Classroom Ideas for Teaching about Thanksgiving

Celebrating Thanksgiving in the elementary classroom can be so much fun. Everyone loves making hand turkeys and eating delicious foods. The main goal of celebrating the holiday with your class should be for your students to develop an understanding of the history of the holiday and to help reinforce the important social-emotional concepts of gratitude and empathy.

So, before you introduce some of our fun and interesting activities for Thanksgiving, you need to be aware of the history of the holiday and how to design lesson plans that are respectful to native peoples.

teaching about thanksgiving

The Story of the First Thanksgiving

The initial Thanksgiving celebration centered around a multi-day feast involving European settlers (Pilgrims) and members of the various local indigenous populations (Native Americans). The Pilgrims had left Plymouth, England, on a small ship called the Mayflower in September 1620. After 66 brutal days at sea and another month of travel, they arrived at their intended destination, where they established the village of Plymouth.

Not all settlers survived the first brutally cold winter, but those who did were helped by members of the Wampanoag population, who helped the settlers adjust and provided them with food.

In the spirit of gratitude for surviving their first year in the New World, Governor William Bradford organized a feast for the settlers and their Native American allies, including the Wampanoag’s Chief Massasoit. The feast was also a celebration of the Pilgrim’s first successful corn harvest.

As an elementary school teacher, you may want to limit some of the gruesome details from your lesson plans. Students will learn more about that in high school. However, you can still teach accurate and respectful Thanksgiving lessons that are also age-appropriate and fun.

Teaching the Real History of Thanksgiving

Traditionally, the story of Thanksgiving has been taught in American schools with young students dressing in construction paper hats as “Pilgrims “or paper feather headdresses as “Indians.” However, those representations aren’t historically accurate and don’t reflect American Indian perspectives on Thanksgiving.

Dr. Star Yellowfish, a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma and an education advocate stresses the need for teaching an accurate representation of the first Thanksgiving. Among the things she suggests elementary school teachers should do are:

  • Replace “Indians” and “Pilgrims” with more specific names: Wampanoag and English or Separatists
  • Teach students about the Wampanoag and their role in helping the English
  • Research Native American tribes in your area. Help students understand that indigenous peoples should not be relegated to the past
  • Talk about the importance of the harvest in Native American culture, including the “3 Sisters” crops: maize, beans, and squash

These suggestions can help you teach Thanksgiving in a more socially responsible way.

Related resource: History of Thanksgiving

"The cultural diversity of today’s classrooms likely means that some of your students from other countries may not have first-hand knowledge of the history or the holiday tradition."

The Importance of Teaching Thanksgiving

The cultural diversity of today’s classrooms likely means that some of your students from other countries may not have first-hand knowledge of the history or traditions of the holiday. Other students may still have a skewed or stereotypical view of Native Americans.

Sharing the basic history behind the holiday is a great place to start with most elementary students, and it’s likely that you’ll have done so with a social studies unit on Colonial America. If it’s not already part of your curriculum, there are plenty of resources available in our Thanksgiving Resources Hub that detail the history of Thanksgiving.

If you want to replicate the first Thanksgiving by staging your own version of the feast in your classroom, consider changing how you have your students roleplay the participants. Instead of having students dress in the “Native American headdress/headband” common to (incorrect) period depictions of the first Thanksgiving, they can represent the Wampanoag who attended the feast with depictions of eagles (“thunder birds”) or the “3 Sisters” crops (maize, beans, squash). Both were important to indigenous North American cultures in general and to the Wampanoag tribe of the area specifically.

To enforce lessons about gratitude and empathy, you can replicate the essence of the cross-cultural connections of the first Thanksgiving. During the feast, students can gather with other classes, and you can designate who’s dressing like the Pilgrims and who will dress like the Wampanoag people. Then, practice having a feast just like they did during the first Thanksgiving. Students can eat crackers, fruit, cheese, and raw vegetables like carrots.

Although we tend to think of turkey when we think of our Thanksgiving feast, it’s just as likely that the two groups feasted on other foul, such as duck or geese, which are native to Plymouth, Massachusettes. They also likely ate local vegetables like corn, beans, and cabbage. Historians believe they also ate seafood, such as mussels, which were abundant in New England. Older children may be interested to know that their feast was much more diverse than ours.

To enhance the activity, have students who are comfortable doing so share one thing they are grateful for. You could even allow groups of students to come up with one thing they are thankful for about the school year so far if that feels more natural to them.

"Sharing the basic history behind the holiday is a great place to start with most elementary students, and it’s likely that you’ll have done so with a social studies unit on Colonial America."

Additional Fun Thanksgiving Activities

A fun Thanksgiving activity to do with your students is to have them create their own “handprint” turkeys. This activity is seriously as simple as it sounds. Paint the palm of each student’s hand and have them put their hand down on a piece of white paper. After the paint dries, create a turkey face on the thumbprint and have the students write something they’re thankful for on every other finger.

More Thanksgiving craft ideas: 10 Thanksgiving Crafts for Kids

Did you know there are plenty of Thanksgiving-related songs you can sing with your students or that they can listen to while creating their handprint turkeys?

Two of my favorite Thanksgiving songs to teach are "(I'm Gonna Eat) On Thanksgiving Day" and “We Are Thankful.” These songs are super-simple to learn, and your students will love them.

There are so many great books about Thanksgiving you can read to your students. One of my favorite stories about Thanksgiving is The Magic Treehouse Thanksgiving on Thursday. This is a great chapter book that takes the main characters back in time to experience the first Thanksgiving.

After reading Thanksgiving stories together, and celebrating with a feast and a craft, let students share some of their favorite Thanksgiving traditions. This conversation can be a nice change from the already-recommended thankfulness talk. It can be especially nice to hear from students from different countries and cultures. Ask them to describe how they celebrate Thanksgiving and when. What kinds of foods do they eat? What are some traditions that differ from American Thanksgiving?

More Fun Thanksgiving Activities: Thanksgiving Resources Hub

There are so many creative ways to celebrate Thanksgiving. If you're looking for some more unique activities to add to your Thanksgiving lesson plans, our Thanksgiving-Themed Activities for Elementary Students can help! 

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