10 Free High-Interest Lessons - Architecture for All Ages

Bring Architecture Into the Classroom and the Home With These Fun, Free Lessons

Futuristic towers and skyscrapers make up the skyline of Shanghai City in China
Shanghai City in China. Mlenny/-Getty Images

Architecture offers a world of possibilities for learning all sorts of things, in or out of the classroom. When children and teens design and create structures, they draw upon many different skills and fields of knowledge — math, engineering, history, social studies, planning, geography, art, design, and even writing. Observation and communication are two of the most important skills used by an architect. Listed here is just a sampling of fascinating and mostly FREE lessons about architecture for students of all ages.

01
of 10

Amazing Skyscrapers

Portrait of young man watching at view on the roof
Shanghai, China. YINJIA PAN/Getty Images

Skyscrapers are magical to people of any age. How do they stand up? How tall can they be built? Middle school-aged students will learn basic ideas used by engineers and architects to design some of the world’s largest skyscrapers in a lively lesson called Higher And Higher: Amazing Skyscrapers from Discovery Education. Expand on this day-long lesson by including the many newer skyscraper choices in China and the United Arab Emirates. Include other sources, such as the Skyscrapers unit on BrainPOP. Discussion could also include economic and social issues — why build skyscrapers? At the end of the class, the students will use their research and scale drawings to create a skyline in the school hallway.

02
of 10

6-Week Curriculum for Teaching Architecture to Kids

model of round building with a young man examining it
Model of a Woman's Center in Pakistan. Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects

What forces keep a building standing and make a building collapse? Who designs bridges and airports and train stations? What is green architecture? A variety of interrelated topics can be covered in any crash course overview of architecture, including engineering, urban and environmental planning, great buildings, and the professions associated with the building trade. Suggested lessons can be adapted for grades 6 to 12 — or even adult education. In six weeks, you can cover the basics of architecture while practicing core curriculum skills. For the elementary grades of K-5, check out "Architecture: It's Elementary," a curriculum guide of interactive lesson plans created by the Michigan American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Michigan Architecture Foundation.

03
of 10

Understanding Architectural Space

empty home interior and laptop
Design Space. kwanisik/Getty Images

Sure, you can download SketchUp for free, but then what? Using free software applications to "learn by doing," students can experience the design process firsthand with questions and activities that direct learning. Focus on different aspects of the space around us — layers, textures, curves, perspective, symmetry, modeling, and even workflow can all be learned with easy-to-use design software.

Marketing, communication, and presentation are also part of the business of architecture — as well as many other professions. Develop specifications or "specs" for teams to follow, then have the teams present their projects to unbiased "clients." Can you get an "A" without getting the commission? Architects do all the time — some of an architect's finest work may never be built when it loses in an open competition.

04
of 10

Functional Landscapes

Red Gates Open to Hiking Path in a city park
Hiking Path Along the Los Angeles River in California. David McNew/Getty Images

Students may understand that buildings are designed by architects, but who ever thinks about the land outside the building? Landscape designs are high interest to anyone who doesn't own a home, and that means kids of every age. All the places you ride your bike and use your skateboard are thought  (rightly or wrongly) to be communal property. Help youngsters understand the responsibilities involved with public places — outdoor spaces are planned with as much precision as a skyscraper.

Although the insides of a bowling alley, basketball court, or hockey rink might all look alike, the same can't be said of golf courses or downhill ski slopes. Landscape design is a different type of architecture, whether it be the Victorian garden, the school campus, the local cemetery, or Disneyland.

The process of designing a park (or a vegetable garden, backyard fort, playground, or sports stadium) may end with a pencil sketch, a full-blown model, or implementation of a design. Learn concepts of modeling, design, and revision. Learn about landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, well-known for designing public spaces like Central Park in New York City. For younger students, the National Park Service-designed the Junior Ranger Activity Book that can help students understand what architects call "the built environment." The 24-page PDF booklet can be printed from their website.

Project planning is a transferable skill, useful in many disciplines. Children who have practiced "the art of planning" will have an advantage over those who haven't.

