Introducing the Maya

Lesson Plan: Introducing the Maya

Incense Burner with Sun God Face
Artist not known, Maya
About A.D. 600-900


Children will learn basic information about the Maya through the Incense Burner with Sun God Face. They will look at maps, pictures of the rainforests of Central America, and pictures of Maya ruins, and then imagine what it would be like to explore this area. They will then compare this information with what they know about their own region.

Age Group

Early childhood (ages 3-5)


21st Century Learning Skills Addressed:

  • Critical Thinking and Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Collaboration
  • Self-Direction
  • Invention

2009 Colorado Academic Standards Primary Area Addressed:
Social Studies

  • Recognize change and sequence over time


  • Develop spatial understanding, perspectives and connections to the world

Additional 2009 Colorado Academic Standards Addressed:
Visual Arts

  • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
  • Relate and Connect to Transfer

Language Arts

  • Oral Expression and Listening
  • Reading for All Purposes
  • Research and Reasoning

Length of Lesson

One 40-minute lesson


The premise behind this ECE social studies lesson is to help children see on a map that people live in different places on the globe, and that where they live influences their lifestyles and artwork. Social studies includes geography, which attends to climate, flora, fauna, etc., and addresses the idea that how people live, and the art they make, reflect their regions. The children won’t necessarily remember or grasp these concepts at this age, but early exposure gives them a context for learning that will come during elementary and secondary school.


Students will be able to:

  • point out at least two images on the Incense Burner with Sun God Face;
  • correctly identify photographs/images as being from the Central American rainforest or Maya culture versus their own region; and
  • use their imaginations.


  • Air-dry clay (about a 3-inch ball for each student)
  • Map that allows children to see Central America and their own region
  • At least six printed images (ideally laminated) of the Central American rainforest and Maya ruins
  • At least six printed images (ideally laminated) of their own region
  • Copy of About the Art sheet on the Incense Burner with Sun God Face (found at the end of the lesson plan)
  • Color copies of the Incense Burner with Sun God Face for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


  1. Preparation: Read the “Things to Look For” information on the Incense Burner with Sun God Face on Creativity Resource. Label on a wall or white/chalk board two separate sections: “Maya/Central America” and “Home.”
  2. Warm-up: Have children use the pieces of air-dry clay to shape animals that live in their communities. As they work, help them realize they are making approximations and that the animals don’t have to be exact. Have them share with the class what they made.
  3. Show the children the Incense Burner with Sun God Face. Point out the snake and catfish elements shown in the piece. Ask them if these animals are different from the ones they made. Explain that these animals are on the incense burner because they live where the people who made the piece also lived. Allow them some time to talk about the piece and other elements that draw their attention.
  4. Tell the students that the incense burner was made in Central America and that they are going to learn a little bit about how this part of the world is different (or similar depending on where you’re teaching) from where they live. Show students their hometown on a map and trace a route to Central America from where they live.
  5. Hand out or display on a screen the maps and photographs of Central America and Maya ruins. Focus their attention on the flora – lots of growth of a variety of plants in the rain forest. Allow them to talk about what they see, including what they notice about the pyramids and other Maya structures.
  6. Have the children imagine they are explorers making their way through the thick forests of the jungle and allow them to move about the room as though exploring. How would they get through the dense growth of the plants? Have them imagine they are clearing the plants to make their way through. Next, have them “discover” one of the pyramids and move their bodies like they are climbing a pyramid.
  7. Ask them if this area or the buildings look the same as where they live. Have them talk about why or why not.
  8. Lay out the different images of the two regions. Hold up the pictures one at a time and ask the children if you should put that picture in the “Maya/Central American” section or the “Home” section you’ve created. Have them tell you why.

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About the Art

Incense Burner with Sun God Face by Artist not known, Maya, About A.D. 600-900

Who Made It?

Maya peoples have lived in what we now call Central America for at least three-thousand years. Their territory included parts of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Archeologists divide the ancient Maya civilization into three major time periods: Preclassic Maya (1500 B.C.–A.D. 250); Classic Maya (A.D. 250–900); and Post Classic Maya (A.D. 900–1500).

This incense burner was created during the Classic Period, which is considered the highpoint of Maya culture. The Classic Maya built cities with palaces, pyramids and temples to honor their gods, and made works of art in a variety of media. They are well-known for their sophisticated hieroglyphic writing system, a number system that included the concept of zero, and a calendar for recording both historical and mythological dates. Expert astronomers, the Maya observed the movements of the planets and accurately predicted eclipses.

Maya artists were specialists who produced ceramics, stone sculptures, and jewelry of jade and shell. The Maya word for artist is its’at, which means “wise man” or “sage.” Maya scribes carved inscriptions in stone, and painted them on ceramics and in books made of fig bark paper. Hieroglyphic inscriptions recorded dynastic histories, including births, deaths, and marriages. Military victories and religious ceremonies were also recorded. Like artists today, some Maya artists even signed their works.

What Inspired It?

This incense burner, sometimes called an incensario, was made for religious ceremonies in which rulers fed the gods with the smoke from burned offerings. Sweet-smelling tree resin incense was usually burned, but on some occasions rulers cut themselves and bled onto paper, then burned the papers in an incense burner.

Special events, such as the birth of a child to a ruler or the ascent of a new ruler, required an incense offering. The end of 20-year periods, called katuns, were occasions for special ceremonies. Rulers throughout the Maya region made sacrifices, communicated with dead ancestors, and burned offerings to ensure the welfare of the people. These rituals connected the ordinary world with the world of the gods. Archaeologists have found hundreds of incense burners, which suggests that offerings in the form of smoke were an important part of Classic Period Maya life.

Maya rulers were better fed and healthier than commoners, and they lived longer lives. The position of ruler usually passed from father to son, but records tell us that women ruled as well. Rulers wore symbolically rich costumes, performed ceremonies, and communicated with both ancestors and deities. Upon death, the ruler was buried in a tomb accompanied by rich grave goods such as modeled and painted pottery and jade jewelry. Sometimes incense burners are found in Maya tombs and show no sign of use, leading archaeologists to believe that they were made for the sole purpose of being buried with the ruler.

For more resources related to this artwork, check out the "Find Out More" section for this object on Creativity Resource online.

Things to Look For

Incense Burner with Sun God Face by Artist not known, Maya, About A.D. 600-900


The incense burner was made by hand and painted with bright colors made from minerals.

Sun God

The large face at the bottom of the incense burner is that of the Sun God, one of the most important Maya deities. The Maya believed that gods could appear in many forms and that they could change into humans, other gods, or animals. In the daytime, the Sun God was K’in (keen), or golden light.

Vision Serpent

The Vision Serpent’s upper head rests atop the Sun God’s head. It has a long snout with a three-pointed tooth that projects out over the eyes of the Sun God. The squares with circles inside them are earrings worn by the Vision Serpent. The Maya believed that when night came, the earth swallowed the sun, and the Sun God became the Jaguar God of the Underworld, a powerful creature who battled through the darkness of the underworld to emerge at dawn. Although the jaguar does not appear on this incense burner, the transformation from one personality to another is represented by the Vision Serpent on top of the Sun God’s head.

Water Drops

Under the large eyes of the Sun God are water drops. These indicate that the Sun God is being shown as K’in, his daytime personality.


The Sun God’s ears are large and wavy with circles inside.


The catfish-like whiskers at both sides of the mouth are called barbels.

Incense Burner with Sun God Face
Artist not known, Maya
About A.D. 600-900

Denver Art Museum Collection: Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1973.180
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2008. All Rights Reserved.

This image is intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum.
This piece may not currently be on display at the museum.