Thanksgiving presents the perfect opportunity to think about values such as gratitude, charity, friendship, and community. Here, you’ll find 20 tips on how to teach the history of the holiday responsibly, as well as activities that go beyond Pilgrim hats and hand turkeys to help you navigate that tricky no-man’s land known as the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving break!
1. Celebrate Modern Natives
Sometimes Thanksgiving lessons give the impression that Native Americans lived only in the past. That’s a big mistake! Many Native American cultures exist in our country today. To learn about some of their traditions, visit Native-languages.org/kids. (Note that this is an ad-supported site.)
2. Put on a Pilgrim Play
Teach students a few words and phrases commonly used in 17th-century colonial America. Download our Pilgrim–English Translator, and invite your students to write a Pilgrim play using language of the time. Your “popinjays” will be talking “scrap and tittle” to one another and saying, “What cheer?” before you know it! Huzzah!
3. Get Specific With Gratitude
Help students think beyond the automatic answers to “What are you grateful for?” with poetry. For younger kids, assign one letter of the alphabet to each student and ask them to list all the things that they are grateful for that start with their letter.
Ask older students to write a gratitude poem, featuring a different letter in each line of the poem (I am thankful for baseballs and bats / and chocolate and cats). Challenge them to build to a big finish, listing the most important things in the last line. Tell them that they can break form to do this, using words that start with different letters. Collect students’ work, photocopy, and create a Gratitude Book for them to take home.
4. Play T-Day “True or False”
Download our “What Do You Know About Thanksgiving?” trivia sheet and play a game of true or false with your students. You’ll find statements such as “There were no kids at the first Thanksgiving” and “At the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and Indians ate eels.” (Of course, you’ll also find out whether these statements are true or false!)
5. Understand Dissenting Views
Some Native American communities consider the fourth Thursday in November the National Day of Mourning. While the harvest feast in 1621 was a peaceful celebration, within 50 years, the Wampanoag were no longer a free people. To many Native Americans, Thanksgiving represents loss of their land and the death of many of their people. For ways to discuss this difficult subject, search for “Thanksgiving” at teachingtolerance.org.
6. Muck the Garden
A common chore for young Pilgrim children was to “muck,” or fertilize, the garden. Why not invite students to help out for an afternoon in your school or neighborhood garden? You’ll pay tribute to colonial life while giving back to the community: the perfect Thanksgiving combination! To learn more about daily life for the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, visit Scholastic's First Thanksgiving learning activity.
7. Hunt for the First Facts
Find out the real deal on the first meal. Go to Scholastic's The First Thanksgiving: The Thanksgiving Feast for a slide show that students can use to learn about the famous first Thanksgiving feast. Then use our The Real Deal on the First Thanksgiving printable as a quiz.
8. Eat No-Bake Pumpkin Cookies
Grab this fun and easy recipe, which calls for a microwave. If you don’t have access to a microwave, combine the dry ingredients for a Harvest Trail Mix. Be sure to enjoy some math with your snack! Have each group measure out their share of the ingredients. Ask students to estimate how many individual pieces of each ingredient they have. Invite them to write down their estimations. Then ask them to count and record the amount of each item they actually have. Were their estimates close to the real amount? Record each group’s findings on the board and compare the results. Discuss careful measuring and why it’s important when working with a recipe.
9. Separate Myth From Reality
Myth: The first American Thanksgiving feast was held in 1621.
Truth: There was a celebration of the harvest following a difficult winter. But the term “Thanksgiving” was first used to describe a different feast, in 1623.
Myth: The 1621 feast was the first celebration of Thanksgiving in the world.
Truth: People have always given thanks at harvest time, all over the world. Native Americans have held celebrations to give thanks for bountiful harvests for as long as there are recorded traditions. Today, Thanksgiving celebrations take place at harvest times in China, France, Great Britain, Greece, India, Israel, and Japan, to name a few.
Myth: The Pilgrims wore tall hats with silver buckles.
Truth: While frequently depicted wearing hats decorated in this style, Pilgrims actually did not have buckles at this point.
Myth: The Wampanoag wore headdresses.
Truth: The Wampanoag would not have worn headdresses, or war bonnets, to the feast. Headdresses have great significance to Native Americans and they are important heritage artifacts.
10. Discuss the Menu
What was served at the first Thanksgiving? What are the most commonly served items today? Download a “Then and Now” Thanksgiving menu, which includes a blank column so students can add items from their own Thanksgiving tables. Have each student read what they’ve written, then list on the blackboard any items that do not also appear in the “Now” column to create your classroom’s alternative Thanksgiving menu.
11. Talk Turkey
The United States raised approximately 271 million turkeys and produced 689 million pounds of cranberries last year. That’s a lot of food! Remind kids that even if their Thanksgiving table is jam-packed with goodies, there’s no reason to overdo it. The average person consumes between 3,000 to 6,000 calories on Thanksgiving, which is up to four times more calories than a child needs in one day. Remind kids to stop eating when they feel full, and to give those vegetables on the table a try.
12. “Grow” a Thanksgiving Tree
Help students show their friends and families what they are thankful for.
What you need: Twigs with several small branches; leaf templates; colored construction paper (orange, red, yellow, and green); scissors; large paper or Styrofoam cups; twist ties, pipe cleaners, or ribbon; modeling clay; pens or markers; hole punches
What to do: If possible, take a nature walk with your students before you plan to build the Thanksgiving Trees. Gather straight twigs that have at least three branches. The twigs can be up to 12-inches tall. Invite students to decorate their cups using markers or construction paper and glue. Fill each cup with enough modeling clay to support the twig. Have students “plant” their Thanksgiving Trees by sticking the twigs into the cups. Trace the leaf templates on the colored construction paper and cut them out. Pass around the hole punches so students can punch holes at one end of each leaf. Then, ask students to write one thing on each leaf for which they are grateful. Have them fasten the leaves to the trees with twist ties, pipe cleaners, or ribbon.
13. Reach Out to the Community
Ask your students this: “If you could do anything to help our community, what would it be?” Tell them that they can think big (“I want to build a new homeless shelter”) or small (“I want to clean up the playground”). After they write down their ideas, collect them and choose several to talk about. Discuss the idea that small projects, like cleaning up a playground, can have a huge impact, and explain the concept of starting small to achieve big goals (“We can’t build the new shelter, but we can come up with ways to raise money for it”). Also offer suggestions such as baking or cooking for the local homeless shelter, and use the discussion as an opportunity to explain that homelessness is an issue year-round, not just at the holidays. Choose the top three doable projects and hold a class vote to decide which one to pursue.
14. Learn Wampanoag
There are no native speakers of the Wampanoag language today; however, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is partnering with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Language Department to offer classes and immersion programs that help revitalize the language. You can go online to the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project’s website to print a list of English words and place names derived from the Wampanoag language, and visit Native-Languages.org to print out a page of Wampanoag words for common animals. Write the words on the board and invite students to copy and illustrate them.
15. Sail on the Mayflower
Visit Scholastic's Voyage on the Mayflower activity to get a sense of what the journey on the Mayflower was like. You’ll find maps, illustrations, and audio about the journey, as well as a “Tour the Ship” feature.
16. Disguise a Turkey
Invite students to “save” a turkey by giving him a clever disguise — and writing a great story to go along with it.
What to do: Print out the templates and photocopy them for your students. Have them cut out the “naked” turkey and disguise him by giving him a creative costume with markers, crayons, and decorative elements. Then have students write a first-person story entitled “I am NOT a Turkey” to explain who their character is. Invite students to present their turkeys and read their stories aloud.
17. Research Global Celebrations
There are different types of Thanksgiving celebrations in countries all over the world, including China, France, Great Britain, Greece, India, Israel, and Japan. Usually, these celebrations take place around harvest time. If you can, take your class to the library, divide them into teams and assign each team a country. Ask them to research the harvest festival in their assigned country, and have them present a list of facts or a paragraph about the celebration.
18. Make Trivia Place Mats
What you need: Cardboard, construction paper, glue or tape, pens and markers, scissors, several sets of Thanksgiving-shape patterns, and the “What Do You Know About Thanksgiving” quiz.
Before class: Trace or draw leaves, cornucopias, and other Thanksgiving shapes on cardboard. Make them roughly the same height. Cut out several sets for your students to use as patterns.
In class: Have students trace the patterns on construction paper and cut out the shapes. Then invite them to write trivia questions about the first Thanksgiving from the quiz in the center of several shapes. On the back, have them write the answers. Help students tape or glue the shapes to each other in three rows of four, with all the questions facing up. (If you can, use contact paper to further secure the place mats.) Have students bring their special place mats home for use at the Thanksgiving dinner table, where they can be the Trivia Master by asking their family questions!
19. Thanksgiving Fractions
Combine the spirit of Thanksgiving (and messages of thanks) with equivalent-fractions practice, as kids make and share fraction pies. Divide the class into groups of twos and fours (for younger children) or into threes, fours, and fives (for older or more advanced children).
Cutting Up a Fraction Pie
- Each group will need a large sheet of construction paper, a large pie pan, a ruler for each group member, pencils, oak tag, and crayons.
- Have kids trace the pie pan on the construction paper and cut out the circle, then work together using their rulers to divide their pie into equal pieces — one for each member.
- Each child outlines his or her pie piece in a different color and then draws a line through the piece, cutting it in half. Students will now see that their halves becomes fourths, thirds become sixths, fourths become eighths, and so on.
- Have students write a word or phrase on each of their pie pieces that tells why they are thankful, then glue the pieces of their pie back together onto oak tag circles. Display the Thanksgiving pies around the classroom.
20. Find Out More!
Try these great online resources for answers to your Thanksgiving questions.
Visit Plimoth.org, the companion website to Plimoth Plantation, the museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Check out Pilgrimhall.org to view text from the only two primary sources about the first Thanksgiving.
The Boston Children’s Museum (Bostonkids.org) and the Wampanoag people worked together to provide lesson plans designed to assist teachers in accurately presenting the tribe’s history.
The American Journeys website (americanjourneys.org) provides access to firsthand accounts of early North American exploration.