Thanksgiving Lessons: Plymouth, Pilgrims, and Native Peoples
- Grades: PreK–K
Many nations have their own day of Thanksgiving, but only in the United States is it so loved by some and so hated by others. Try these lessons to help your students understand the history and purpose of the holiday, and have fun at the same time!
Thanksgiving Lessons and Activities
Lesson 1: The Mayflower
Explain to your class that a group of people from England traveled to the New World (America) on a ship called the Mayflowerfrom September 6, 1620, to November 11, 1620. Some of the people who traveled on the Mayflower are called Pilgrims because they took a long journey to practice their religion freely. The ship was only 90 feet long by 25 feet wide, and there were 122 people aboard, so it was very crowded. The people who traveled on the Mayflower experienced storms and seasickness.
Activity 1: Mayflower Madness
Create a "ship" by placing two tables side by side. Have students stand in the middle to pretend like they are on the deck of the Mayflower. Make sure they are packed in tight, just as they were on the real ship. To provide the effect of wind and rain, turn on a fan and lightly spritz your students with water from a spray bottle. While your students are on the "ship," have them mark off each day of the Mayflower voyage on a calendar. The children will see how long two months can be in wet and crowded conditions.
Check out the "Voyage on the Mayflower" interactive lesson.
Lesson 2: Pilgrims
The Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod Bay, in Virginia. Then they sailed across the bay to Plymouth, Massachussetts, which they called "New Plymouth" after the place they had sailed from in England. When they arrived, they had no homes and no food. It was winter, and most of them were too weak from their voyage, as well as too cold and hungry, to survive. However, some did manage to build houses.
Activity 2: Pilgrim Names
Many Pilgrim children had names that described virtues (e.g., "Love," "Patience," "Hope") or special experiences ("Oceanus," and even "Wrestling"!). Have your students give themselves Pilgrim names.
Activity 3: Writing Home
Let your students pretend they are Pilgrims writing to people they love back home. Have them draw pictures and sign them with their Pilgrim names. Make quill pens by taping feathers to ballpoint pens.
Read historical letters from Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians.
Activity 4: Compare & Contrast
Have your students compare and contrast the lives of Pilgrim children with their own lives today. What do they do that the Pilgrim children also did? What do they do that is different? Pilgrim children helped by sweeping, cooking, and setting the table. Do your students perform chores, too? How do they dress compared to the way Pilgrim children dressed?
Take a virtual field trip to Plimoth Plantation.
Lesson 3: Native Americans
The Pilgrims met some Wampanoag Indians, including a man named Squanto, who spoke English and helped the Pilgrims and Indians communicate with each other. The Indians helped the Pilgrims learn to survive in their land. Squanto stayed in Plymouth with the Pilgrims for the entire spring and summer, teaching them how to plant and hunt for food. Because of the help from the Indians, the Pilgrims had plenty of food when winter came around again.
Activity 5: Strangers
Have your students discuss how the Native Americans helped the Pilgrims in their time of need, and what they might have thought having strange people on their land.
Download the Pilgrim-English Translator to get your kids speaking like real Pilgrims
Activity 6: Compare & Contrast
Explain that Native Americans are still living, and that modern-day Native Americans do modern things and wear modern clothes. Native Americans only dress up in traditional clothing for special occasions. Show pictures of Native Americans, not only from the past, during the time of the first Thanksgiving, but also from today. To bring home the point, have your students create a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting Native Americans as they are now with how they were in 1620.
Look at over 450 photos in the Native American Image Bank.
Activity 7: Oral Storytelling
Some Native American tribes have a tradition of telling stories over and over again. These stories from the past are handed down orally from generation to generation. Help your students think of something they have experienced as a class. Make it into a story, and tell it over and over — it can become your class's oral tradition!
Lesson 4: The First Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving as we know it was a harvest feast attended by 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians. Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until 1863.
Activity 8: Kids' Thanksgiving Recipes
Some of the foods the Pilgrims and Indians ate were the same as we eat now, and some were not. Have your students tell you what they eat for Thanksgiving dinner, and take dictation as they tell you how they think those things are made. Put the dictated recipes together for a class recipe book. I guarantee you, it will be a classic!
Print out "What's On the Menu?"
Activity 9: Turkey Talk
Most people eat turkey on Thanksgiving. If you can, take your class on a field trip to see a real turkey. Talk about how some people are vegetarians, and discuss foods that can be consumed on Thanksgiving besides turkey or other meats.
Activity 10: Horn of Plenty
Have each student bring in a food item to add to an oversized cornucopia. Then talk to the class about how they are overflowing with bounty!
Many teachers are concerned about celebrating Thanksgiving in the classroom for fear that they might do something offensive, especially with regard to Native Americans. Thanksgiving is a tricky subject because it has many myths and stereotypes associated with it, and it can be hard to figure out what is and is not appropriate to teach. I think that if you treat the subject of Native American people with the same respect you would for any other ethnicity or religion, and honestly do the best you can to be accurate, you will be fine. The important thing is to be conscientious about what you are teaching and how you are teaching it.
Remember that most people who teach about Thanksgiving are doing so from the perspective of the Pilgrims and popular culture. Still, the problem is mainly when everything that came after the "first Thanksgiving" is left out of the lessons and curriculum.
One of the most significant things you can do — especially this early in a child's education — is to explain to your students a little bit about what happened AFTER the first Thanksgiving. The first gathering of Europeans and Native Americans was peaceful, but that's not how the story ends. In fact, while most Americans celebrate the fourth Thursday in November, many Native Americans consider it a National Day of Mourning.
You don't have to offend the children in your class who are of European descent to be historically accurate. Take a balanced approach that talks about both sides — the actions, the consequences, the points of view. If YOU don't teach this, your students may never learn it.