How to Build Wigwams & Longhouses in a Classroom

Help students visualize Native American homes with classroom models.
Help students visualize Native American homes with classroom models. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

Classroom studies of early America lend themselves to making models of the homes of Native Americans from different areas of the North American continent. When studying the Eastern nations, students will enjoy creating wigwams and longhouses. Named from the Algonquin word, wigwams were usually small round houses, 8 to 10 feet tall, made from young trees bent into shape and covered with woven mats or birch bark, then tied with ropes or wood strips to hold the bark in place. The Iroquois and others constructed longhouses, so named because they were longer than they were wide, in much the same fashion, with door openings at both ends, but without windows. Usually 22 to 24 feet wide, they were sometimes as long as 300 feet. Simulate the materials in the classroom to provide students with a concrete picture.

Things You'll Need

  • Wire clothes hangers
  • 18-gauge or 20-gauge wire
  • 22-gauge or 24-gauge wire
  • Polymer clay
  • Rolling pin
  • Construction paper
  • Markers
  • Craft glue
  • Kitchen twine
  • 1/8-inch dowels
  • Craft knife
  • Packing foam blocks from appliance or electronics boxes
  • Natural fiber paper

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Bend pieces cut from wire hangers into the U shapes for the wigwam frame. Make eight Us for each wigwam.

Cut 18-gauge wire lengths to make crosspieces for the hanger shapes. You will need enough to attach them 1 inch apart on the frame. Make them long enough to go around the circumference of the shape.

Cross two U shapes at the center to make 90-degree angles. Using the smaller gauge wire, bind them together. Repeat with two more frame pieces, dividing the spaces formed by the first set.

Attach one of the 18-gauge wire lengths to the frame, 1 inch from the bottom, by wrapping the smaller wire at the intersections. Repeat with the remaining lengths, spacing them 1 inch apart, to the top of the frame.

Knead the polymer clay until it is warm and pliable. Roll it as thin as possible with a rolling pin.

Wrap the wires with clay and texture them with your fingers to make them look like tree trunks.

Bake the frames according to the clay manufacturer’s instructions. Allow them to cool thoroughly.

Cut construction paper into rectangles; the sizes can vary. Decorate the pieces with markers to look like birch bark.

Glue the “bark” to the frame, overlapping them. Leave a door opening in one side and a small hole in the top for the smoke hole.

Wrap the outside of the wigwam with twine and glue the ends in place. Repeat two or three times.


Cut the dowels into 12-inch lengths with the craft knife. You will need as many pieces as necessary to space them 1 inch apart for the desired length of your longhouse.

Cut more dowels to the desired length of the longhouse model.

Measure 1-inch increments along the foam base, marking them with a permanent marker. Make two parallel rows, 6 inches apart.

Insert one end of a 12-inch dowel piece on one of the marks on the foam. Curve the dowel and insert the other end at the opposite spot in the parallel lines. Repeat with all the 12-inch pieces.

Glue the dowel pieces cut to the model length to the sides and top of the curved pieces to make a crosspiece frame. Space them about 1 inch apart, beginning 1 inch above the foam base.

Tear the paper into rectangles of varying sizes to mimic the way bark might peel from a tree.

Glue the paper over the frame of the longhouse, overlapping them. Leave a door opening at each end and a smoke hole at one end of the roof.

Tips & Warnings

  • Substitute more dowels for the wigwam if you prefer not having to bake the clay.


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