Building a model of the one of the old Spanish missions in California is a common homework assignment for elementary school students in the state. California content standards ask public schools to teach about the missions as a part of the fourth grade history curriculum and that's when most of the state's students first learn about the Spanish missionaries who founded a string of iconic adobe churches and settlements in California in the 1700s and 1800s. For students in the San Francisco Bay Area, nearby Mission San Juan Bautista is a popular focus for study.

Check textbooks for pictures of Mission San Juan Bautista. Look at the sketches of the mission on the website of the Library of Congress. (See Resources.) Note the main features of California mission style such as thick adobe walls, rows of arches, bell towers, decorative tiles, white walls and deep red tile roofs.

Decide how big the model should be. To make things simple, if a wall of the actual mission is 180 feet long and 10 feet tall, make that same wall on the model mission 18 inches long and 10 inches tall. Keep all other measurements to the same scale.

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Sketch the outline of the mission's floor plan on the foam board. Note that the shape of the floor plan for the main church at San Juan Bautista will be rectangular, while the floor plan for the entire mission will be L-shaped.

Construct the walls of the mission from cardboard. Measure and cut the cardboard according to scale, then glue the pieces in place following the outline on the foam board. Coat the cardboard with a thick layer of white poster paint. To suggest arches and windows, paint them on using black poster paint.

Strip the top layer off the remaining cardboard, exposing the corrugated layer in the middle. The corrugated ridges will resemble the layers of tiles on the roofs of Mission San Juan Bautista. Paint the roof pieces red and glue them on top of the walls.

Add details to the model such as decorative tiles and a bell tower. Have fun selecting details that are both accurate and interesting. The historical notes on the website of Old Mission San Juan Buatista, for instance, describe a small hole in one of the missions doors that was built specifically for the mission's cat. (See Resources.)

Decorate the landscape with walking paths and vegetation. To make oak trees, cover round chunks of a kitchen sponge in green poster paint and stick in toothpicks for trunks. To capture the parched look of the California summer landscape, dab some pale yellow paint on the base board.


  • Allow the paint on the white walls to dry before adding the red roof. This takes extra time but avoids any unwanted pink corners.


  • In some cases, constructing a miniature mission can turn into a time-consuming venture that takes over a family's kitchen table for many evenings and can require late-night trips to the store for more paint.
  • The best way to reduce stress and expense is to plan ahead and keep the model as simple as possible.

Things Needed

  • Pictures of Mission San Juan Bautista
  • Foam board
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Sharp scissors
  • Corrugated cardboard
  • Glue or glue gun
  • Paintbrushes
  • Large jar of white poster paint
  • Small jar of black poster paint
  • Large jar of red poster paint
  • Small jar of green poster paint
  • Kitchen sponges
  • Toothpicks
  • Small jar of yellow poster paint

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