Millions of Americans gather with family and friends every year to celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Stores sell Thanksgiving decorations and we teach lessons about the tradition in our schools.
What many of us don’t realize, though, is the holiday’s controversial history. The first Thanksgiving as we know may be a mix of myth and actual history. While it likely included a celebration meal, some historians argue that traditional textbooks paint too sunny a portrait of the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, which actually included years of bloody conflict.
With the weighty responsibility of shaping young minds, early childhood education (ECE) professionals are faced with a difficult dilemma. Should they teach the Thanksgiving story as we often hear it, glossing over the difficult details? Or should they share the sad history of the holiday with their young students? How can parents and educators approach the subject both delicately and honestly?
Keep reading for some handy tips and advice from an ECE professional to help you prepare the perfect, age-appropriate Thanksgiving lesson plan.
7 strategies for crafting a pre-k Thanksgiving lesson plan
1. Shift the focus to gratefulness
To promote a balanced perspective on Thanksgiving, try to focus on the idea of thankfulness instead of just on the holiday’s history. This approach encourages positive character development in young children. Rather than having students reenact the events of the first Thanksgiving, encourage them to reflect on what they’re grateful for in their own lives.
Americans aren’t the only culture with a holiday to celebrate thankfulness. Use this time to teach kids about how other cultures give thanks
2. Talk about the meal
It may not be as significant of a lesson as others, but the Thanksgiving meal is a staple in most American families. One approach to your Thanksgiving lesson plan is to focus on the traditional food served in the feast. Teach them about where it comes from, how it’s prepared and how food nourishes our bodies. You could even have the children vote on their favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal.
3. Teach about respecting differences
You may have heard the familiar quote from George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Though some of America’s early history is troublesome, it also provides a unique opportunity to learn from our mistakes and build a better future.
Thanksgiving is a great time to teach children how to respect each other’s differences. This is an important lesson for every child to learn, so taking advantage of the holiday is a great way to make it a memorable message.
4. Keep it simple but honest
Even young children understand that not everyone always gets along nicely. It’s ok to be honest about that factor of Thanksgiving history without getting too detailed. You don’t need to pretend that the Pilgrims and Native Americans were the best of friends. Be truthful about the fact that they didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye.
You can even challenge your little ones to think about individuals in their own life they may have conflict with. Use this opportunity to teach some conflict resolution strategies. Your students will learn that even though you don’t always get along with everyone, you can overcome those challenges and come together and help one another when needed.
5. Teach accurately about Native Americans
It’s important to teach about the history and culture of the tribe associated with the first Thanksgiving, says Ashley Jefferson, an ECE enthusiast and play advocate with Play Enthusiasm LLC. She suggests teaching about the Wampanoag Tribe so the children can appreciate the people and their history.
“Explore the culture of today and then talk about how these people might feel about how their ancestors were treated. How might they feel about a holiday that started with fighting?” Jefferson suggests. “Children love sharing their input so this is another great time for discussion.”
Including current information on Native Americans in your Thanksgiving lesson plan is also helpful. The historical aspect is important, but stopping there could promote the idea that Native Americans only existed in the past. Teaching about contemporary Native Americans can balance out the historical information.
6. Incorporate play
Dramatic play is a fun and effective way to teach young children important lessons. Using this tactic to introduce Native American culture could help young students process what they’re learning and develop cultural awareness in a whole new way.
“I accompany a discussion with a sensory bin for preschoolers to familiarize themselves with the cultural differences and context of the story,” Jefferson explains. “I allow them to play freely with it and depending on their willingness, I might have them retell the story by acting it out.”
7. Empower your students
At the end of her Thanksgiving lesson plan, Jefferson encourages students to think critically about the holiday. She suggests wrapping up your Thanksgiving lesson plan by asking your kids some thought-provoking questions to encourage them to reflect on the lesson.
How can we celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that’s respectful to Native American culture? How can we show love to all of the families who were affected by unfriendly settlers? How can we apply what we learned about the first Thanksgiving to our lives today?
These are all questions that will get your little learners thinking differently than they’re used to. Giving young students a chance to personally consider the history of Thanksgiving and its effect on those around them is one way to shift the focus to making a difference.
A little preparation goes a long way
Helping young ones learn and develop is both challenging and rewarding. Take this advice into account when preparing your Thanksgiving lesson plan in order to keep things entertaining and educational.
Looking for more activities to incorporate this season? Check out our article: 14 Fun Fall Activities for Preschoolers.
Do you have other tips for teachers as they craft their Thanksgiving lesson plans? Share your advice in the comments below!