Do you have a young pirate on board? Aaarrgh (I know, cliché, but fun to type)! Want to extend her play with some tips about pirate life? If your pirate is in full fantasy mode its best not interrupt but let the creativity flow. If there is a pause and an opportunity to ask a question or inject an idea, then do so. Or wait until later, at dinner or during bath time, acknowledging his play as a pirate and initiating a further discussion.

Piracy has existed since antiquity and in fact is a serious problem on the oceans today. If your child is pretending to be a pirate, chances are her actions are inspired by what was called the “Golden Age of Piracy” (17th and 18th Century) and the Caribbean is the geographic backdrop. I am going to use Black Beard, Ann Bonny, Mary Read and Charles Vane as inspiration for the following suggestions for exploration. Black Sparrow or Captain Hook are probably who your child has in mind as he climbs onto the couch as a swashbuckler.

There are many other pirates through history. Consider this fascinating character. Ching Shih was a woman who around 1807 commanded about 1800 ships or 70,000-80,000 pirates in the South China Sea. This pirate group behaved as you’d expect – looting, extorting, and pillaging. But Ching Shih also set up structures to establish and enforce laws and she was a very skilled military strategist who lived to a ripe old age avoiding punishment for her crimes! So chock one up for a fabulously successful female pirate.

Tips for exploring four different aspects of piracy will be provided below, or how the ships pirates sailed, how they navigated the seas, their life on-board, and life on the ocean.


How big were pirate ships?

How did they sail?

How many pirates might have lived on board?

What instruments did they use to navigate to get from one place to another?

How did the winds or currents help them go fast or slow them down?

How far did they travel?

What was life on board like?

How far could their cannons shoot?

Did they encounter mermaids?

Where were the best places to hide treasure?

What are pieces of eight or Spanish doubloons?


If you live near a harbor and have a pleasant day, take an opportunity to figure out where the wind is coming from and then observe sailboats on the water, how they move, the shape of their sails, the angle of the sails or the haul of the boat relative to the wind direction. Look for boats with one, two, three or more sails.

If you have an opportunity to go aboard a replica of a historic boat, invite your child to take a close look at its masts and rigging, elements on the deck or below deck. Sketch or take photos. Touch and smell what you can, finding the words to describe the experience.

Look through binoculars, and imagine how pirates would peer through their spyglasses (telescopes). What do those binoculars help you do, and what were pirates looking for either when navigating, or perhaps viewing another ship?

Take out a map or nautical chart if you have access. Allow your child to examine it, explaining the various elements. If you have a compass rose on the map, explain how it is a guide to understanding direction. Demonstrate how you would determine what direction you would be heading if you traveled from point A to point B.

If you have a basic compass, invite your child to hold it steady out in front so that she can see the needle and the compass rose. Now invite her to walk slowly in a different direction observing the activity of the needle. For younger children, maybe just focus on the four primary directions, or North, South, East, and West (many folks find it useful to hear a rhyme to remember the four directions, such as Never Eat Shredded Wheat – or make up your own). For older children, you may want to take the discussion a step further describing the fact that a circle has 360 degrees. North is at 0 degrees, East at 90, South at 180 and West at 270. With the more sophisticated understanding of directions as degrees, estimating traveling distances becomes more precise.

If your child shows interest, you can explain that the compass needle always points north and south because of its magnetic poles are attracted to the opposite poles of the earth’s magnetic field.

If you have a globe, you may want to invite your child to examine lines of latitude and longitude (or find a map of the world). To know how long or where to head to get to a destination, pirates would have needed to know where they were, and then the compass direction.

Other elements of navigation involved knowing where the sun rises and falls. Another strategy was to use a tool called sextant, which measures the angle between the horizon and stars. Identifying and observing the North Star is a good place to start with young children in thinking about the stars as a means for finding our way. To find the North Star, locate the Big Dipper. Line up the two stars that are opposite the handle or the end of the dipper, and follow the direction until you come to a bright star. That is the North Star, as well as the last star on the handle of the Little Dipper.

Pirates would also stay close to the coast, using recognizable landmarks, such as river mouths, mountains, islands, or small communities, to inform them of where they were. We use visual cues all day long to tell us where we are and where we are going. Next time you have an errand and your child is along for the ride, do not tell him where you are going, but rather ask him to keep track of the landmarks along the way and make a prediction about what the destination is.

