Thanksgiving Activities for the Classroom
It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is right around the corner. A day often focused on family, food, friends, and gratitude, Thanksgiving also commemorates the three-day harvest feast shared by the colonists of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people in the 1600s.
Help your students understand and celebrate this meaningful holiday in the classroom with free Thanksgiving Topical Resources from Edmentum. These resources include fact sheets, activities, and a poster so that you and your class can explore the history of Thanksgiving and discuss the traditions we observe. Extend the learning even further by trying out some of these additional fun, easy, DIY Thanksgiving activities that will put your all students in the mood for gratitude:
1. Stuff the Turkey Activity
Ever made a Thanksgiving turkey out of paper grocery bags? This “stuff the turkey” activity is crafty, fun, and super easy to make. Use it as a fun game to play during an indoor recess day (because we all know how nasty the weather can get in November), pull it out for your Thanksgiving party, or find a creative way to incorporate review before a test.
Here’s how it works: Make three bags and set them under your whiteboard. Above each of the three bags, write three potential answers to a math, history, or science (any subject will work) question on your whiteboard. Then, have two students come up and stand side by side facing the board. Give them each three paper balls, and ask your question. Whoever throws the most paper balls into the turkey below the right answers wins!
2. Classic Turkey Crafts
Is it really Thanksgiving without a hand-traced turkey? Hand turkeys are a Thanksgiving staple that can’t be beat. Whether you’re painting you hand to make a turkey stamp or tracing it onto some brown construction paper, this timeless Thanksgiving craft is a sure way to get your students excited for the holidays (and produce some creatively decorated turkeys). But, if your hands are getting a little worn out from traditional turkey tracing, there are plenty of other ways to craft a fine Thanksgiving fowl.
Have your kiddos grab some fall foliage to use as turkey feathers, collect recycled cans to create turkey windsocks, or make mini turkeys using recycled corks. You can also make pinecone turkeys, toilet paper roll turkeys, or even paper bag turkey costumes. The bottom line is that you can make a turkey out of just about anything, but remember, if all else fails, you always have your hand!
3. Write a Class Cookbook
This activity is not only a great way to incorporate a holiday-themed writing assignment into your lesson plan, but it’s also one families will love. Ask your students to think about what Thanksgiving is like with their families, specifically what dishes are normally prepared. Then ask them to think about how their favorite Thanksgiving dish is made, whether it’s the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, dessert, or anything else.
Ask them to write out the recipe for how to cook their dish of choice. You can provide a simple template for your students to follow, or you can just let them free write. Either way, you’re bound to end up with some pretty hilarious recipes that may or may not be entirely edible. Once everyone has written out a recipe, make copies for the entire class, then bind them together into a “Class Thanksgiving Cookbook” to send home with every child. For a more personal touch, you can ask students to design their own cookbook covers.
4. Write About Thankfulness
While there’s never a wrong time to focus on gratitude, Thanksgiving does provide a great excuse for some pretty fun “I am thankful for ___” crafts. To start things off, have a class discussion about what it means to be thankful for something and how to show appreciation. Then, grab some multicolored sticks (or chocolate candies, if you have a sweet tooth) and play the gratitude game as a class, where students name things they are grateful for based on the color of the sticks or candies they draw at random.
Once your class brainstorm has concluded, use paper plates to make a thankful pumpkin pie spinner or use brown butcher paper and fall-colored construction paper to make a classroom thankful tree, where students can staple leaves with things they are thankful for written on them. You can also make a class thankful turkey or a giant cornucopia full of all the things your class is thankful for. Or, turn thankfulness into a lesson in poetry by having your students write an acrostic poem about all the things they are grateful for.
5. Share Little-Known Facts about Thanksgiving
If you’re bringing Thanksgiving activities into your classroom, facts are a great way of powering them. Aside from videos about the holiday (here’s a great collection of videos from WatchKnowLearn), these facts can give activities some perspective.
- The first Thanksgiving celebration in America actually occurred in 1541 in the Texas panhandle by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his expedition.
- Many countries have had harvest celebrations similar to Thanksgiving for hundreds of years, including Russia and China, as well as many African tribes.
