Wagon Train Social Studies Lesson Plans for Fourth Grade

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Heading to the Wild West

Covered wagons, sacks of flour, tins of syrup, dried meats, blankets, lye soap, tools, and guns. These are just some of the supplies necessary to take a Fourth Grade class on a westward expansion wagon train adventure. These social studies lesson plans will provide you with a complete rubric for heading to the Oregon Trail or any other western destination of your choice. Students will learn first-hand how the pioneers suffered and struggled through weather challenges, difficult terrain, and confrontations with Native Americans to gain ground on the western frontier.

While similar simulations are available through computer software such as The Oregon Trail, these lesson plans outline how to do a wagon train simulation in an old school, low-tech, low-cost way. In the modern era of Internet use and Facebook games, the students may actually enjoy it more without the online connection.

Pack ‘Em and Round ‘Em Up

The first task is to divide the students into wagon train groups. It may prove helpful to arrange the students’ desks in a U-shape with the opening of the U toward the front of the classroom. This simulates the notion of rounding up the wagons, while still enabling all students to see the front of the classroom. It is important to describe to the class the historical benefits of participating in a wagon train rather than traveling west individually.

To begin this lesson, each student should be given a list of items that pioneers might have chosen to take with them on their travels. Each item on the list should have a designated weight in pounds – for instance, a bag of clothes weighs 40 pounds, a container of flour weighs 150 pounds, an organ weighs 2000 pounds etc. Each student is to imagine that they have their own wagon. Each wagon can hold a designated amount of weight. Typically a standard wagon could hold 2000 pounds of goods. It is up to the teacher what variables students have control over, such as the number of people in their family or wagon. It is important for students to consider how much food would be necessary for the number of people in their family.

One way to make this part more challenging is to begin the wagon train simulation with a writing assignment that would include having the students pretend they are moving to the frontier with their own family or one they make up. This could be done on a simple worksheet asking questions about the names of the family members, their ages, their relationship to one another or role in the family (mother, father, sister, grandmother, aunt, etc.) and perhaps where they are moving from and their hopes for their future in the west. This sort of assignment will add a personal connection to the wagon trains as each student will have to account for the needs of their particular family members, especially when it comes to packing enough food for everyone in their wagon. For the case of the assignment, all family members should be considered to eat equal amounts of food regardless of age.

Complete lists of suggested items for wagon train simulations are available in a variety of places. Here are two links which should prove useful for developing a Pack Your Wagons list.

Working the Wagon Train Simulation

Once the students have loaded up their imaginary wagons it is time to head west. This part of the simulation will take place over a number of days or even weeks. The object is to present challenges to the students each day that affect the stability of their wagon trains. Ideally, those students who packed the best supplies and made good decisions as a team should be able to arrive safely in the wild west, while those who packed more frivolous items, did not pack enough food or made bad decisions as a group should come to regret those decisions along the way and perhaps not arrive at the destination.

There are a variety of ways to measure wagon train success as the simulation progresses. One way is to consider that if a wagon runs out of food, the wagon can not reach its destination. Another is to assign a point value to various successes along the way and to judge the simulation according to those points. For example, if a team successfully navigates a challenge they get 5 points and the first wagon train to get 50 points wins by arriving at their destination first. These sorts of decisions can be made by individual teachers as they know what might work best with their classroom.

Challenges Along the Way

For the game to progress, challenges are necessary. Teachers should attempt to make the challenges match up with specific items on the students’ wagon train packing lists for greatest impact. Some challenges should make demands on the wagon train while others should require independent work.

Challenges might include difficult weather, illnesses, treacherous terrain, encounters with Native Americans, rising flood waters, wild animals, fights between family members, crossing rivers, etc. Each challenge should include the loss of some items. A daily amount of food might also be “lost” as the wagon train continues westward and food is consumed. Some challenges might also include receiving found items, perhaps food that was killed in a hunt along the way.

Here are three suggested challenges that teachers could use. The wording has been adjusted to read as if from a journal account of the days’ events. Teachers should be creative in developing challenges and related outcomes for this part of the simulation.

Day 1 - Wagon Tipping Challenge

Day 1 - Wagons traveled west successfully and everyone admired the beautiful landscape as they went. Even the little children were excited and well behaved for the most part and no one even dared ask “Are we there yet?” For the most part, the trip has been uneventful, except for one stretch of particularly rocky terrain. Most of the wagons faired well, except for the ones who brought a table. All of the ones who brought tables tipped over and lost half of a container of flour as it spilled out onto the land. It’s a good thing we’re traveling together as we’re all willing to share. Students with a table should deduct half their flour amount as well as their table.

Day 2 - Muddy Paths

Day 2 - Clouds showed up overnight and we spent most of the day driving through the rain. Today was much harder than yesterday. Many of the wagons got stuck in the mud. Everyone did what they could to get through. Students should then be given time to decide as a group what sorts of items they used to get through a muddy day on the wagon train. After a certain amount of time the teacher can respond by saying something like “Everyone who used a rope or jump rope to pull themselves out of the mud made a great pioneer decision. They were rewarded for their hard work when they discovering that mom had packed an extra package of bacon for each person on the wagon when no one else was looking. They do not need to deduct any food for today.

Day 3 - Encounter with the Indians

Day 3 – We encountered our first Indians today. Fortunately, they were quite a bit nicer than we had heard. Unfortunately, we are left with much lighter wagons because of our new found friends. Each student should decide what they are willing to offer the Indians. After a few minutes the teacher should continue with something like this. “While many of the wagons offered fancy household goods and toys, the Indians did not understand what many of those things were. All they were interested in was food and tools.” Everyone who brought assorted spices lost those to the Indians. They loved the interesting new smells. They were also very intrigued by salt pork, dried beef, and hunting knives. Everyone who brought those items lost them to the Indians.

Learning by Doing

While these social studies lesson plans might involve a lot of prep work and a lot of classroom interaction, the learning lesson is beyond compare. Rather than hearing about westward expansion the students will have the opportunity to experience it for themselves. Through this process of learning by doing students of all learning styles will gain a valuable classroom experience, and whether they make it to their westward destinations or not, everyone will win in the end.