Unfortunately, none of the strategies for navigation we have discussed would help pirate captains avoid those hidden reefs or rocks that their ships would crash upon.

 Compare and Contrast

Pirates built or purloined many different kinds of ships in the 17th and 18th centuries. These included supply ships and naval vessels. If your child is interested, you can find images of sloops, schooners, brigantes, galleons and the iconic square-riggers. Find images online and, as usual, print and paste onto cards or pieces of cardboard so that they can be easily studied and compared. Look for differences in size, the shapes of the hulls, the number and kinds of sails.

Find a map or other visualizations ( of the global pattern of winds and currents. The ocean may appear to children to be stable and not moving, but this could not be further from reality. By examining these maps, your child can begin to determine the routes favored by pirates, as they would prefer to travel with the wind at their backs and with favorable currents. If leaving England, ships would head south towards the equator and then head west towards the Caribbean. If returning to England from the Caribbean, ships would head up the East Coast of the US and then across the Northern Atlantic. Currents are a product of wind but also the rotation of the earth.

Do you live in a coastal community? What are the average heights of tides in your area? Compare these with other parts of the US or Canada. If you do not live in a coastal community, you may still discuss the notion of tides with your child. Tides are a difficult concept to understand as their heights vary depending on the gravity of the moon and a number of other factors. As a pirate, you would not want to pull into an inlet and have the tide go out leaving your ship high and dry…

Ships would depart a port with pigs, chickens, and goats aboard for meals. Compare these food sources with the fish that pirates could catch and consume on the Atlantic or in the Caribbean.

Pirates with parrots have become a common pairing in books and movies. Did pirates really have parrots? There is some speculation that parrots were an emergency food source, but most doubt this claim as parrots apparently don,t have a lot of meat on them. More likely is the idea that parrots, that were common on the islands in the Caribbean or in the jungles of South America, were captured and transported to London for sale as exotic pets.

Which would you prefer? Living with lice (crawlers) in your hair or the stowaway rats on board?

Most children are already familiar with the Jolly Roger or the skull and crossbones image against a black background that is the iconic pirate flag. In actuality, many pirate captains had their own insignias. Compare and contrast what the major elements of those flags were and the potential message it was conveying ( Ask your child to design her own pirate flag.


On those images of ships, count the numbers of masts, sails, canons, gun ports or try to estimate the number of crew on board. Specific information is available online such as at the website called

How big or heavy were the anchors? How much line or rope was on-board?

Find maps of the oceans or the Caribbean. Determine the distances between potential ports. How far is it from New Orleans to the Bahamas, or Jamaica to Tortuga? How about Bermuda to Charleston South Carolina?

Pirates had to avoid giant waves that could sink their ships. If you are at the beach, estimate the size of the waves.

Water temperature can influence wind conditions, so measure the temperature of the ocean if you live or are vacationing nearby.

Pirates needed wind to make their sailing vessels go, but not too much. Sudden storms with high winds could break their masts, shred their sails, or blow their ships far off course. To get a sense of variations in the wind over several days, monitor wind speeds on weather apps, websites or as recorded in a local newspaper. If you have an anemometer (or build one, invite your child to record wind speed information several times a day or over several days. If recording wind speeds, step outside to experience the sensation of wind at different speeds. After a couple of days of different speeds, invite your child to estimate wind speeds and double check those estimates against a reading off of an instrument or a source of weather information.


Sink or float? Obviously, it was critical that the pirate’s ships would float. Invite your child to consider items that may sink or float. Experiment with different items when taking a bath or with a bowl of water in the kitchen. Think of pennies, vegetables, toys, pebbles, plastic items, metal items, or any other handy object. Try a piece of wood. Pirate ships were made of wood, but covered in other elements, (e.g., tar, sulfur, and tallow) to help with leaks. Does the wood float? Can you sink the piece of wood? Try adding objects such as coins or something with weight on top.

Build boat hulls out of aluminum foil. Try various shapes and sizes. See which boat design works best by adding pennies keeping track of how many were added before the boat sinks. Repeat this experiment after adding salt to the water, stirring until it dissolves. Salt will change the buoyancy of the water.

Take a ball of clay and place it in a bowl of water. What happens? Now take that same ball of clay and shape it into something that looks like the hull of a boat. Place your clay boat onto the water. What happens and why? The wider bottom of the boat hull helps to keep it afloat.

