Get first Thanksgiving activity ideas, lesson plans and resources for teaching about the real first Thanksgiving myth and truth and what really happened. Engaging student activities and fun virtual field trip to Plymouth Plantation! We’ll cover the first Harvest festival (feast) Thanksgiving food facts, American history, about Wampanoag Native Americans and more to help kids understand the experiences of the Pilgrims and the Indigenous Natives.
First Thanksgiving Activity Ideas for Kids
Teaching first Thanksgiving to preschool, kindergarten and up doesn’t have to be boring history lessons! Get kids involved with engaging Thanksgiving activities to learn more about what was the first thanksgiving like!
How do you explain Thanksgiving to a child?
Thanksgiving History Activities for Kids:
- Read about Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans
- Make a first Thanksgiving menu and recipes
- Tour the Plymouth Pilgrim Village online
- Learn about cornucopias (and make your own!)
- Dress up and experience what life was really like for children and adults during that time
- Learn what activities were there at the first Thanksgiving? (you’ll be surprised!)
- Discuss what games did the children play on the first Thanksgiving
- Learn about the Mayflower
- Complete fun Thanksgiving printables and worksheets
- Learn about Colonial skills during that time period
What is the real story of Thanksgiving?
You may be wondering how was the first Thanksgiving celebrated? The first Thanksgiving facts may be very different than what you know in history. The first Thanksgiving wasn’t called “Thanksgiving.” It was just known as a harvest celebration (or “days of prayer”), but it was also about giving thanks.
Harvest celebrations were a traditional English celebration and the New England colonists carried that over. The celebration and first Thanksgiving feast included food, games, and military exercises for three days.
Explaining the First Thanksgiving for Kids
Where was the first Thanksgiving?
The first Thanksgiving location took place in the “New World” of America at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts.
FUN FACT: The early spelling of Plymouth was Plimoth.
What Year First Thanksgiving: First Thanksgiving Date
When did the first Thanksgiving take place? The actual first Thanksgiving date is unclear because there was little documentation about the event. We can only assume that it was a harvest celebration that took place somewhere between September and November as a first Thanksgiving 1621 (the 17th century) with the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World. However, there are historians who believe that the first Thanksgiving in America (the “New World”) actually took place in 1565 in Florida with Spanish settlers.
GRAB THE PRINTABLE THANKSGIVING PLACEMATS: GREAT FOR THANKSGIVING ACTIVITY WORKSHEET PRINTABLES, TOO!
How many days did the first Thanksgiving last?
The first Thanksgiving lasted for three days. The holiday celebration involved a food feast, military exercises, and games and more. Today, we celebrate the Thanksgiving date as the start of the holiday season (through Christmas and the New Year in America), on the fourth Thursday in November.
The Thanksgiving feast is usually on the day of Thanksgiving, but it involves a three day holiday weekend, where many have Friday off of work and school.
Did you know: Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1863, during the American Civil War?
Who were the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving?
First Thanksgiving History and First Thanksgiving Facts
Facts on the first Thanksgiving include:
- Only two firsthand accounts of the celebration were documented: “William Bradford journal titled Of Plymouth Plantation and the other is a publication written by Edward Winslow titled Mourt’s Relations.”
- Only 53 first Thanksgiving pilgrims were there of the original 102 colonists. The rest had died of starvation and disease like plague.
- There were only four women at the first Thanksgiving celebration. The rest had died.
- There were 90 Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe members present at the first Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving Native American / indigenous attendees outnumbered the colonists.
- Squanto acted as a translator between the Wampanoag and the colonists. Squanto learned English when he was previously captured by the English and was kept in Europe as a slave.
OTHER THANKSGIVING FACTS:
- The first official proclamation of a national Thanksgiving came from Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The proclamation came about because of lobbying from Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote Mary Had A Little Lamb!
- Thomas Jefferson refused to declare a day of thanks because he wanted to keep a separation of church and state.
- The TV dinner came about because the C.A. Swanson & Sons company ordered too many Thanksgiving turkeys that didn’t sell and had to figure out a way to use them.
- President John F. Kennedy was the first president to let the Thanksgiving turkey live that was gifted to the White House. However, it wasn’t until 1989 that George H.W. Bush started the tradition of pardoning a turkey.
GREAT WITH FIRST THANKSGIVING LESSONS:
First Thanksgiving Food
The first Thanksgiving meal and first Thanksgiving foods looked very different than what we know today as our feast. No mashed potatoes, butter, or wheat flour. So, no pumpkin pie, but there were probably roasted pumpkins.
More likely the first Thanksgiving menu probably included food like:
- Venison (the Wampanoag gave some to the colonists)
- Shellfish like mussels, lobster, bass, clams and oysters
- Pumpkins and squash
- Corn porridge
There were also native plants in the area that may have been on the menu like:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Concord grapes
According to some accounts, early English settlers in North America improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.
