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Classroom Material

Neighborhood Detectives

Neighborhood Detectives | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeCover of book, Wisconsin's Built Environment.

'Wisconsin's Built Environment'

This book from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press offers students the chance to learn about history of Wisconsin communities through historic buildings including capitols, courthouses, libraries, schools, places of worship, railroad stations, farmsteads, apartment buildings and more. Learn more about the book >

Grade level: Elementary

Duration: More than one class period

Fourth-grade students will survey their surrounding residential community and observe and discuss the architectural styles found in the neighborhood, listing typical construction features characteristic to the architectural style. Afterwards, students will sketch individual homes or architectural details.


Students will:

  • Acquire essential vocabulary to describe their observations of the built environment
  • Identify popular architectural elements and attribute them to architectural styles commonly found in residential neighborhoods
  • Gain skills in drawing residential structures
  • Understand that the built environment conveys unique information about community history


This activity can be part of a larger investigation, incorporating materials found in Wisconsin's Built Environment (WBE), a resource folder that introduces students to a broad sampling of historic structures found in the state. WBE encourages students to become "building detectives" by investigating the local built environment. They will learn to identify various structures, and compare and contrast their functions, designs, building styles and materials.

Resouce Materials


  1. As you plan a walking tour for your class, first walk the neighborhood on your own, planning your itinerary and noting buildings that would be interesting for your students to see. Be sure to record the addresses of all the houses where you wish to stop, so that you can plot an efficient and engaging route. Choose a morning or afternoon tour when parents or grandparents are available to participate.
  2. Introduce the "building detective" concept and tell students they will be learning more about their school neighborhood by investigating residential buildings in the area on an actual walking tour. Tell them that they will be working individually or in pairs. Brainstorm some common elements of residential neighborhoods (for example, a park with recreational equipment, apartment buildings, a library, a school, a cluster of shops or strip mall) and list them on the bulletin board.
  3. Review the residential examples included in WBE and pass out photocopied style glossaries for each individual or pair of students. Explain to students that they will use their style glossaries to find the common features characteristic of different residential architectural styles. Have extra sheets of unlined paper (for sketching), pencils, and clipboards for each student or pair of students.
  4. Lead students to the buildings that you have already identified. Have students note key architectural elements that are listed on the Building Detectives Worksheet. (For example, the roof type, geometrical shapes seen, and features such as columns).
  5. If time permits, ask them to rank the buildings, using student-generated criteria based on observation. Criteria could include features like most interesting entryway, most decorative windows, unusual building material/pattern, most creative lawn ornaments.
  6. Back in the classroom, ask students to compare the residences in this packet to the residences seen on the walking tour.
    • Did the students find any that looked similar?
    • Did students find a homes that borrowed from more than one style?
    • Have students share their findings and discuss as a group.
  7. Have students illustrate their favorite home from the walking tour and write a brief paragraph explaining their selections.
  8. Give students time to finish their sketches using crayons, markers, or paints. Display the resulting drawings and paragraphs.


Have students, either working in pairs or independently, design their fantasy house. Begin by having a class discussion to generate a list of the ten most important features of a house. Have students design the interior as well as exterior of the home. Have each student or pair write a description of their fantasy home and present it to the class. Students writings and drawings can be incorporated into a student-designed classroom display or scanned into the computer as an online display.


This teacher-submitted, elementary-level lesson plan appeared in Badger History Bulletin. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs. Author: Vivian Greblo, State Historical Society of Wisconsin-Madison