Add a mast to a piece of wood or existing toy boat hull. Encourage your child to design and cut out various sails from paper or cloth. Attach these to the mast. An easy start is a square sail that the “mast” goes through at the bottom and top of the square. Now blow on the various sail designs determining which seems to work best in propelling the ship forward.

Make your own compass with a needle, cork, magnet, and a bowl of water. For directions visit

Hauling anchors up and down can be very hard work as they are extremely heavy. The same goes for sails. If the wind is blowing on a sail, it can also be difficult to trim it or pull it in or out to change its shape to achieve maximum speed. To ease all of this hard work, a ship is often a maze of ropes and pulleys. A pulley is a simple machine that makes it easier to raise or lower objects because it reduces the amount of effort. Over time, pulleys have made much of our work lives possible. Think of elevators, cranes, and water wells. Set up a pulley system with your child. You can design a system to haul a heavy object up from the ground to a second story window, or perhaps a system that would carry a load across space. You can buy small pulleys at a hardware store and experiment with those, or build pulleys with empty thread spools. Experiment with the number of loops, as increasing the number of loops of rope can make an object easier to lift.

Pirate ships had cannons on board, but that did not guarantee success in a battle. Firing a cannon so that the cannonball hits the enemy’s vessel and maximizes damage requires considerable expertise. Otherwise, those cannon balls just go plunk and sink in the sea. A number of factors will influence the projectile or path of the cannonball once fired, or how fast it leaves the cannon, its weight, the angle of the cannon, the wind conditions, to name a few. If your child has a toy that shoots things, preferably soft sponge balls or the like, encourage her to experiment with the angle of the firing mechanism. That is, point it at the ground and fire. Raise it a couple of degrees and fire, etc., raising the angle slightly each time. Draw the paths of the “cannonball” or the angle and height of its arc. Where does it land? Add weight to the “cannonball” if possible and repeat the experiment.


I am not sure you need to pop the pirate bubble as a theme for imaginative play, but if historical accuracy is important to you or your child, at some point you can suggest that pirates were a pretty nasty bunch. Not just stealing and plundering, but their activities included kidnapping people, torture, murder and worse.

Look up what a sextant looks like and how it works. Navigators also used astrolabes. These are are ancient instruments that were eventually replaced by the sextant. They look like they are magical and an image of an astrolabe should capture your child’s attention.

Pirates and all seamen experienced a variety of injuries from managing the heavy sails and equipment on board, from slipping and sliding on deck during storms, to injuries sustained in battles from close encounters with daggers, sabers, or from the impact of a cannonball. The pirate eye patch has become a common accessory with pirate costumes, but the truth is that those patches were covering sockets where an eye was missing due to injury or disease and the ship’s surgeon (or cook) was unable to save it. A peg leg is also an iconic element of a pirate costume, but most pirates or sailors who had their leg amputated because of infection or gangrene did not survive the operations. Another common ailment among pirates and sailors was scurvy or the lack of Vitamin C in diets missing fruits and veggies. Look up a pirates’ diet at Next, have a glass of orange juice or peel and consume a tangerine.

Why did the pirate have a scarf or bandana tied around his head? Think about what he might have been protecting from constant exposure to the sun overhead or the rays reflecting off of the sea.

Listen to sea shanties or the songs pirates and seaman would sing when at work on deck. Mom or Dad may want to review these ahead of time as they can be quite bawdy.

Learn to tie knots such as a bowline or half hitch. A pirate’s life could depend on his ability to tie the right knot at the right time. See animated versions of tying boating knots

Spotting seabirds could mean that land was close (land ho!), and after a long and uncertain journey that could be very good news indeed. What seabirds (pelicans, herons, gulls) would pirates have seen near Jamaica, Tortuga, South Florida, Charleston or New Orleans? What other sea creatures could pirates expect to see on their voyages (sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and porpoises)? Here a good field guide for birds or animals in the ocean would be an informative source.

Ever thought about becoming a diver and recovering sunken pirate vessels and possible treasure? Find sources that explain what these modern-day treasure hunters do. Look up marine or nautical archeology for more information.

Share a story, reading aloud, about pirates. Try a classic such as Kidnapped or Treasure Island both by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Watch a film version of Peter Pan.