Lesson Plans

Introduction to Primitive Shelter Building


Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) Model Lesson Plan

Grade: Kindergarten

Standards:  Department of Education Science Standards (2009)

K.4 Engineering Design

K.4D.1 Create structures using natural or designed materials and simple tools.

K.4D.2 Show how components of designed structures can be disassembled and reassembled.

Theme: Primitive Shelter Building

Objectives: Students will understand the the vital role trees play in our ecosystem and society through the construction of a lean-to (temporary wilderness shelter). Students will learn about design, construction, and decomposition of the structure.

Background: In previous lessons the class learned about the important ecological role trees play (producing oxygen, absorbing carbon, conserving water, etc).

Language Objectives: Students will recognize key vocabulary terms

Key Vocabulary:

Tree, Leaf, Sun, Air, Water, Soil, Bark, Energy, Roots, Flowers, Fruits, Seeds, Sap.

Key vocabulary will be emphasized, written, and repeated throughout the lesson.

English Proficiency Levels: Beginning through advanced

For lower proficiency students (LPs) – Adaptation of text to lower levels of student proficiency. Teacher will rewrite and reinterpret concepts and information in a succinct fashion, avoiding complicated passages and instructions.

Example (adapted from Echevarria p80):

Beginning: “It’s cold and you’re lost.”

Early Intermediate: “It is cold outside. You are lost and need to keep warm.”

Intermediate: “It is very cold outside. You are lost and need a shelter for warmth.”

Advanced: “It is a cold, wintery day. You are unfamiliar with your surroundings and need to build a shelter to keep warm.”

Transitional: “It is unusually cold for this time of year. You have become disoriented and are unfamiliar with your surroundings. In order keep warm overnight you need to construct a debris hut out of materials found in your immediate vicinity.”

For English Language Learners (ELs) – The teacher will provide EL students with a bilingual vocabulary list at the beginning of the lesson (i.e. Tree/Arbol, Leaf/Hoja, Sun/Sol).


Reading Materials –

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

A classic story about the relationship between a Tree and a boy. The Tree unconditionally gives the boy everything he asks for; branches to swing on, apples to eat. The boy takes and takes from the Tree until only a stump is left.

El Arbol Generoso por Shel Silverstein

Spanish edition.

The Giving Tree is available on over 30 different languages including Chinese, Italian, Hebrew, Latin, and French. This will be beneficial when used for Native Language Texts adaptations.

All Round. Issue #7, Theme: Shelter

Self-published, hand illustrated magazine with brilliant colors. This issue covers various aspects of natural building with titles such as ‘Making Mud Houses’ and ‘A House that the Earth Loves.’

Outdoor Survival Handbook for Kids by Willy Whitefeather

Useful information ranging from finding water to telling time by the Sun, this book contains a four page section on how to build a lean-to. A double-sided copy will be given to each student to take home.

Adaptation for ELs – Marginal notes or a translation can be written out and provided.

Houses of Bark by Bonnie Shemie

“From the Northwest Territories of Canada as far southeast as Virginia in the United States, tree bark became indispensable to the everyday life of Native peoples. Simple to cut, light to carry, easy to work with, it was used for food, containers, clothing, and canoes. But nothing showed their skill, ingenuity, and inventiveness as the way bark was used to make shelters.”

Houses of Wood by Bonnie Shemie

“The Native peoples of the Northwest Coast were blessed with a mild climate, waters teeming with fish, and abundant vegetation, including giant cedars, among the world’s tallest and most versatile of trees. With only small handmade tools, these peoples managed to fell the massive trees, transport them back to their villages, build spectacular wooden dwellings, and embellish them with art admired the world over.”

Project Materials –

Branches (of all sizes), twigs, bark, leaves, etc. found on-site

Instructional Techniques:

Body language, hand gestures, and facial expressions will accompany the lesson to help students better understand the information.

Instructional Techniques for ELs:

Verbal Scaffolding – student’s elevation to higher levels of English proficiency can be advanced through the following techniques:

Paraphrasing – modeling correct English

Reinforcing Contextual Definition – define the word within the context of the sentence

(e.g. “Lean-to’s, temporary shelters made from branches, provide shelter from wind and cold.” The phrase “temporary shelters made from branches” defines the word “Lean-to.”

Slowing Speech & Increasing Pauses – this provides more time for ELs to process information

Motivation: The teacher asks: “What are your homes made of?” creating a personal connection.


Begin with the teacher reading The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

Adaptation for LPs – viewing an illustrated video of the book before reading


Adaptation for ELs – A copy of El Arbol Generoso will be given to Spanish- speaking students to take home and read the previous week. This use of Native Language Text will familiarize them with the story, dialogue, and characters.

Multimedia option for ELs – viewing a reenactment of the Spanish version in this brief video:


Discuss the relationship between the boy and the tree. Ask the class if they have a special tree they like to climb or play under. General discussion on the resources and functions provided by trees (note: the functions of a tree were discussed in a previous lesson and this will be more of a review, transitioning into a small group activity on the resources the trees provides).