Wild turkeys were plentiful in the area during that time, but we’re not sure if turkey was eaten on the first Thanksgiving. It is speculated that colonists may have also eaten ducks, geese and swans, which were plentiful.
Why do we eat turkey at Thanksgiving?
According to journals, turkey was hunted around the time of the First Thanksgiving. However, it probably wasn’t until Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 that the plentiful North American bird became the traditional feast.
First Thanksgiving Story Video for Kids
Add this video to your First Thanksgiving lesson plans and resources!
Do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?
Some Natives Americans do not celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. For Native Americans (Indigenous Peoples), the day is a National Day of Mourning when European settlers and colonists took over their land, resulting in ongoing assaults on the people and culture.
Here’s what our guest contributor Lisa Farrar Wellman had to say about their real field trip to Plimoth Plantation. However, you can easily visit it “virtually” online and create an entire study unit with the resources listed here and make them into First Thanksgiving lesson plans.
Before we get to the fun travel stuff, check out what Lisa said about the spelling of first Thanksgiving at Plymouth:
Spelled Plimoth or Plymouth?
Plymouth was originally spelled Plimoth.
Plimoth Plantation’s spelling is a nod to the fact that when the separatists got here the English language didn’t have the letter ‘y.’
Now, let’s take a closer look at the true story of the first Thanksgiving for kids…
VIRTUAL FIELD TRIP TO PLYMOUTH PLANTATION FOR FIRST THANKSGIVING
The First Thanksgiving Story
My family lived, worked and schooled in a 39-foot 5th wheel for 10 months.
We explored the southern and eastern states of our beautiful nation.
Each month I’ll share a bit of what we learned (and how you can learn it all, too) along the way.
Road schooling is not possible or ideal for everyone, but field trips (online and in person) can take you to a new place.
During your November studies, take a field trip (or virtual field trip) to Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
We visited Plimoth Plantation one drizzly morning and stepped right back in time.
What is the story of the first Thanksgiving?
Plimoth Plantation: Virtual Field Trip Video:
Visiting Plimoth Plantation: 13 Colonies Virtual Field Trip
Every visit to Plimoth Plantation starts with a brief video shown in a nice, dark room.
My girls were mesmerized by it and it gave a good overview of what we’d be experiencing that day.
If you’re exploring the plantation online, the website offers detailed descriptions so your little ones get a good picture of the place and Scholastic also has a great page of Plimoth Plantation virtual field trip videos.
You can’t have a discussion on facts about the first Thanksgiving without understanding the real Native Americans, who are descended from the Wampanoag tribe–the ones who helped the pilgrims–work at the plantation.
They talk about their ancestors, show the kids games that Wampanoag kiddos used to play, demonstrate crafts and food preparation, and just generally answer questions.
Down a trail and around a bend, actors portray actual members of the English settlement in thatch-roofed homes.
From the top of the hill we saw the beautiful Atlantic Ocean and the small fields and gardens of our hosts.
Visitors just walk into different houses and ask the occupants their names or how old they are or what they’re making (one lady was boiling stew; another was sewing).
The actors basically take over and instead of reading plaques or staring at mannequins, our girls chatted it up with 1626 colonials.
Each actor portrays an actual person who arrived on the Mayflower or one of the boats that came later to help supply and populate the settlement.
It was such a stupendous experience, even though at first both girls were a bit shy about it.
I started the conversations and, by the third house, we couldn’t get our youngest to shut up.
What I really enjoyed was how the actors stayed in character the entire time, complete with old English accents and references.
They didn’t miss a beat when asked tough questions by children.
Colonial Crafts and Skills
We left the villages and entered a building where modern-day artisans practice crafts shared by the colonials—beekeeping, pottery, and bread making.
Most of what the pilgrims had by way of furniture or dishes was brought over on the Mayflower or arrived on ships later.
They also learned new skills, from each other and the Wampanoag.
How To Take a First Thanksgiving Trip … Without Leaving Home
If you can’t make it to Plimouth Plantation, recreate the experience in your home by taking a virtual, online field trip.
This activity is perfect for Thanksgiving lesson plans first grade, preschool, and up!
- Borrow books and videos from your library on the first Thanksgiving, the the Wampanoag, and more!
- Explore the plantation’s website.
- Learn more about Native culture.
- Roast pumpkin seeds.
- Try your hand at making butter.
- Do some embroidery.
- Join forces with another homeschool family or your co-op and have a feast… maybe even wear traditional costumes to represent the two groups that came together that first Thanksgiving.
The beautiful thing about kids is that they learn even when an experience is anything but Pinterest perfect.
The important thing is to bring history alive for our children in a memorable way.
Plimouth Plantation does that in a very powerful way.
You can, too… even if you don’t leave your home!
CHILDREN’S BOOKS ABOUT FIRST THANKSGIVING
Be sure to read books that represent the story of Thanksgiving in a true and authentic way!
Guest contributor Lisa Farrar Wellman is a freelance writer from Austin, Texas. She writes about her family’s travel adventures at Armedonlywiththis.com.