Fun Thanksgiving SEL Activities for the Elementary Classroom

The fall season is here and Thanksgiving is just around the corner. It’s a great time of year for reflecting on gratitude, learning about cultural awareness, and planning classroom activities that promote social emotional learning (SEL). 

For elementary teachers, this season offers an excellent opportunity to engage students in meaningful discussions and activities that align with the holiday and also support emotional and social development. 

Some of the greatest memories I have of elementary school are during seasonal times where my teachers made holidays feel special. Thanksgiving lessons are a perfect way to do this with your students! 

Of course, you’ll likely do those cute turkey Thanksgiving craft ideas and celebrate the kick-off to the holiday season with wonderful books and character education lessons. However, going the extra step and focusing this unique time on social emotional learning brings in life skills, mindfulness practicies, and really cultivates that attitude of gratitude we want from our students!

Whether you have a school-wide SEL curriculum, or not, these activities below can be included in versatile lesson to ensure we’re teaching emotional intelligence in purposeful ways.

In this blog post, we’ll explore a variety of fun and educational Thanksgiving classroom activities created for your elementary classroom to give your students that unforgettable learning experience at this special time. 

I’m going to highlight three important topics and give you engaging activities you can use to teach them:

1. Gratitude

2. Cultural Awareness

3. Kindness

1. Talking About Gratitude

Gratitude is a powerful emotion that significantly impacts our overall well-being and happiness. Teaching children to recognize and express gratitude helps them develop a positive outlook on life, enhances empathy, and strengthens their relationships with others. 

In a world of instant gratification, we want to slow down and seek to incorporate gratitude into our daily routine. While these activities are meant to teach gratitude through the lens engaging and fun Thanksgiving specific activities, it’s a great starting point for establish a foundation of gratitude in your classroom.

Kids of all ages need to be taught gratitude, as it is not a natural skill they normally pick up. A regular gratitude practice has been shown to release positive hormones of satisfaction and contentment. There’s so much research out there on how beneficial it is, which is why it belongs in your classroom!

Here are some engaging ways to introduce the concept of gratitude to your students:

Gratitude Journals

A gratitude journal is a simple yet effective tool to help students focus on the positive parts of their lives. Encourage each student to keep a gratitude journal where they can write down things they are thankful for each day. 

This practice can be especially meaningful during the Thanksgiving season and you can do this daily as a morning activity, or even as a quiet transition after lunch/recess. You can find the gratitude journal I’ve personally used in my class here or you can make your own! 

Activity: Creating Gratitude Journals

  1. Provide each student with a notebook or the print and go gratitude journal from my TPT store.
  2. Start each day or week with a gratitude prompt. For example, “What is something kind someone did for you this week?” or “What is your favorite memory with our class this week?”
  3. Allow students time to write or draw their responses.
  4. Encourage students to share their entries with the class if they feel comfortable. This can help foster a sense of community and appreciation within your classroom and is a great way to show students how everyone feels gratitude differently.

Gratitude Tree

A gratitude tree is a visually engaging way to display what your students are thankful for. This activity is a great tool for students to express their gratitude and it also creates a beautiful and meaningful classroom piece of art they can feel proud about.

Activity: Creating a Gratitude Tree

  1. Create a large tree trunk and branches on a bulletin board or wall using brown construction paper or a large sheet of butcher paper – it doesn’t have to be museum-ready!
  2. Cut out leaf shapes from colorful construction paper.
  3. Have each student write something they are thankful for on a leaf.
  4. Attach the leaves to the branches of the tree.
  5. Continue to add leaves throughout the month of November, encouraging students to think of new things they are grateful for.

Gratitude Circle

A gratitude circle is a fun way to start or end the day with positive energy. This activity promotes listening, speaking, and empathy skills among students.

You can even do this in small group when you pull students for reading or math if you’re looking for a quick way to integrate it into your schedule.

Activity: Gratitude Circle

  1. Arrange students in a circle.
  2. Start by sharing something you’re grateful for and explain why.
  3. Pass a talking piece around the circle, allowing each student to share something they’re thankful for.
  4. Encourage students to listen attentively and respect each other’s turn to speak and their thoughts.

2. Cultural Awareness: Talking About Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate and give thanks, it’s also important to teach students about the cultural and historical context of the holiday. This includes understanding the truth behind the Thanksgiving story and acknowledging the perspectives of Indigenous peoples.

It’s not the same Thanksgiving history lesson we were taught as kids! It’s a much richer story that you can incorporate in your social studies block. 

When discussing the first Thanksgiving with your students, you want to be mindful of the cultural aspects of the holiday. One way to do this is to highlight the native land that your classroom may be sitting on, or that may be nearby. Discuss these cultures and do a little research so you begin building your students’ understanding of the greater world around them.

Discussing the History of Thanksgiving

Many traditional Thanksgiving stories focus on a harmonious meal shared between Pilgrims and Native Americans. However, it’s crucial to provide students with a more accurate and inclusive account of history. 

