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A Guide to Teaching Elementary Students About Thanksgiving

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This guide includes expert-created resources to help elementary teachers teach their students about Thanksgiving. Access a lesson, lesson plan and activities below.

Helping Young Students Learn About Thanksgiving

Your students may think of Thanksgiving as a time to get together with family for a big meal, but they may not fully understand the origins of the holiday. The resources below can help them understand the first Thanksgiving.

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The First Thanksgiving Lesson for Kids: Story & Facts

Use this lesson to introduce the topic of Thanksgiving to your students and help them understand the history of it.

Arrival of the Pilgrims

The Pilgrims came to North America on a ship called the Mayflower. They left England in September, 1620. When they arrived in Plymouth in November, they were not prepared for the harsh winter weather. Remember, back in 1620, there were no grocery stores, restaurants, or hotels in Plymouth! The settlers had to hunt for food and build their own houses out of wood from the trees they cut down. Their living situation was terrible, and almost half of the people who left England on the Mayflower died during the winter.

Native Americans to the Rescue

In March of 1621, the Pilgrims met two Native Americans named Samoset and Squanto. Earlier in his life, Squanto had been kidnapped by an English explorer and spent time in England. He was able to translate for the Pilgrims and Native Americans, meaning he could tell the Pilgrims in English what the Native Americans had said and tell the Native Americans in their language what the Englishmen had said. As a result, the two groups were able to make a treaty, or agreement, that said they would live peacefully with each other. Throughout the spring and summer, Squanto helped the Pilgrims learn how to plant corn and other vegetables and showed them where to go fishing.

The First Thanksgiving

When autumn came, there was a great harvest, which is when the vegetables are ready to be picked from the plants. The Pilgrims were so thankful that their lives had changed so much for the better since their arrival and awful first winter. They wanted to have a celebration, and the leader of the Native Americans, Massasoit, came to celebrate with ninety men. They stayed for three days!

We are not sure exactly when this feast occurred, but it was sometime in the autumn of 1621. Pilgrim men went out and caught various birds. Today we are not sure if they were turkeys, geese, or ducks. The Native American men brought a gift of five deer, which were cooked over the fire. The Pilgrims and Native Americans also had seafood, most likely mussels, oysters or clams.

In addition to birds and fish, the first Thanksgiving menu probably included vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and beans. The Pilgrims and Native Americans also had corn, but it would not have been served like corn-on-the-cob, but instead mashed into corn mush. They may have had pumpkin, but they would not have had the flour and butter needed to make a pumpkin pie. As potatoes were grown in South America, neither the Pilgrims nor the Native Americans would have known about or planted them.

Elementary students in class

Thanksgiving Lesson Plan for Elementary School

This lesson plan can be used to teach students about the Pilgrims, Native Americans and how the first Thanksgiving was different from modern celebrations of the holiday.

Instructions

  • Begin by showing the class the image of the Thanksgiving feast.
    • What do you see in the image?
    • When do we usually enjoy a feast like the one in the image?
  • Pass out the paper copies of the text lesson The First Thanksgiving Lesson for Kids: Story & Facts, one per student.
  • Have students read the introduction and 'Arrival of the Pilgrims' section of the text lesson.
    • Why did nearly half of the Pilgrims die on the journey to America?
  • Ask the class to read the 'Native Americans to the Rescue' section of the text lesson.
    • Why was Squanto so helpful to the Pilgrims?
    • Why do you think the Native Americans were so eager to partner with the Pilgrims?
  • Instruct the class to read the remainder of the text lesson.
    • Why did the first Thanksgiving take place?
    • How long was the first Thanksgiving?
    • Were the foods served at the first Thanksgiving the same as those we eat today? Why or why not?
    • What could we do to make our Thanksgiving celebrations more like the original Thanksgiving?
  • Pass out the worksheet to the class.
  • Have students use the paper copies of the text lesson as a reference to complete the worksheet.
  • When all students have finished the worksheet, have them pair up to share and compare answers.
  • Review the correct answers from the worksheet for the students before continuing.

Activity

  • Have students return to their pairs.
  • Give each pair a piece of the parchment paper and access to the markers.
  • Tell each pair to work together to create a menu that might have been used by the Pilgrims and Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving feast. This should list the foods that were consumed along with words of gratitude for the feast.
  • When each pair has finished the menu for the first Thanksgiving feast, have them use another piece of parchment paper to create a menu for a modern Thanksgiving feast. The modern menu should include the foods and traditions they typically enjoy on Thanksgiving.
  • Finally, have the pairs take turns presenting the two menus they created with the class.
    • How has Thanksgiving evolved since the initial gathering of the Pilgrims and Native Americans?

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Thanksgiving Activities for Kids

Use these fun, hands-on activities with your elementary students! You can engage them and create a memorable lesson for them.

Thankful Placemats

Instructions

  • Pass out the paper to the students, one piece each.
  • Now have the students consider the many things they are thankful for this year.
  • Once they have these things in mind, have them comb the magazines for images that represent the things for which they are thankful.
  • Students should glue the images to the paper.
  • They should use the markers to describe each of the things in terms of why they are thankful for them.
  • Finally, have students use the glitter to embellish their Thanksgiving placemat.

Food Drive

Instructions

  • Explain to the class that they will be hosting a food drive to collect food for the needy in their community this Thanksgiving.
  • Have them make poster to create awareness about the food drive. They should focus on the need for non-perishable food donations and the dates of collection.
  • Next have them decorate the cardboard boxes as receptacles for the food drive.
  • Allow students to hang the posters throughout the school, and possibly in the surrounding community. The decorated cardboard boxes should be placed in close proximity to the posters so that donors can easily drop in canned and boxed food items.
  • Students should check the boxes daily and gather any donated items.
  • When all donations have been collected, take a field trip to a local food pantry to deliver the bounty. An alternative to this would be to create individual bags of food for families in need to retrieve directly from the school.

Additional Thanksgiving Resources for Elementary Teachers

You can also use these resources to incorporate Thanksgiving into your lessons:

You can also access our other Thanksgiving guides:

By Jessica Lyons
November 2020
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