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Teaching history using multi-link

Children often find it hard to interpret abstract concepts from history and can find it

even harder to contextualise ideas such as power, trade and significance. So how can we help them to understand these concepts much clearer? Well, we can give them experiences of each of these things using simple multi-link maths cubes! By giving them these physical resources and using groups of children to represent groups of people from history, we can show them clear examples of what life was like in the past and how some of these systems actually worked.

Stone Age to Iron Age – showing the significance of farming over hunting and gathering

Essentially, it can be argued that this was one of the, if not THE biggest achievement that developed us to where we are now. So for that reason, we really need the children to grasp it. So how can we?

Split the class or a handful of children into groups – give one group a few cubes, another group a few more than the last group and the final group the whole box. Give that last group SO much multi-link that they could swim in the stuff! Tell the first group that they are hunter-gatherers and their cubes are food – nuts, berries and some meat. Tell them to ‘eat’ their food (put it in their pockets or in a tub somewhere) – what happens now? You’ve got no food! Give them a few cubes more and eat it once again. Now don’t give them any more…this area has no more food to gather! Now they’ll have to move to the next group who have some cubes. Discouragingly tell the second group NOT to share with the first group – after all, they worked hard for what little food they have! You could even ‘kill’ off one of the second group who died fighting a wild animal. Have the second group eat all of their food. Now neither of them have any, what will they do? Have them move to the final group who have more food than they have ever seen! Ask the final group to eat their food and as they do, keep filling up their supplies. This last group are farmers and they can produce enough food to keep them going forever. The other two groups now need to ask for help – let the farmers decide whether to help them or not.

What you’ve just managed to successfully demonstrate is how important farming was, not only in terms of producing copious amounts of food, but also the fact that they DIDN’T have to move for it and you’ve also shown them the balance of power – the ones who held the food often held the power too!

Roman Empire – what was the impact of the Roman Empire?

For children to really understand how an empire works and the networks that can be forged because of one, they need to experience it!

Set the children into groups – one of these groups will be the Romans and the other groups will be people that the Romans took over as part of their empire. Give each group some cubes, making sure that each group has a certain colour – these will be that place’s ‘resource’, so Britain could have grey cubes for tin and iron etc. Make sure that the Romans have only a few cubes to begin with. Tell one of the groups that the Romans have ‘invaded’ them and so now they must give some of their cubes to the Romans. Have the Romans explain what they have just gained from conquering that place. Do this with another few groups, taking a few cubes at a time. If any of the children refuse to hand it over, this is a ‘rebellion’ and so the Romans must deal with it! ‘Kill’ off a child who rebels (have them sit on the floor or stand to one side) and take some of their cubes. Then ask the others from that group what they want to do – highlight that one of their group is dead and that hasn’t stopped the Romans from taking their stuff! Every time the Romans gain some cubes, that group is now a part of the empire and so the Romans will protect them. Quietly tell one of the Romans that somewhere in their empire is going to be invaded and so they must protect it (just stand in front of that group). Now have one of the ‘unconquered’ territories try to invade somewhere in the Roman Empire – they can’t because the Romans will defend it. Send the attackers back. Now take a look at the amount and colour of the cubes that the Romans have – what does this mean? Have them send out some of the various colour cubes to places that don’t have that colour. What do they all notice now?

Essentially, you’ve just demonstrated how the Roman Empire grew and was able to acquire so much power and wealth. It also helps to show how goods and resources have been exported across the world and how the Romans were keen to defend their territories because of the resources within them.

Vikings – dispel the myth of ‘nothing but vicious raiders’

Although lots of the popular myths and misconceptions about the Vikings are becoming less embedded, we still need to ensure that the children understand that the Vikings weren’t JUST vicious raiders who killed everyone they met and stole everything that they saw!

You know the drill by now – set the class into groups. One of the groups will be the Viking explorers, the rest will be various places that the Vikings explored. Give each of the ‘places’ some cubes as items that they have. Have each place create a sign with where they are and what they have. Now ask the Vikings to move to one of these places and make a decision: do they trade with this group and get some of the stuff, or do they raid that place and take all of the stuff? If they visit somewhere and decided to ‘trade’, then give that group some more cubes to replenish their resources. Anywhere that has been ‘raided’, don’t replenish – dead people don’t make more stuff! You may also want to ‘kill’ off some of the Vikings if they’ve raided as this is significantly more dangerous! When the Vikings have been everywhere, reflect on their decisions – what have you gained? Now tell them that anywhere they decided to trade with, they can go back and get some more cubes. Replenish the cubes again and again.