This includes discussing the experiences of Indigenous peoples and the impact of colonization. Yes, you can have these conversations with students from a young age, it just needs to be presented appropriately.

Activity: Exploring the History of Thanksgiving

  1. Read age-appropriate books that present a balanced view of Thanksgiving history. This blog post is a short read, but offers a couple of book recommendations and further insight.
  2. Use multimedia resources such as videos and online articles that provide diverse perspectives on Thanksgiving.
  3. Facilitate a class discussion on what students have learned and encourage them to ask questions.

Cultural Awareness Activities

Teaching students about different cultures and traditions related to Thanksgiving can help them appreciate diversity and develop empathy for others. Here are some activities to promote cultural awareness:

Activity: Learning About Indigenous Cultures

  1. Invite a guest speaker from a local Indigenous community to share their culture, traditions, and perspectives on Thanksgiving.
  2. Explore Indigenous art, music, and storytelling. Have students create their own artwork or stories inspired by what they learn.
  3. Discuss the importance of respecting and honoring Indigenous cultures and histories.

Activity: Multicultural Thanksgiving Celebration

  1. Research and share information about how different cultures celebrate harvest festivals or similar holidays around the world.
  2. Have students create presentations or displays about a specific culture’s traditions and how they give thanks.
  3. Organize a multicultural potluck where students can bring in food from their own cultural backgrounds and share the stories behind these dishes.

3. Activities to Promote Kindness

Encouraging students to perform acts of kindness can help them understand the importance of giving and receiving gratitude. These activities can be simple yet impactful, fostering a sense of community and empathy within the classroom.

Service Member Cards

Writing cards for service members is a heartfelt way for students to show appreciation and support for those who serve their country.

Activity: Making Service Member Cards

  1. Provide students with construction paper, markers, stickers, and other crafting supplies.
  2. Have students create thank-you cards for service members, expressing their gratitude for their service and sacrifice.
  3. Collect the cards and send them to a local veterans’ organization or a program that distributes cards to service members. (a quick Google search will give you lots of options, but here’s one organization for you to look into: A Million Thanks).

School Environment Care

Taking care of the school environment teaches students to respect and take pride in their surroundings, fostering a sense of responsibility and community.

Activity: School Clean-Up Day

  1. Organize a school clean-up day where students can participate in picking up litter, cleaning classrooms, or tidying up common areas.
  2. Provide gloves, trash bags, and cleaning supplies.
  3. Discuss the importance of keeping the school environment clean and how it benefits everyone.

Kindness Rocks

Creating kindness rocks is a fun and creative way for students to spread positivity and brighten someone’s day.

Activity: Kindness Rocks

  1. Collect smooth, flat rocks and provide paint and markers.
  2. Have students paint the rocks with positive messages, colorful designs, or encouraging words.
  3. Once the rocks are dry, place them around the school or community for others to find and enjoy.

Peer Appreciation

Encouraging students to recognize and appreciate their peers can help build a supportive and inclusive classroom environment.

Activity: Peer Appreciation Notes

  1. Provide each student with a set of small note cards or sticky notes and a picture frame or clipboard.
  2. Have students write positive notes or compliments for their classmates, highlighting what they appreciate about them (each student should write one note for each classmate or you can group students if you’d like a shorter activity).
  3. Have students walk around placing the notes they’ve written for their peers on the student’s frame or clipboard. 

Community Service Project

Engaging in a community service project allows students to give back to their local community and understand the impact of their actions.

Activity: Organizing a Food Drive

  1. Work with a local food bank or charity to organize a food drive.
  2. Have students create posters and flyers to promote the food drive.
  3. Collect non-perishable food items and involve students in sorting and packing the donations.
  4. Deliver the collected items to the food bank and discuss the importance of helping those in need.

Thank-You Notes

Writing thank-you notes is a simple yet powerful way for students to express gratitude and appreciation for others.

Activity: Writing Thank-You Notes

  1. Provide students with stationery or thank-you cards.
  2. Have students write thank-you notes to family members, friends, teachers, or school staff who’ve made a positive impact on their lives (think of the people in your community that don’t always get recognized).
  3. Encourage students to deliver their notes personally or send them through the mail.

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to teach elementary students about gratitude, cultural awareness, and the importance of giving thanks. 

You don’t need long lesson plans, but rather good books and an interactive activity to get students building those social emotional muscles! 

By incorporating these fun and meaningful SEL activities into your classroom, you’ll help students develop a deeper understanding of gratitude and appreciation, while also fostering a positive and inclusive learning environment. 

Whether through gratitude journals, cultural discussions, or acts of kindness, these activities will enrich your students’ Thanksgiving experience and support their overall social-emotional growth. 

Yes, we want our students to learn how to read and do math, but more than anything, we want them to feel loved, appreciated, and a part of their community. Showing them how to be thankful for others shows them how we are thankful for them too and that’s powerful. 

I hope these resources serve you well.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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