Small Group Activity:

Arrange students into groups of 4 or less.

Prompt Question: “What gifts do trees give us?”

Have students quietly brainstorm answers among their group members.

Adaptation for ELs – ELs can be grouped together for this activity. This allows for direct peer response, cooperation, and interaction; all of which comprise Social/Affective Strategies.

Adaptation for LPs – Lower proficiency students can be partnered with higher proficiency readers in order to provide them with Procedural Scaffolding.

After allocated time, have each group offer an answer one at a time, keeping a running list on the chalkboard. This will provide visual support to aid students with diverse learning abilities. Students should gradually begin to see the interconnection between trees and humans.

In addition to examples already present in the classroom (paper, pencils) the teacher can use such Realia as chopsticks, a bottle of Aspirin (derived from the Willow tree), or chewing gum (historically sap resin was chewed and modern gum utilizes the cellulose fibers).

Discuss the scene where the boy asks the tree, “Can you give me a house?”

“I have no house,” said the Tree.

The forest is my house,

but you may cut off my branches

and build a house.

Then you will be happy.”

Discuss the positives of building with natural materials, followed by a discussion on the negative impacts of building with artificial, nonrenewable materials.

Multimedia – Teacher will share a slideshow presentation of native architecture and dwellings of indigenous peoples. Students will appreciate the diversity of cultures, the use of natural resources for food, clothing, and shelter, and the overall level of sustainability of non-industrial societies.

Background Experiences – The teacher should include images of dwellings native to their students’ ethnic backgrounds. Whether from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, or South America, people the world over have used natural building for 99% of human history.

Use overhead projector to share contemporary natural building images from ‘All Round’ magazine. Children will be thrilled to learn that houses made of earth are not confined to prehistory, as Mud Dauber (pp.22-23) in Tennessee will prove. Furthermore, there are instructions at the bottom if students wish to make their own mud homes during Art class.

Transition into shelter building – Continue the lesson outside in a predetermined area next to a tree.

Begin walking the class through the steps required to construct a lean-to. If possible have one already completely built for Demonstration. This can be disassembled by the students for reassembly or to incorporate into the class designed lean-to (meeting Standards K.4D.1 & K.4D.2).

The teacher will explain the steps as they go along.

1. Begin with the main beam, pole, or branch positioned in the fork of a tree. Ideally this pole should be at least as thick as your arm and twice as long as the body from head to toe.

2. This main pole will support the medium sticks which are leaned against it.

3. Next, smaller sticks are woven in between the medium-sized ones.

4. Then cover the entire structure with leaves (or ferns, moss, etc).

5. A few branches placed atop the leaves will help to prevent them from being blown away by the wind. Children especially enjoy piling on the leaves.

Constructing a primitive shelter is a great hands-on activity that immerses the students in the natural world while also preparing them for any unforeseeable emergencies.


Students will be assessed through various approaches.

Regular Feedback – Throughout the lesson, the teacher should be constantly checking in on students to make sure they are actively engaged and participating. This type of Informal Assessment can be made one-on-one, in small groups, or while scanning the classroom.

Observing the students’ participation in the building of the final structure, the teacher can gauge their understanding in an Authentic Assessment.

While teaching the lesson on the social values of trees and wood products the teacher should periodically take advantage of the “Thumbs-up/Thumbs-down” method to quickly check and see if every student is following along.

The teacher will also meet with the ELs for extra feedback, making sure they comprehend the materials and asking if they have any questions or need clarification.


Related LiteratureHouses of Bark and Houses of Wood can be displayed at the front of the class or near the reading area to encourage student use during reading or free time. Additionally, The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer tells the wonderful story of a child who brings a salamander into his room. Realizing the salamander needs his natural habitat in order to survive the child begins bringing in elements of nature (first leaves then insects then birds and so on) until all that remains is his solitary bed in the middle of a jungle. This could be made available in the reading area, as well.

Adaptation for LPs and ELs – The Salamander Room is a short story and Marginal Notes can be made quite quickly for struggling readers.

Adaptation for ELs – Houses of Adobe by Bonnie Shemie looks at the native architecture (kivas, pueblos) of the American southwest plus parts of Mexico. This would be a useful tool to link students background experience with natural building concepts.

Explorations – Wooden blocks during free time can provide children with a Manipulative that represents a real, direct connection between their hands-on entertainment and trees.

Physical Education – Students learn parts of a tree by mirroring: Toes = Roots, Feet = Lower trunk, Legs = Upper trunk, Skin = Bark, Arms = Branches, Fingers = Twigs, Hair = Leaves, etc.

Have students imagine they are their favorite tree and have them respond and react to different weather patterns (e.g. swaying back and forth when it’s windy)


References and Resources for Teachers

To discover more information about primitive shelters, see:

Primitive Living, Self-Sufficiency, and Survival Skills by Thomas J. Elpel (pp27-44

Primitive Wilderness Living and Survival Skills by John and Geri McPherson (pp375-408)

Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children by Tom Brown, Jr. (pp122-141)