Banks of Plum Creek: 1—"The Door in the Ground" and 2—"The House in the Ground"

Teacher's Guide Author: Sarah Bloom, 4th grade teacher, Frank Kim Elementary School, Clark County School District


This teachers' guide is one of a series including activities for all chapters of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Additional teacher's guides are available for other Little House books as well as other books addressing the topic of U.S. westward migration.


Chapter Overviews: Laura and her family arrive in Minnesota by covered wagon. Her father arranges to trade their horses and wagon cover to a Norwegian man in return for land, oxen, and a dugout, a house built into the side of a hill. After a last night spent camping, the family move into their new home. Ma is happy that it is whitewashed inside and very clean. Laura goes with her Pa to meet the oxen, talking of how sad she is to not have horses anymore.

Chapters' Themes: Covered Wagons, Travel, Bartering, Dugouts, Immigrants, Moving, Oxen
Suggested Activities

  • Language Arts
    • Making Predictions
      • Create a three column chart with students. This can be done individually or as a whole group. The first column is for predictions. The second column is for evidence. The third column will be for students to return to later in the reading to confirm or revise their predictions. Have students make a prediction before reading based on the title and picture on the cover. After reading the first two chapters have students add to their chart predictions about what will happen to the dugout, how the wheat crop will be, and when Laura might have horses again.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 2.4.1 Select before reading strategies appropriate to text and purpose to
          • set purpose for reading
          • make predictions
        • 2.4.2 Select during reading strategies appropriate to text and purpose to
          • make, confirm, and revise predictions
        • 3.4.8 Make and revise predictions based on evidence.
    • Begin a Story Chart
      • Begin to create a chart in which to record the story elements of setting, plot, and character. You may choose to devote a bulletin board to this, creating separate maps or charts for different story elements. Bubble maps could be used to describe the setting (both the where and the when) of the story and for the characters. Each major character can have their own bubble map upon to record physical and personality traits on. A flow chart could be added to throughout the reading as important events happen in the story. Individual student booklets could be used instead of or in addition to a bulletin board for students who need less guidance.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 3.4.1 Explain setting
        • 3.4.1 Make inferences and draw conclusions about setting and plot based on evidence.
        • 3.4.2 Describe physical and personality traits.
  • Mathematics
    • Create Distance Problems
      • Work with students to use the information found on at about the homes of the Ingalls family to determine the distances the family would have needed to travel for each move. If you have the technology, you can work as a class to use a program such as Mapquest to determine the distance between each. Students could also do this work in small groups or individually at computers, depending on the students' skill levels. Create a chart of the distances that might have been covered for each move. Students can then use this information to create their own addition and subtraction word problems about the family's moves.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 1.4.8 Generate and solve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems using whole numbers in practical situations.
        • 1.4.7 Add and subtract multi-digit numbers.
    • Convert Distances
      • Use the chart of distances the family has traveled created in the Create Distance Problems activity, or refer to that activity for ideas on how to create a similar chart. The story talks about the family dog running beside the wagon through all the states that they have traveled. Have the students use a conversion chart and a calculator to find out how many yards, feet, and inches Jack the dog traveled between Kansas and Minnesota. This activity could be repeated for other times the family moved or students can be given the numbers in meters or kilometers and convert in the metric system.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 3.4.1 Estimate and convert units of measure for length, area, and weight within the same measurement system (customary and metric).
  • Social Studies
    • Bartering for Goods
      • Pa barters with Mr. Hanson for the land and the oxen. Have students brainstorm times they may have bartered for something. For example, they may have traded cards or traded a pencil for a pen. Establish that this is bartering. Discuss what makes a trade fair, that both people get something they want or need. Pa got the land and oxen, Mr. Hanson got the horses and wagon cover so that he could travel west. Have students create their own chart of what would be fair deals when bartering.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 3.3.1 Differentiate between barter and monetary trade.
        • 3.5.1 Explain why trade must be mutually beneficial.
    • Who were the pioneers?
      • The man Pa trades the horses to for the land and oxen is Norwegian, as are some other characters later in the story. Have students research countries that pioneers might have come to the United States from. They can compare that information to countries that immigrants are coming to the United States from today.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 7.5.9 Describe the contributions of immigrant groups to the United States.
        • 6.3.17 Describe the life of pioneers.
  • Science
    • Rain and Dugouts
      • The dugout the Ingalls' family lived in was covered by grass. In this activity, students will set up an experiment to discover if plants have an effect on the erosion of soil. Two blocks of soil will be needed. One should be plain soil. The other needs to have small plants, such as grass growing in it. Starting with small amounts of water, have students observe and record with words and pictures what happens to each as water is added to the environment. Increase amounts of water added slowly until the effect is noticable. Have students write a conclusion about the differences noticed between the two kinds of soil and what they think the reasons behind this are.
      • Standards Addressed
        • E.5.C.2 Students know water, wind, and ice constantly change the Earth’s land surface by eroding rock and soil in some places and depositing them in other areas.
    • Building Strong Roofs
      • Reread the description of how the roof in the dugout was created in the book. Discuss as a class how gravity pulling down on a roof is balanced by the walls holding it up. Have students use sticks to create their own roof, using supports to hold it up despite gravity.
      • Standards Addressed
        • P.5.B.5 Students know Earth’s gravity pulls any object toward it without touching it.

Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

At the beginning of the story, Laura and her family are just finishing a journey by covered wagon from Kansas to Minnesota. Travelling by covered wagon was a popular mode of transportation for pioneer families, but it was not the only one. Many families also made journeys to their new homes at least in part by train or boat. The benefit of traveling by covered wagon was that a family could bring much more along. They could bring seeds and tools as well as household items. During the trip, there was still much to be done. There was the work of actually moving along which might include walking beside the wagon or driving the horses or oxen. Woman also worked cooking, washing, and taking care of the children. The Ingalls family included three children, which was not unusual. Many families with young children, and even young babies, made the trip to the prairie or farther west.

Dugouts were often first homes for pioneers on a new homestead. Pioneers coming from the East were used to having a ready supply of trees to build houses with. When they moved to the the Prairie, trees were not in as plentiful of supply. Newly arrived families often created dugouts into the sides of hills and creek banks. They would dig into the hill to create a room and then use blocks of sod to create a front wall with a door and possibly windows. These dwellings were limited in size. Since many families moving west to settle included children and infants, this could make them cramped. Various materials could be applied to the inside walls to whitewash them or have a plaster-like effect, making the dugouts cleaner on the inside. There are reports of families having snakeds in the walls and ceilings, as well as heavy animals breaking through the ceiling a problem shown later in the novel. Families who were successful at farming often later build homes of purchased lumber or rock.

Additional Resources

  • by The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum: This website includes information and pictures of the homesite of the Ingalls family outside Walnut Grove. It includes pictures of where the dugout was as well as images of recreations of the stories told in this book.
  • by Harper Collins Children's Books: This is the official website from the publisher. It includes information on characters, timelines, information on Laura's houses, and recipes.
  • If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon by Ellen Levine: This book provides information written for children to read. It is presented in a question and answer style format and gives information on the wagons themselves as well as what the trip would have been like.
  • If You Were a Pioneer on the Prairie by Anne Kamma: This book also presents information written in a question and answer format for children to read. It includes information on pioneer housing and daily life.


Note: This teacher's guide was developed as part of one of the Clark County School District's Teaching American History grants. In this grant module, teachers focused on using children's historical literature to teach cross-curricular concepts relating to 19th century westward movement. For more information about this blog, related teacher's guides, or the grant module, please contact Dr. Christy Keeler.


Tina Tenenholtz said...

Your activities for these chapters are great for all ability levels. Some are challenging, but with groups of various levels, students can help each other. I also like how you brought technology into your math activity. As an extension activity for the second science activity, you can have a competition to see which group can build the strongest roof with sticks, seeing how the roof was build can depend on how strong it is. Overall, I think you have provided wonderful activities for the start of this book study.

Running Girl said...

I like the distance math lesson. I could see incorporating map scales, to have the students determine distance travelled as well. It's a great way to incorporate math and social studies. I have never been a great advocate of subject integration, but I find myself looking for more ways to integrate! Thanks for the idea.

Christy G. Keeler, Ph.D. said...

I love interactive bulletin boards! What a great idea to chart the story!

I really like your "Create Distance Problems" activity because of its mathematic and geographic connections. I recommend, however, that you use Google Earth/Google Maps for the activity. This way, you can compare the distances "as the crow flies" as well as by modern transportation routes. Thanks for the website of Laura's homes!

For "Convert Distances," try also having students compare distance traveled per mile then to district traveled per mile now. What the ratio?

For bartering, perhaps you could replicate an activity Colin Haas did in his 4th grade classroom at Heckethorn Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada. He had each child bring an item from home that they no longer wanted (e.g., a used toy, a book they've read). Then, in class, he had students trade their items until they were all happy with their resulting items.

What a great idea for the "Who Are the Pioneers" activity. With such a huge immigrant population in Las Vegas, this would really appeal to students. You might also have students visit the U.S. Immigration website and compare percentages of specific nationalities immigrating in the 1800s versus today. Ask student why the balance has shifted over time and compare movement patterns.

Your use of hands-on and engaging science activities will really help students with long-term content retention. Excellent!