similar creatures.

    Students imagine what it was like to work as a hoggee on the canal. Keep a journal of your adventures with the mules. What was life like? How did you treat the mules?


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