05
of 10

Build a Bridge

Workers stand on the new Bay Bridge Self-Anchored Suspension (SAS) tower
Construction of Bay Bridge in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (cropped)

From the Public Broadcasting television show, Nova, the companion site to Super Bridge lets kids build bridges based on four different scenarios. School children will enjoy the graphics, and the website also has a teacher's guide and links to other helpful resources. Teachers can supplement the bridge-building activity by showing the Nova film Super Bridge, which chronicles the building of the Clark Bridge over the Mississippi River, and Building Big Bridges based on the work of David Macaulay. For older students, download the bridge designer software developed by professional engineer Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.

The West Point Bridge Designer software is still considered the "gold standard" by many educators, although the bridge competition has been suspended. Designing bridges can be a high interest activity involving physics, engineering, and aesthetics — what is more important, function or beauty? 

06
of 10

Roadside Architecture

Swordfish stuck in the Art Deco facade of building
South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida. Dennis K. Johnson/Getty Images

A gas station shaped like a shoe. A cafe in a tea pot. A hotel that looks like a Native American wigwam. In this lesson about Roadside Attractions by the National Park Service, students examine amusing examples of roadside architecture and colossal advertising sculptures built in the 1920s and 1930s. Some are considered mimetic architecture. Some are just weird and wacky buildings, but functional. Students are then invited to design their own examples of roadside architecture. This free lesson plan is just one of dozens from the Teaching with Historic Places series offered by the National Register of Historic Places.

07
of 10

Teaching and Learning with Your Local Newspaper

two-dimensional Illustration of Chrysler Building and Other Buildings in Manhattan, New York
The News About Architecture. Michael Kelly/Getty Images (cropped)

The Learning Network at The New York Times takes architecture-related news stories from their pages and transforms them into learning experiences for students. Some articles are to be read. Some presentations are video. Suggested questions and lessons make the points about architecture and our environment. The archive is always being updated, but you don't need New York City to learn about architecture. Read your own local newspaper or magazine and become immersed in your own local architectural environment. Create video tours of your neighborhood and put them online to promote the beauty of your own sense of place.

08
of 10

Games or Problem-Solving?

screenshot of the intricate workings involved in creating pathways and spaces for characters to travel
Monument Valley 2. ustwo Games

Puzzle apps like Monument Valley can be all about architecture — beauty, design, and engineering that tells a story. This app is a beautifully designed examination of geometry and elegance, but you don't need electronics to learn problem solving.

Don't be fooled by the Towers of Hanoi game, whether played online or by using one of the many handheld games offered on Amazon.com. Invented in 1883 by the French mathematician Edouard Lucas, the Tower of Hanoi is a complex pyramid puzzle. Many versions exist and maybe your students can invent others. Use different versions to compete, analyze results, and write reports. Students will stretch their spatial skills and reasoning abilities, and then develop their presentation and reporting skills.

09
of 10

Plan Your Own Neighborhood

elevated walkway encircling a large, busy motor intersection
Pedestrian Circle as Seen From the Pearl Tower, Shanghai, China. Krysta Larson/Getty Images

Can communities, neighborhoods, and cities be planned better? Can the "side walk" be reinvented and not be put aside? Through a series of activities that can be adapted to many different grade levels, the Metropolis curriculum enables children and teens to learn how to evaluate community design. The students write about their own neighborhoods, draw buildings and streetscapes, and interview residents. These and many other community design lesson plans are without cost from the American Planning Association.

10
of 10

Lifelong Learning About Architecture

Asian student examining model
Explore and Examine the Built Environment. Aping Vision/Getty Images

Learning what's what and who's who about architecture is a lifelong endeavor. In fact, many architects don't hit their stride until well after turning 50 years old.

We all have holes in our educational backgrounds, and these empty spaces often become more obvious later in life. When you have more time after retirement, consider learning about architecture from some of the best sources around, including edX Architecture Courses and Khan Academy.  You'll learn about architecture in context with art and history in the Khan humanities approach — easier on the legs than an intense worldwide travel tour.  For the younger retiree, this type of free learning is often used "to prepare" for those expensive field trips abroad.