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Western Trails


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An integrated social studies activity for grades 3-5.
Submitted by Millie Wostratzky, Willowbrook, Illinois.



The game was created to help integrate a pioneer social studies activity for our upper elementary students.

This is a two-part activity.

Getting Ready for the Trip: Divide the class into groups of five to six players in a relay formation. The purpose of this first part is for each group to “gather” enough “supply cards” to make the long trip to Oregon.

A set of seven supply cards is made from 3″ x 5″ index cards for each team. Pictures on the supply cards should be of a wagon, water, food, clothing, weapons, tools, and cooking utensils. The supply cards are hidden under the cones. Some cones have the cards, some do not.

On your signal, the first player in each group runs to a cone, looks under it, and runs back to tag the next player in line. (We put tape over the top of the cones to discourage peeking!) If there is a supply card under the cone, it is taken back to his or her group. This is a continuous relay, with each of the runners tagging the next player in line until all seven cards are found.

As a practical application of the Old West”s economic system, groups can barter or trade duplicate cards with each other. Once a team has all seven cards, the cards are taken to the teacher and exchanged for carpet squares or poly spots.

Wagons Roll!: The students line up the edges of their poly spots as shown. The students are now asked to turn their backs as the teacher places another set of cards under the cones for the second part of the day”s journey. These cards are marked as follows:

Circle the Wagons (4 Cards): The group walks in a circle around the cone for about 30 seconds. The teacher can tell the group when 30 seconds are up.

Wagon Wheel Falls Off (4 Cards): Stop to make repairs by tossing the yarn ball (also found under the cone) around the circle two times.

Mountain Pass (4 Cards): Your group has found a new mountain passage! Pick up your spots and proceed to a new cone of the group”s choice.

Rolling On! (4 Cards): Using a die found under the cone, roll it to see how many free cones the group can advance to.

Western Trails (3 Cards): This is the card you have been looking for! It”s a picture of the state of Oregon, California, or New Mexico.

On the teacher’s signal, the last player in line grabs his or her poly spot and places it on the floor, touching the spot behind it. The next person runs up and does the same. This continues as the wagon train moves toward one of the cones. All spots must stay in touch.

If there is a gap, the teacher can require the group to go to the starting line to begin the trip again. Once a wagon train reaches a cone, the cone is picked up and laid on its side. By doing this, the group is establishing their own trail to the West. If the cone has a card, the group must follow the directions. If the cone does not have a card, the group continues to another cone.

Home At Last! When a group finds a cone with the picture of a state on it, the students signal the other groups of their discovery. Continue the game until all three states have been found. When this happens, each of the other wagon trains head to the state of their choice.

You can end this activity by talking about the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” leading a discussion of where the major western trails began and ended, showing pictures of the pioneers from library books, or naming each of the trails:

  • California (California Trail and/or Old Spanish Trail),
  • Oregon (Oregon Trail), and
  • New Mexico (Santa Fe Trail).

Most encyclopedias have information under “Western Frontier Life,” or the “Western Movement” that you will find very interesting.

By The Way… Did you know that large numbers of African-Americans moved to the frontier to escape the prejudice they experienced in the East and South? They settled in California, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas during the late 1800′s. Some of the best-known cowboys were African-American!

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