Transcontinental Railroad Activities for Kids

Instructor: Heather Jenkins

Heather has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in special education. She was a public school teacher and administrator for 11 years.

Do your students know that the Transcontinental Railroad was important to trade and the development of the western United States? Use these activities to help younger students learn about the Transcontinental Railroad and its impact on America.

Learning About the Transcontinental Railroad

Choo-choo! Most students probably spent some time playing with trains when they were little. The fascination with rail travel has its roots in the history of the American railroad. The Transcontinental Railroad was an important engineering feat that improved travel across the United States and encouraged westward expansion. When students learn about the Transcontinental Railroad, they can explore about how advancements in engineering can change the course of history.

Let's look at some activities that help younger students learn about the Transcontinental Railroad and its influence on the history of the United States.

Play Dough Maps

Materials

  • Map of the Transcontinental Railroad
  • Foam boards
  • Copies of maps of the United States
  • Play dough
  • String
  • Toothpicks
  • Label stickers
  • Pencils

Teacher Directions

  1. Show the class a map of the Transcontinental Railroad. Discuss with the students why a railroad connecting the eastern and western parts of the country would be important. Be sure to point out the features on the map that made traveling by horse or wagon difficult.
  2. Divide the class into pairs, and give each pair a foam board, United States map, play dough, two toothpicks, two small label stickers, a pencil, and a piece of string.
  3. Have the students create a 3D topographical map of the Transcontinental Railroad.

-First, the students should use the play dough to model the land features of the United States.

-Then have students write 'Omaha' on one label sticker and 'Sacramento' on the other and stick each label to one of the toothpicks. They should then stick the toothpicks in the play dough at the approximate location of each city on the map.

-Finally, students should take the piece of string and lay it between the two toothpicks, roughly showing the path of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Discussion Questions

  • What would be difficult about building a railroad through the terrain shown on your map?
  • How do you think the Transcontinental Railroad made travel easier for people and goods?

What Was It Like?

Materials

  • Pictures and/or video clips about the workers who built the railroad
  • Ten Mile Day: And the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad book by Mary Ann Fraser (optional)

Teacher Directions

  1. Show the class pictures and/or video clips about the workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad. This should include veterans and Irish and Chinese immigrants. Discuss the trials they faced when building the railroad. Additionally, discuss the role Native Americans played in opposing the railroad.
  2. Consider reading the picture book Ten Mile Day: And the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad by Mary Ann Fraser to help students visualize the life of a railroad worker.
  3. Divide the class into small groups.
  4. Have each group prepare a skit to show the reality of working on building the Transcontinental Railroad.
  5. Once the groups finish, have them present their skits to the class.

Discussion Questions

  • In your opinion, what was the most difficult part of being a railroad worker?
  • Why do you think the Native Americans were opposed to the railroad being built?

Railroad Advertisement

Materials

  • Historical advertisements for the Transcontinental Railroad
  • Map of the United States
  • Poster Board
  • Markers

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