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Bringing the First Thanksgiving to Life: Pilgrim Activities For Preschool

written by: teacher8605 • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 10/31/2012

Thanksgiving in an abstract concept for most preschoolers, so use these activities to bring the idea to life and make it fun for your students.

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    No Buckles, No Tepees

    History is something we often do not think about teaching in preschool. We consider history to be a class for adolescents to learn from our past to make a better future, but we often teach it in simple ways in early childhood classrooms. We teach about Johnny Appleseed, Columbus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many presidents.

    Thanksgiving is no different; however, we often teach the facts incorrectly. Pilgrims did not wear buckles on their shoes and hats, and the Native Americans that the Pilgrims met did not live in tepees. So how can we teach the First Thanksgiving in a fun way without presenting misinformation? This article is full of ideas!

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    What Was It Like on the Mayflower?

    Many children's books on The First Thanksgiving are filled with pictures of happy Pilgrims on a large ship. Unfortunately, life was not really this pleasant on the Mayflower. The ship was small, overcrowded, smelly, and miserable. A great children's book that can be used to provide more accurate information is If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 by Ann McGovern. Mayflower 

    The Mayflower was 90 feet by 24 feet and had approximately 120 passengers. To give your preschoolers a better understanding of how overcrowded the ship was, create a real-life example. Tape off a section on the floor one-sixth of the size of the ship (15 ft. by 4 ft.) and have one-sixth of the amount of passengers (20 students) lay down inside the area. This will show the students how little room the Pilgrims had. You may also point out that they are all small children, and the boat would have been even more crowded as it was filled with many adults.

    As a craft and literature connection, have the preschoolers recreate what they have learned by drawing the Mayflower and depicting the conditions on it.

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    How Pilgrims Worked

    Pilgrims did not have jobs like we do today. There were no lawyers, grocery stores, or department stores; however, the Pilgrims were busy all the time. They had to make their own clothing, build their own homes and other buildings, and grow and make their own food.

    These activities are perfect for dramatic play! Clothing resembling hats of the Pilgrims can be used for dress up. Simple wooden blocks can be available for students to build their own Pilgrim homes and colonies. You may also have cloth available for the students to experiment with.

    Another fun activity that allows children to be hands-on and learn about life as a Pilgrim is having them schuck corn. Bring in corn on the cob. Have each child take turns pulling part of the silks off of the cob. When each child has had a turn, pull any leftover silks off. Then have the students rinse the husks and place them in a pot of water to be boiled later. This is a fun activity that shows them how much work the Pilgrims had to go through to cook, as well as providing them with useful cooking skills of their own.

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    Reliving the First Thanksgiving

    After successfully teaching your preschool students about the Pilgrims, it is appropriate to end the unit with the First Thanksgiving. This is a great time to integrate the curriculum. Have your students help you make a Thanksgiving feast with similar dishes. This will teach your students the history on the First Thanksgiving. You can also incorporate math and reading by having students help you measure the ingredients as you cook and reading stories about the Pilgrims.

    The Pilgrims ate venison and wild fowl during the First Thanksgiving. Other things that they may have eaten include turkey, fish, eel, lobster, corn, onions, and pumpkins. Corn at the time was ground into cornmeal and made into corn mush. One way to have your students make a similar dish for the feast is to buy a box mix for cornbread. Have the children take turns adding ingredients and stirring before baking. You could also buy deer sausage to represent the venison and have students help you count how many pieces you need to cut it into. Although there were no pumpkin pies at the First Thanksgiving, there were probably pumpkins. Have students help mix up a pumpkin pie and get it ready for baking. Deli turkey is another easy thing to add to your feast.

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    Making It Memorable

    Thanksgiving history is a hard concept for many children to understand. By bringing Thanksgiving to life, this will allow students to better remember what they have learned and make connections with the Thanksgiving traditions we celebrate today. Making learning memorable is not just important for children to retain information, but it also makes learning fun! For more great ideas on ways to make Thanksgiving lessons fun and exciting for your students, read The First Thanksgiving by Marlene Gundlach.