What we’ve established here is that raiding can be great as you may obtain lots more resources in one go, but once you’ve done that, quite often those places would build defences to stop repeat attacks or they simply wouldn’t have anything left worth raiding for. When trading, you’ve become friendly with those people who are now more likely to trade with you in the future, meaning that you can keep going back and have a steady stream of resources coming in. You can also explain how the Vikings built up huge trading networks all around the world.

Anglo-Saxons – teach about the spread of Christianity

It can be easy to just tell children that ‘Christianity spread across Britain under the Anglo-Saxons’ but how do we get them to physically understand that spread?

Give a small group of children a few multi-link cubes – these represent that they are Christians who were converted by the Romans, everybody else is pagan (believes in more than one god). Have a few children be ‘missionaries’ sent over by Pope Gregory I. Load them up with cubes and send them to one group of children in particular – this will be King Ǣthelberht of Kent. They now start handing out blocks of cubes to individual children. These children then take a single cube from the block and pass the block on. Prep a few children in the class to ‘refuse’ to take a single cube and just pass the entire block on. Then have another group of ‘Irish missionaries’ start handing out blocks of cubes as well. Ask the children to raise their hand if they have a cube – they are now Christians. The children who don’t have cubes raise their hands – they are still pagans. What have the children noticed about the number of ‘Christians’ now compared to the beginning? How did so many of them end up with cubes? Take a few cubes away from a group and highlight that not everyone who converted to Christianity stayed that way, some of them went back to their pagan ways.

What we’ve done here is physically demonstrate the concept of cause and effect. We’ve highlighted that, whilst there was some Christian presence in Britain after the Romans left, the greater spread and impact came during the time of the Anglo-Saxons and that the idea spread from place to place, from group to group. We’ve also shown that some people refused to accept it and that some converted back away from it, thereby linking in the concept of continuity and change as well!

Egyptians – how farming the Nile led to the growth of Egypt as a trading powerhouse

Ancient Egypt became the ‘breadbasket of the Roman Empire’ and supplied grain all across the Mediterranean for centuries. So how do we show the children the significance of this which helped to develop Egypt into a powerhouse of a society?

Split the class into two – the Egyptians and the Romans. Explain how the Egyptians depended on farming the rich soil after the Nile had flooded each year. Sometimes they could produce so much grain that they could feed everyone in Egypt for an entire year and still have some left! Give each of the Egyptians multiple cubes of the same colour. Explain that sometimes, they didn’t have great flooding seasons though and couldn’t produce much, so those years where they did produce a lot, they had stored grain for the bad years. Tell the Egyptians to take away some of their cubes. They then have another great year and can have the cubes back. Now introduce the Romans. Since Rome has been expanding its empire, they need lots and lots of grain to feed everyone. Grain is really cheap but you can grow lots of it easily and it helps make bread which is easy to make and filling. The Romans actually began giving grain away for free so that their citizens could spend money on other things to help boost their economy and enhance their status. Give the Romans a different colour set of cubes as money. Now have some of the Romans give the Egyptians their cubes as payment for grain. The Egyptians hand over some of their grain cubes and take the money cubes. Replenish the Egyptian grain cubes. Discuss what has just happened. Who has what now? The Egyptians have both money and grain, as do the Romans. Explain that this carried on for hundreds of years and the Egyptians started selling their grain to lots of other places too since they often had so much of it, making more money.

What we’ve established here is the idea of trade, economy, supply, demand and significance. By being able to produce so much grain, the Egyptians could make profits that enabled them to grow as a society whilst also ensuing that not only their own population was fed, but others around the world were too. Would Egypt have become so powerful if it had not figured out how to manipulate the flooding of the Nile each year? Most likely not!


There are bound to be lots more examples throughout both KS1 and KS2 that could be used to show different elements of history that are quite hard to grasp using cubes or similar resources, and if you have any suggestions then I would love to hear them, but by thinking about the physical resources that we can add in to embed that knowledge, we will be giving our children the best chance of understanding the past and the systems that helped shape the world today.


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