Teaching Early Learners About Thanksgiving

This is the time of year when I walk into early childhood classrooms to find teachers frustrated that their young students are not paying attention to the Thanksgiving book they selected.  It is also common to walk into classrooms and see 3 and 4 year olds dutifully gluing feathers on turkeys.  Inevitably, when I ask students what they are doing, they say, “Gluing feathers” and when I ask what they are making, most children don’t know.  Even if they do know that they have been asked to make a turkey, very few have an answer to the question, “Why are you making a turkey for Thanksgiving?” nor can they answer the question, “What is Thanksgiving?  What is it about?”

I know that Thanksgiving crafts are somewhat unavoidable – parents love them and, let’s be honest, they expect them.  As a parent, it is nice to have holiday crafts to save.  After all, their children won’t be doing handprint turkeys and gluing feathers for much longer.

As early childhood educators, we have to walk a fine line between doing that expected craft that adults can relate to and infusing meaningful learning about this time of the year in the United States.  I might make handprint turkeys but I know that I have to do other activities that actually help young learners to build upon their knowledge in a meaningful way. 

Meaningful learning takes time and requires a multitude of approaches.  We have to start where the children are and build from there. 

Where are the children when they are early learners?  They are not in Plymouth, Massachusetts (unless you live there, of course) and they are not yet able to navigate abstract constructs that adults all to often present to them about holidays.

Where are the children at this point in their lives?  They are egocentric – seeing the world from only their point of view.  They understand having people, toys and other items that they love.  They have a need to be surrounded by safe, loving people who give them special attention.  They understand getting ready for special gatherings and seeing people who are important in their lives and the lives of their families.

You can teach early learners about thankfulness.  Repetition is the greatest teacher and so repeating the concept of thankfulness through a variety of activities will scaffold, or build upon, their current knowledge. Here are a few suggested activities:
  • During large group time over the course of a couple of weeks, conduct a shared writing experiences.  Ask the students to answer questions such as those below.  As they answer, use the word thankful (ie “Sarah is thankful for her Mommy & Daddy”).
“Who are you so glad you have in your family?”
“What is your favorite toy?”
“Who do you play with a lot at home?”
Write their answers on chart paper with their names next to what they said and display the chart paper where the parents will see how their children responded.
  • During small group time, ask children to draw something that they want to say thank you for.  Explain that the thing they draw can be something from school, home or anywhere else.  Display their “Thankfulness Pictures.”
  • Ask students if they know what they will be doing on Thanksgiving – a holiday that is coming when we celebrate the people and things we have.  Ask if they have family or friends they always see on holidays and what fun things they might do.
  • Connect your school activities to home by asking parents to write a “Thank You” note to their children.  Ask parents to thank their children for something they have done or for something about their personalities.  Explain that children need to see adults as grateful in order to value gratitude.

Above all else, accept when published books are not connecting to the students, when songs are fun but you need to add other meaning and avoid the Native American artifact making that many of us participated in when we were young learners.  There are so many things that we know better now and we know that Native American culture is not ours to imitate without understanding of what we are really doing.  For more information, see Teaching About Thankfulness While Respecting Cultures.

You may also want to read:

Stop the Elf on a Shelf & Mensch on a Bench Trend: Put the Magic Back in Christmas & Chanukah for Our Young Children


“Teach the Whole Preschooler:  Strategies for Nurturing Developing Minds,” my book, is available NOW from WW Norton (publisher), Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.  

You can learn so much more from me online!  “Helping Preschools Achieve with Cindy Terebush” – An Online Learning and Support Community for Early Childhood Professionals.  Now with individual sessions for only $ 15 and staff bundles for groups of people.  Go to Helping Preschools Achieve for more details. 

And in person….Go to my full website for information about webinars, presentations and individual consulting for parents and educators -Helping Kids Achieve.

Copyright 2017 © Cindy Terebush
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