Back to Basics

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, August 23, 2006

Grade Level

  • Elementary School


  • Design History

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

Two or three fifty-minute class periods


People's basic needs have changed little since the beginning of time. We need air, water, food, shelter, and clothing to survive. However, the objects people design to meet these basic needs have changed dramatically. In this activity, students will examine the unique and diverse historical artifacts that people have designed to fulfill their everyday needs in extraordinary ways.

National Standards

Historical Understanding. Standard 1. Level II. Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns 4. Knows how to identify patterns of change and continuity in the history of the community, state, and nation, and in the lives of people of various cultures from times long ago until today Standard 2. Level II. Understands the historical perspective 2. Understands that specific individuals had a great impact on history 3. Understands that specific ideas had an impact on history
Language Arts
Standard 4. Level II. Gathers and uses information for research purposes 1. Uses a variety of strategies to plan research (e.g., identifies possible topic by brainstorming, listing questions, using idea webs; organizes prior knowledge about a topic; develops a course of action; determines how to locate necessary information) 4. Uses electronic media to gather information (e.g., databases, Internet, CD-ROM, television shows, cassette recordings, videos, pull-down menus, word searches) 6. Uses multiple representations of information (e.g., maps, charts, photos, diagrams, tables) to find information for research topics 7. Uses strategies to gather and record information for research topics (e.g., uses notes, maps, charts, graphs, tables, and other graphic organizers; paraphrases and summarizes information; gathers direct quotes; provides narrative descriptions) 8. Uses strategies to compile information into written reports or summaries (e.g., incorporates notes into a finished product; includes simple facts, details, explanations, and examples; draws conclusions from relationships and patterns that emerge from data from different sources; uses appropriate visual aids and media) Standard 8. Level II. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes 3. Responds to questions and comments (e.g., gives reasons in support of opinions, responds to others' ideas) 5. Uses strategies to convey a clear main point when speaking (e.g., expresses ideas in a logical manner, uses specific vocabulary to establish tone and present information) 7. Makes basic oral presentations to class (e.g., uses subject-related information and vocabulary; includes content appropriate to the audience; relates ideas and observations; incorporates visual aids or props; incorporates several sources of information) 10. Organizes ideas for oral presentations (e.g., uses an introduction and conclusion; uses notes or other memory aids; organizes ideas around major points, in sequence, or chronologically; uses traditional structures, such as cause-and-effect, similarity and difference, posing and answering a question; uses details, examples, and anecdotes to clarify information) 12. Understands the main ideas and supporting details in spoken texts (e.g., presentations by peers or quest speakers, a current affairs report on the radio)


Students will do the following:
  • identify ways humans have used design throughout history to enhance the ways they meet their basic needs
  • analyze why people have a need to design new objects and new technologies to meet their basic needs


  • websites


  • Internet access
  • magazines
  • newspapers
  • catalogs


Building Background Caves to Condos

The purpose of this activity is to provide an opportunity for students to examine the unique ways people throughout history have designed artifacts and technologies to meet their basic needs. 1. Involve students in a discussion about humans' basic needs. Ask students to list what people need to survive. (Air, water, food, shelter, and clothing.) 2. Shelter - Show students photographs of a cave dwelling and a renowned architectural building. Discuss how both structures provide the basic need for shelter. You may use the photographs on these sites for this activity. Stone Age Habitats Cave Dwellings Taj Mahal 3. Decorations - Take your students on a virtual tour of the Cave Lascaux Web site. As you view the artwork in the various rooms of the cave, discuss how the artwork might have changed the experience of living in a cave. Teacher Note: This is an additional site that contains cave paintings. 4. Clothing - Read to your class the following excerpt from the History For Kids Web site: Ancient Clothing Clothing was very expensive in the ancient and medieval world, because without engine-powered machines it was very hard to make. So most people had very few changes of clothing; many people probably owned only the clothes they were wearing. Many children had no clothes at all, and just went naked. In the Stone Age most clothing was made of leather or fur, or woven grasses. By the Bronze Age people had learned to spin yarn on a spindle and to weave cloth out of this yarn on looms. Although many clothes, especially coats, were still made out of leather or fur, most clothes were made out of wool (from sheep) or linen (from the flax plant) or cotton. Some rich people wore silk. In the Middle Ages (the medieval period), people invented the spinning wheel, which made spinning yarn go four times faster. Clothes were a little less expensive than they had been before, but still most people had only one or two outfits. Discuss how people need clothes to stay warm and to survive. Involve students in a discussion about how people created new technologies to create clothes to fill this basic need. 5. Food - Visit the Web site. Discuss how food has changed over time and how people have strived to find new ways to meet their basic need for nourishment.  6. Eating Utensils - Visit The Rietz Collection of Food Technology on the California Academy of Sciences Web site. Discuss how culinary objects and technologies have changed through time. Also visit the Cooper-Hewitt "Feeding Desire" website. Discuss the changes seen in tableware and eating utensils. Use the timeline to discuss the changes that took place over time. 7. Conclude this activity with a discussion about the reasons why people have the desire to design new artifacts and technologies to meet their basic needs.

Steps for Learning The Impulse to Design

In this activity, students will create a timeline that illustrates people's impulse to design since the beginning of time. 1. Review how people's basic needs have changed little through the centuries, but the objects that we use to meet these needs have. 2. Have students choose one of the following categories:
  • buildings
  • clothing
  • culinary objects and technologies
  • household implements/furnishings
  3. Ask students to create a pictorial timeline for their chosen category. Tell students to find images of artifacts and place them in chronological order on the timeline. Students may use a variety of resources for this activity, including magazines, newspapers, catalogs and the Internet. The following Web sites may be useful for this activity: 4. Tell students to write a brief description of each object that they add to the timeline. Have students present their timelines to the class.


Answer the following:Give some examples of ways people design new objects and technologies to meet their basic needs.What do you think drives people to create these new objects and technologies?What new objects and technologies do you think might be created one hundred years from now?

Enrichment Extension Activities

1. Explore the Woodland Indian Village on the Exploring Maryland's Roots website. 2. Ask students to compare how their basic needs are met in comparison to how the basic needs of the people who lived in the Woodland Indian Village were met. 3. Have students create a map of the "village" where they live. The map should illustrate how the village meets its basic needs.

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