- Native Hawaiians have had a Thanksgiving celebration for hundreds of years before the Plymouth Thanksgiving. Called “Makahiki”, it lasts for four months and people were forbidden to work during that time.
- There was a little boy born during the Pilgrims’ crossing of the Atlantic on the Mayflower. He was named Oceanus.
- The Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to see Plymouth. The future King Charles named the spot when Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) found it in 1614.
- Both adults and children drank beer at the first Thanksgiving feast in the Plymouth colony. It was safer than water due to the distillation process.
- 35 million Americans are direct descendants of the Pilgrims, including Presidents John Adams and Franklin Roosevelt, and actors Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood.
- Abraham Lincoln established the official federal Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. Until then, previous presidents proclaimed various times of the year as “Thanksgiving”. Lincoln was given the idea by Sarah Josepha Hale, the writer of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
- Much of the food at the Plymouth Thanksgiving was not what we would consider traditional. Lots of shellfish, lobster, venison, and wild boar were served along with the occasional turkey.
- The southern states refused to observe the federal Thanksgiving holiday until well after Lincoln established it, fearing it was a federal takeover of their rights.
- Around 280 million turkeys are sold each year for Thanksgiving, nearly one for each person in the country.
- 23 million people watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last year, comparable to a football game on national TV or a presidential debate.
- The Detroit Lions have been hosting a football game on Thanksgiving since 1934. The Dallas Cowboys stole the idea in 1966.
- The US Virgin Islands have two Thanksgivings: the national holiday and “Hurricane Thanksgiving Day” on October 19th to give thanks for the islands being spared from hurricanes that year (if, indeed, one has not hit them).
- Pork, chicken, and cheese all contain more tryptophan—the amino acid which causes post-meal drowsiness—than turkey.
Looking for more Thanksgiving facts to share with your students? Check out History.com’s Thanksgiving article and video resources.
Thanksgiving Activities for Older Students
Thematically, Thanksgiving can be a bit tricky to incorporate into lessons for older students. They are no longer impressed by paper hats and hand turkeys (although you would be surprised on how much mileage “childish” activities like that can get with older kids). So let’s start discussing some Thanksgiving-themed activities for all secondary subject areas.
English/Language Arts – True Thanksgiving poetry
This great essay at Poets.org discusses some of the most important poetry that covers both the concept of Thanksgiving and the historical ramifications. Linked within are examples of everything from traditional Native American prayers to Langston Hughes. It can serve as the backbone to a great one-period discussion or even a weekly unit. Now is the time to move kids’ perception of Thanksgiving away from turkey and football to what the day really meant, both positive and negative.
History/Geography – Trace the route
Here is the approximate route of the Mayflower as created in Google Maps. It doesn’t look like much, but considering they were supposed to be landing in Virginia, it’s worth a discussion about what could pull them so far off-course and what their navigation was like. Also noticed the timing notes given on the side—it took the Mayflower three months to cross the Atlantic. Have the kids do some research to describe those conditions.
Science – The chemistry of Thanksgiving
The American Chemical Society produced this video featuring Dr. Diane Bunce discussing the various ways chemistry affects our Thanksgiving, from how pop-up turkey timers work to the chemical differences between mashed potatoes and mashed paper (hint: not much). It’s a great video for the day before break when the kids’ attention is waning. The ACS has some other Thanksgiving lesson ideas here, as well.
Math – Black Friday analysis
Thanksgiving also heralds the ultimate monument to consumerism: Black Friday. You don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving to see what retailers have in store for their doorbusters this year; simply visit theblackfriday.com. Have the kids track the prices of their favorite doorbusters as they have moved throughout the year to see if they are really getting a good deal. This can open up all sorts of discussions on the math of economics and how to be a smart consumer.
And, cross-curricularly, try to find ways to show your students that Thanksgiving is just as much about giving as it is consuming. Organize a can drive or volunteer at a shelter during the holiday. Our role as educators is not limited to the material we have to cover; sometimes it’s just as much about the world around us.
Nothing beats kicking off the holiday season with free resources from Edmentum. Connect with us on Instagram and show us how you and your students are celebrating this holiday season with fun crafts, writing exercises, and more.
This blog post was originally published on November 15, 2017, and has been updated.