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Activity 1

Essential Question

How were lives of children impacted by the industrial revolution?


In the 1800’s many children as young as nine or ten years old worked at full-time jobs in factories and coal mines. Often the work was hard and dangerous, and the children worked as long as twelve hours a day.

Girls at a Virginia Cotton Mill, 1909
-from Library of Congress

Usually, the children went to work because they had to help support their families. Many people including their parents knew that these children should be in school, but economic necessity forced parents to allow these abuses to continue.


Instructional Strategies

Strategy 1

Role Playing

Assign students to work in pairs to rehearse the following skit. As they rehearse, listen for discussions of the content they will need to answer the questions at the end of the activity. Ask questions to encourage student thinking as you move about the room listening to the rehearsals and the discussion. Allow for creativity on the part of the students as they rehearse and present their skits so that skits do not become boring and repetitious. You may want to add a homework assignment for students to go online and learn more about child labor so that they can further embellish their skits. All groups should have the opportunity to present their skits, as presentational skills are important social studies skills. Develop a brief scoring tool with the students to provide feedback on each presentation.

Printable Student View

Role Play

With another student, rehearse the following scene until you are ready to present it to the class.

Scene I

You have just landed in your space machine in the year 1890. You find that you have landed in an American town in Massachusetts just before 6:00 A.M. There is a large, drab brick building located along a river. A whistle can be heard blowing loudly from the building and a sign on the building reads, “Lowell Textile Mill.” As you walk toward the building to investigate, a breathless girl in a shabby coat nearly runs into you.

Working Girl: Pardon me, but I can’t be late or they’ll lock the doors to the factory and I won’t earn any money today.

Space Traveler: But you are too young to be working. Where I come from we would be just getting up to get ready for school. Why aren’t you going to school today?

Working Girl: Oh, how I wish I could go to school. My mother promised to teach me how to read, but there is never enough time to do it. As you can see, I leave for work early in the morning and it is usually dark before I get home. And, I am so tired when I get home.

Space Traveler: My mother says that I am lucky to be going to school. There is so much to learn, but I sometimes wish, I could be free to do just what I want to do or to go to work like you do and make lots of money to buy lots of stuff.

Working Girl: I can’t buy anything. My father takes all of my money to buy food and clothes for me and my family. But, I can’t talk now. Come with me and maybe we can talk while I work. It’s sounds so wonderful not to have to have to work and to be able to spend my time studying.

Scene II

The inside of the factory is a deafening roar as the machines start up for the day. It is cold and dark and the air is dusty. During the short lunch break, the girl begins to tell you about her job.

Working Girl: As you can see, working here is not fun. You would hate it as much as I do. I work twelve hours every weekday. Saturday is my short day as the factory closes at 6 instead of 7.

Space Traveler: I’m not sure I could work that long and I’m afraid I would get hurt by one of those machines. Everything seems so loud, noisy and dangerous.

Working Girl: It is very dangerous. Many of the girls are injured, but the owner of the factory doesn’t care. There is always someone to take a child’s place. As I feed the threads into the machine, I have to be very careful not to get my fingers or dress caught in the machine. But it is hard to do because I have to work very fast to keep up with the machines.

Space Traveler: Why don’t you just quit? I would! I would never work under those conditions. It is too dangerous and it sure doesn’t give you much time for having fun with your friends.

Working Girl: I don’t have many friends- only the other girls at the factory and they are just as worn out at the end of the day as I am. Most of the children my age work in the factories. The owners like to hire children because they can pay them less than they would have to pay adults. And, I can’t quit because my parents depend on what I make to help support the family. The only other income is from my brother and his work is so dangerous that one day I fear he will not be sending any money home. He will be dead.

Scene III

The whistle blows and the girl goes back to work. The idea that children die at work makes you shudder. You want to know more about what her brother does so you wait outside the factory to walk home with her. You can smell the smoke from the factory and other terrible smells and you wonder if her brother works in a situation worse then this.

Space Traveler: It’s hard to imagine that your brother works in a worse situation or that his hours could be longer then yours. Where does he work?

Working Girl: He works at the Appalachian Coal Company in Pennsylvania. He works with a bunch of other boys to sort coal. He works from sunup to sundown. But, next year he will be eleven and will be able to work underground cutting out the coal. It will be more dangerous because of the bad air, thick coal dust, and possible cave-ins, but the pay will be a little better.

Space Traveler: They must pay an awful lot to get these little boys to do this.

Working Girl: Remember, they can pay children a lot less then they would pay adults and even that is not very much. And, to make sure he doesn’t take too much money home, they pay him in scrip that he can only use at the company store. Sometimes he owes the company store more then he makes and they get most of his pay.

Space Traveler: Maybe going to school isn’t all that bad. There should be laws protecting children from having to work so hard and making sure they get the chance to go to school. I never thought I would be saying this- but school sounds like a wonderful place to be! And, with an education, I can sure do more than just sort coal from sunup to sundown.

Working Girl: Do what you can to help us. There will always be children that need your help.


Check for Understanding

Printable Student View
  1. What can you tell about the working conditions in a factory in the United States in 1897?
  2. Why do you think so little attention was paid to the education of children in 1890?
  3. Why do you think so little was done to improve the lives of children during the 1800s?
  4. What changes would you predict would have to occur before laws would be passed to prohibit child labor?

Scoring Guide

Strategy 2

KWLH Chart

Keep a KWLH erasable chart in the front of your room. Use it for this module to record what students want to know more about as they do their skits and begin their discussions about child labor. Use your computer lab time or the computers in your room to begin to find answers to these questions. Research can be done in groups or individually, depending on the availability of computers. Allow students to independently fill in the L part of the KWLH chart as they find additional information. Use the sites listed in this module to help students begin their searches.

Your chart should look like this:

Printable Student View

K W L H Chart

What We Know What We Want to Find Out What We Learned How Can We Learn More

Strategy 3

Using a Concept Map

Use a concept map to begin identifying the attributes of the concept of child labor. Put child labor in the center and begin looking for ideas associated with the concept. For example, the following words from the role play will begin to flesh out the concept of child labor: textile mills, factories, coal dust, cave-in, script, company store, machines, whistle, shabby coat, lockout, noisy, dusty, dangerous, factory owner, threads, sorting coal, underground, cutting out coal, bad air, laws to protect children, education. After all of the skits have been presented, discuss the concept of child labor using these words from your concept map. Have students keep the concept map in their notebook and add to it as you increase the depth of your discussions about child labor.

Updated December 30, 2019 1:19pm