My kids are having such a great time learning about ancient history. After spending the past few months on Egypt and Mesopotamia, we recently started on Ancient Greece. (They loved having an excuse to watch the Disney version of Hercules again.) We started off our study of Greece by reading about Ancient Crete in the book The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History (a great book for younger kids). While there is a lot of fun, engaging content about Crete to hold their attention, such as the legend about Zeus turning himself into a bull or the mysterious demise of the civilization, they were particularly fascinated by the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Long story extremely short, the myth tells of an ancient ruler of Crete named King Minos who lived in a palace at Knossos where he kept a creature called the Minotaur with the head of a bull and the body of a man in a maze (labyrinth) underneath his palace. Children from Athens in Ancient Greece were forced to be sent to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur. One day, the king of Athens’ son, Theseus, volunteered to be among the youths sent to Crete. Using some string given to him by the princess of Crete to find his way out of the maze and a sword, he defeated the Minotaur and freed the children of Greece. There are lots of other truly fascinating aspects of the story, such as how the Minotaur came to be, how the hero, Theseus, abandoned the princess of Crete, and how his father King Aegeus jumped into the sea when he thought Theseus was dead (hence, the modern day Aegean Sea).
To learn more about the legend, we read several library books on the subject. My 6 year old’s favorite was The Monster in the Maze: The Story of the Minotaur (out of print, though possibly still available at libraries). It really simplifies the story and is easy to understand for younger kids. He’s asked to have it read at bed time at least 4 nights the past week. My favorite was Ancient Greek Myths: Theseus and the Minotaur which has a wealth of information about all of Greek mythology at all connected to this tale. Even though it is longer and more complex, even my young kids liked this picture book as well.
With 3 young kids, I didn’t want to make anything overly complicated, but I thought this shoebox replica of the palace at Knossos and the labyrinth underneath would be a great, simple way to make a lasting impression and help my kids remember names and terms like: Crete, Athens, Knossos, columns, labyrinth, Theseus, Minotaur, King Minos, and Minoans. Even my almost 2 year old can now remember and say his toddler version of “Theseus” and “Minotaur.”
Note that this post is part of a 4-part set on Ancient Greece. The other posts in the set include:
- Ancient Greece Definition Cards
- Greek Mythology God and Goddess Cards
- Ancient Greece Historical Figure Cards
Recommended Age Range: Kindergarten, Elementary
Time Required: ~1-2 hours
Difficulty: Easy (though does require an adult to use the x-acto knife and possibly the hot glue gun).
Cost: We used all materials we already had lying around. Foam board and a pack of skewers are likely a dollar or two each.
- Foam board
- About 12 skewers
- Markers or paint for the columns (I originally planned to use markers as shown above, but ended up using red paint and a permanent black marker.)
- Sheet of green construction paper
- About 2 feet of yarn
- Small figures to represent Theseus and the Minotaur (I molded them out of a little Playdoh and let them dry. The Minotaur was one piece. I used Krazy glue to attach Theseus’s head and limbs to his torso. I also used part of a toothpick as a sword.)
Supplies & Tools:
- Hot glue gun
- Hot glue stick
- Glue stick
- X-acto knife
- Self healing mat or other surface for cutting
- To start, use the lid of your shoebox to trace a rectangle onto the green construction paper. Then cut it out and glue it to lid of the box.
- Next measure the height of your shoebox so you know how tall to make the walls of your labyrinth.
- Use a ruler to measure a strip of foam board slightly less than the height of the shoebox. I made mine shorter by about 1/4″.
- After you cut the strip of foam board, cut some random wall lengths. Mine ranged from about 1″ to 4″ long.
- Use hot glue to attach Theseus and the Minotaur to a corner of the box and attach walls to make a maze. This is a great time to take suggestions from the kids.
- To complete the labyrinth, add a piece of yarn to represent the string that Theseus used to find his way out of the maze.
- To prepare for your palace at Knossos, color your skewers red (we ended up using 12 total). I’d originally planned on using markers, but ultimately decided paint was much faster. (We did this based on the pictures in our Usborne Encyclopedia of World History book, though you might choose to give your kids more artistic freedom.)
- After your columns are dry, use a ruler to mark them at 1 inch intervals. I used scissors to place a shallow cut at each mark, then broke them with my hands.
- If you want to match the pictures of the palace at Knossos, color the tops of the columns black.
- Cut out a base for your palace from foam board. We just made a random design that we thought looked fancy.
- Next we made some randomly sized rectangles that were smaller than our base platform to act as roofs. Cut some “skylights” in some of these rectangles. Remind the kids that they didn’t have electricity, so they used these sorts of holes in the ceiling to let in extra light.
- Decide where to place your roof pieces to make a second level. Trace the outside of your second level roof pieces onto the base level.
- Use the rectangles as a guide to punch holes with a skewer to hold up the roof pieces.
- Once you have poked all the holes you will need on the base level, you can glue the platform to the shoebox lid and start placing the columns into the holes.
- Repeat this procedure of tracing the upper level onto the lower level, poking holes for columns, gluing the lower level in place, then inserting the columns into the holes to make another level.
- We ended up making 3 levels total, but feel free to add as many as you like.
Here’s another view of how ours turned out:
Click here for more Ancient History activities and printables for kids.