Despite quarantines, lockdowns, and smaller gatherings, Thanksgiving can still be festive this year—with some activities that get kids learning while also having fun. Try teaching kids facts about the real first feast while doing science experiments using Thanksgiving ingredients.
First off, let kids in on a secret: At the first Thanksgiving in 1621, turkey almost surely wasn’t the main dish. “There were lots and lots of wild birds, but definitely not the turkey we know,” says Kathleen Wall, a historic foodways expert at Massachusetts’ Plimoth Plantation, who says it’s likely ducks, geese, or quail were on the menu. Turkeys then were likely leaner and much smaller than the ones at today’s supermarkets, and to make those tough birds tastier, they may have been served in soup or in a stew called “pottage.”
For familiar and authentic Thanksgiving foods, look to veggies. Curious kids can use the extras from dinner prep for some harvest season history and science lessons—and it’ll keep them busy while you’re cooking.
Original food: Pumpkin
Science lesson: Density
• 1 pumpkin or winter squash seed
• clear soda
What to do: Pour soda into a clear glass, then drop in one pumpkin or squash seed. “The carbon dioxide bubbles will bring the seed up to the top,” says Melissa Parks, assistant professor at Stetson University’s education department. “Then it will sink and rise up again until all the carbon dioxide is gone.”
Cool science: Soda is fizzy because of carbon dioxide gas, which is dissolved in the liquid and under high pressure when the cap is on. But when you open the can or bottle, pressure is released, and the bubbles rise to the top. The seed dances because the bubbles attach themselves to the seed, which makes the seed less dense than the liquid surrounding it. The buoyant bubbles lift the seed to the top until the bubbles pop, which then makes the seed more dense. The seed starts to sink, unless other bubbles attach themselves to it, and the dancing continues.
History lesson: Indigenous to the Americas, pumpkins were definitely at the first Thanksgiving. Plus, they’re in season in the fall, when the English settlers and Native American people had their first meal. Garlic was almost certainly eaten at the first Thanksgiving, too. “The English would use it medicinally, which means they’d add it to everything they’d eat.” The belief, she says, was that “anything that tastes that strong has to be good for you."
Original food: Squash
Science lesson: Conduction
• 1 yellow squash or zucchini
• 1 galvanized nail (also called a roofing nail, available at hardware stores)
• 1 penny
• copper wire plus a wire stripper or sandpaper if wire is coated
• wire clippers
• 1 mini lightbulb (like a holiday bulb but not an LED)
What you’ll do: Poke the nail into one end of the squash with the head sticking out, and the penny into the other end so it sticks out like a half-moon. Help kids strip or sand off any plastic coating covering the ends of the wire. Then have them securely wrap one end of the copper wire around the nail and the other end around the penny. Cut the wire in half, strip the freshly cut ends, and then carefully wrap one end of the copper wire around one of the two metal wires extending from the lightbulb, and the other around the other wire. Watch the bulb light up! (Don’t worry about getting shocked—there’s not enough voltage to be dangerous.)
Cool science: Water and acid from inside the squash cause the nail’s zinc coating to start dissolving, which frees electrons. The copper from the wire naturally draws those electrons toward it. "As the electrons move through the copper wire, electricity is generated,” explains David Sanchez, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. This powers the light. But what if you connect it and nothing happens? “You might need two squash batteries” for extra voltage, says Jon Kovach of the UCLA Science Project. Simply set up a second squash battery and connect it to the bulb, as well.
History lesson: Squash at the original Thanksgiving most likely had hard skins—like butternut or acorn. And for those of you who remember the above activity as the potato battery experiment … those weren’t on the menu in 1621 New England. They didn’t grow in the area, Wall says, “and it’s not the sort of thing the English brought with them.”
Original food: Beans
Science lesson: Germination
• 1 clear plastic, disposable glove
• 1 cotton ball
• 1 dried kidney or pinto bean
What you’ll do: Tuck the bean into the wad of cotton, dip it in the water, then push it into one finger of the glove. Tape up the glove in a sunny window, then watch for results. Pinto beans will sprout within two to three days; kidney beans will take a little longer.
Cool science: Inside every bean is a part called the germ. “And guess what the germ does? It germinates,” says Cindy D. Ayers, a nutrition and food sciences instructor at Middle Tennessee State University. Germination is what happens when water and oxygen seep into the seed. “The germ contains fat, proteins, and vitamins—all the food for a new plant,” explains Ayers. When water is absorbed into the bean, the bean expands, and the germ releases its nutrients. The sunlight helps those nutrients become the roots that are now sprouting.
History lesson: Beans came to the English from the indigeneous Wampanoag people—and they were likely kidney beans, not the kind in green bean casserole. “We use the wrong beans at Thanksgiving,” Wall says. “Green beans are the spring beans! Kidney beans are part of the same plant, just at different times.” Green beans ripen into kidney beans in the fall, which Wall says were likely stewed at the first Thanksgiving.
Carrot top trees
Original food: Carrots
Science lesson: Photosynthesis
• 1 carrot with a bit of green leaves still attached
• water glass
What you’ll do: Cut the carrot about an inch down from the top with the greens attached. Stick toothpicks around the perimeter of the leafy carrot stub, and balance it atop the glass, then fill with water until the water just touches the cut part of the carrot. Place on a windowsill. The greens will continue to grow and can be transplanted into soil to make a pretty houseplant.
Cool science: While you won’t be able to grow carrots from the cut root, you can get frilly leaves thanks to photosynthesis. “The leaves are taking the energy in from the sun and converting it into energy for the plant,” Ayers says. That’s why the leaves continue to grow. Once they're transplanted outside, the carrot greens can also grow flowers in a couple months. Then cut the flowers and keep in a brown paper bag for at least a week to dry. Shake to release the seeds, and you can use them to grow whole carrots.
History lesson: Carrots were likely eaten at the first Thanksgiving, but they weren’t orange. “Carrots were mostly yellow and red and violet, dark purple, and even white,” Wall says. “Orange isn’t the natural color of carrots.” And the greens were probably sautéed. “When in doubt,” Wall says, “English people liked to cook in butter.”