Learning about the Pilgrims and their journey to America is important to understanding the founding of our country and the history of the United States. The Pilgrims’ voyage on the Mayflower was full of hardships. Today, a replica named the Mayflower II sits in Plymouth Bay, where the Pilgrims eventually landed and settled in Plimoth. Plimoth Plantation is also a great field trip if you’re in the New England area — it’s a great opportunity teach your students first hand what living as a Pilgrim was like.
One way to understand the Pilgrims and the trials they went through to get to America is to experience a little bit of those trials through reenactment.
The Mayflower Voyage Reenactment Activity
To experience the Mayflower as best we can, we can take students on an imaginary journey from England to Plimoth. Young children can reenact the voyage together as Pilgrims and older students can read first hand accounts and documents from the events of the voyage to get in-depth knowledge of the history of the Mayflower.
Life Before the Voyage and Preparations
First, discuss with your students what the Pilgrim’s lives were like living in England. The Pilgrims were originally called Separatists because they were dissatisfied with the Anglican Church but because the king, King James I, was the head of the church, it was treason not to practice Anglicanism. The Pilgrims were prosecuted for their religious beliefs and fled to Holland where they could practice freely.
Explain to students that in England, they are not welcome because of what they believe. Have younger students pretend that others are picking on them for their beliefs. Older students can read a passage from the journal of William Bradford about the Separatists and their beliefs.
While in Holland, the Pilgrims had to work hard at menial jobs and life was difficult. They decided that settling in the New World was the only way they could live the way they wanted, free from prosecution. But Jamestown, the only English colony at the time, was full of Anglicans and they feared they would experience the same troubles as in England. So they decided to settle and start their own colony. Since England owned America, they had to return to England to get permission to go to America. They signed a land patent with the Virginia Company in London that granted them an area of land in Virginia on which to settle. They chartered the Mayflower to take them and joined up with more Separatists in England.
For younger students, you can print out a copy of a land patent and give it to your group of Pilgrims. Older students can read a passage from the journal of William Bradford about the decision to go to America.
The next step is to prepare for the voyage. The Pilgrims couldn’t take everything they needed and had to pick and choose what to take. While the Mayflower was one of the largest ships at the time, it is tiny by today’s standards. They prepared stores of food, chose which furniture to take, and packed the ship for the voyage.
Young students can best learn about the choices the Pilgrims had to make by having to choose between items. Print out different items, like clothing, tools, furniture, food, and other items. Ask students to pack a box together and decide what to take with them. Older students can read through documents of provisions and recommendations from settlers on what to bring with them.
The Voyage to Plimoth
The Mayflower itself was a small ship and the Pilgrims spent 66 days traveling from England to Plimoth, although that wasn’t their original intended destination. They lived in between decks in a small, cramped space with no fresh air and little to do and terrible food to eat. Soon after they left, a storm hit the Mayflower and blew her off course.
Build a “Mayflower” with your younger students but outlining a ship on the floor in tape just big enough for all the students to sit in together. Explain to them what life was like in the ship and ask them to sway back and forth. Ask them to pretend they’re smelly, that there’s little air to breathe, and that the food is bad to eat and has bugs in it. When the storm comes, ask students to pretend they are seasick, ask one to fall overboard and the others to save the student, and have students imagine the ship is being tossed in the angry ocean. Older students can use this interactive timeline.
After the storm, the Mayflower continued to America but first spotted land in Newfoundland, far north of where they intended to settle. They stopped for provisions and then attempted to navigate to the area they had signed the patent for but the waters around New England were treacherous so they made land on Cape Cod. After giving up and deciding to settle in the area, they went to the area now known as Plimoth.
Take younger students on the journey by using a map to explain how far the Pilgrims were off course and the path they took down the coast to Plimoth (named Plymouth today on maps). Asks students to pretend to get provisions in Newfoundland but decide not to stay there. Have one student spot land and ask all the students to exit the Mayflower and return to their seats. Older students can read first hand accounts of the last legs of the voyage and read the Mayflower Compact.
After taking the journey with the Pilgrims, ask your students to reflect on what the journey was like and how it formed our ideas of America today. Highlight that later when the United States was founded, religious freedom and tolerance were important parts of our decisions on how to govern our country, which we still use today. You can also connect this lesson to other lessons about bullying and tolerance in your classroom.
Ask students to write a journal entry about what they learned from experiencing the voyage of the Mayflower and what it was like to be a Pilgrim. Older students can write analysis of primary sources and reflect on how the Pilgrim’s voyage affected our country’s history.
- Pilgrim Hall Museum
- Primary Sources from the Mayflower
- Eyewitness to History on the Mayflower
- Scholastic’s Interactive First Thanksgiving and Mayflower website
- Online resources for If You Sailed on the Mayflower book
- Resources from Plimoth Plantation
- On the Mayflower: Voyage of the Ship’s Apprentice & a Passenger Girl by Kate Waters
- If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 by Ann McGovern
- Mayflower 1620: A New Look at a Pilgrim Voyage by Plimoth Plantation
- American Documents: The Mayflower Compact by Judith Lloyd Yero
- Across the Wide Dark Sea: The Mayflower Journey by Jean Van Leeuwen
- Of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford