Rivers as Roadways

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household supplies


Before roads crossed our nation, rivers served as roadways to move cargo. Learn about the engineering of the canal era of transportation.


  1. 1. Early in our country’s history, canoes were used to move cargo from one location to another. As the need to move heavier loads increased; stronger, larger wooden boats were constructed. Compare and contrast pictures of canoes and wooden boats. How do they differ?
  2. 2. Unfortunately, the route of the rivers and natural barriers like waterfalls or rapids limited the areas a boat could travel. At these obstacles, goods would have to be unloaded onto a wagon to complete the trip. This process was costly and time consuming. What are some solutions you think could fix this problem?
  3. 3. Artificial waterways called canals were constructed around these natural limitations. Canals allowed goods to be moved more quickly and economically than before. Look at the pictures of some canals. What do they look like? What features do they have in common? Discuss the engineering of a canal system.
  4. 4. Use Model Magic® modeling compound to create a visual representation of a canal. Roll a long log of blue modeling compound to represent a river. Arrange the river on the table top. Use a different color Model Magic to create a canal connecting two parts of the river. Model Magic that is fresh from the pack will stick to itself.
  5. 5. Dried pieces can be glued together. Add additional engineering elements like locks to help the canal look more realistic. Need inspiration? Look at pictures of different canal systems.
  6. 6. Be creative! Embellish your model with a boat, mules or historical elements from the canal era.


Canals were used in Europe for many years before they were introduced in the United States. Learn about how the Europeans used canals for transportation.

Visit the National Canal Museum in Easton, PA. Distance an issue? Check it out online at www.canals.org.

The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Research the history of this engineering marvel. Does the canal still meet transportation needs as well today as it did when it was created?


Students compare and contrast traditional river transportation vehicles.

Children learn the problems associated with river transportation and discuss their ideas for engineering solutions.

Students discuss the canal system of transportation and analyze its construction.

Students design their own canal system replica using engineering elements discussed in class.


Grades 1 to 3
Grades 4 to 6


Social Studies
Visual Arts


30 to 60 minutes
Multiple Sessions

curriculum standards links

US: Research U.S. Standards
UK: Research UK Standards
Canada: Research Canada Standards

safety guidelines

Adult Assistance is required for this arts & crafts project.

Crayola Modeling Materials including Crayola Model Magic®, and Model Magic Fusion™, Crayola Air-Dry Clay, and Crayola Dough—

Modeling Tools—Use the least dangerous point or edge sufficient to do the job. For example, craft sticks, plastic knives and forks, and cookie cutters can cut or carve modeling materials.

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