Cowboy Classroom Theme Ideas

A Western theme makes for a fun classroom at any grade level. I’m adding some state history to the cowgirl and cowboy classroom theme ideas, and you might be able to do the same, depending which state you teach in.

There are few ready-made decoratives for this theme at the moment:

We like Playmobil for imaginative play for younger students and for dioramas and decorations for older ones. The level of detail makes them perfect for this kind of use — we saw them used in the historical displays in the Chocolate Museum in Paris.


A Western center

wild west center

We made this center to compare facts about cowboys and Native Americans. We used library pockets and a file folder, adhering four pockets to the file folder to make the center. We used a boot for cowboys, a footprint for Native Americans, and put both symbols on the third pocket.

A Western themed pocket holds strips of card with facts on them. Students pull the facts from the storage pocket and sort them into three groups:

  • things that are true of cowboys
  • things that are true of Native Americans
  • things that were true of both during the Wild West era.

Gather facts in a sentence pocket chart throughout your unit. Create the center for remedial practice or assessment, and keep it to use in future classes.

Put answers on the backs of the fact strips to make your center self-checking.

How far west was the wild west?

When you think of the Wild West, you think of Tombstone, Arizona, and Laredo, Texas. But you also think of Dodge City, Kansas, and you should think of “Hell on the Border”: Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

In fact, look at this list of robberies by the notorious Jesse James and his gang, find them on a U.S. map, and see for yourself how wild the Midwest was when it was the frontier.

As the United States got larger and the American western frontier moved toward the west, what was “west” changed. The first daylight bank robbery (it was Jesse James and his gang) was in Liberty, Missouri, in 1866. Liberty is now a small Midwestern college town where Josepha went to college. But in 1866, it was the Wild West.

So when you do your Wild West lesson plans, don’t limit yourself to West of the Pecos. Spend some time exploring your own state’s Wild West heritage, if you’ve got one. I’ve included some information here about outlaws and lawmen from the state where I live, Arkansas, which will be suitable for a Western theme in any region.

Wild West books

Set up your cowboy classroom theme library with some fun fiction, nonfiction, and activity guides.

Wild West Lessons

  • Life and Law is a PDF file from the Ft. Smith National Heritage Site containing pre-visit activities for those planning a visit, but also including information and activities about U. S. Marshalls.
  • A Library of Congress lesson plan leads students to analyze photos of people from the old west. Good way to work on the use of primary sources.
  • PBS has a collection of Wild West lessons for middle and high school students on a broad range of topics.
  • Enjoy the tall tales of Pecos Bill.

Arkansas Outlaws

  • Here is the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture article on Bill Doolin.
  • Belle Starr also has an entry.
  • Jesse James was a Missouri boy, but he did spend time in Arkansas as well. Use this timeline of James’s life to practice map skills, add to your classroom timeline, and work with dates. Here you can find newspaper articles about James, and see the beginning of the “American Robin Hood” legend about him. Here is an easy reading passage telling one of the stories of his Robin Hood-like exploits. You might have a class debate: “Jesse James: Folk Hero or Terrorist?”

Arkansas Lawmen

  • Read about Bass Reeves, one of the first African-American lawmen. Gary Paulsen’s book, The Legend of Bass Reeves, makes a great read aloud or extensive reading for upper elementary and up.
  • Here is the Arkansas Encyclopedia article about “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker. This controversial figure would be a good one to use in a point of view exercise.

Art Connections

  • Kristin Abraham’s painting of the Ft. Smith jail known as “Hell on the Border” is a response to her experience visiting the historic site. Have your students draw or paint a site in a way that shows their emotional reaction to learning about the history of the place.
  • Here are the words to “The Ballad of Belle Starr,” by Bobby Barnett, and here is Woody Guthrie’s song about her. Venn Diagram time! Challenge your class to write a ballad about a modern celebrity, or compare these ballads with other outlaw ballads, such as “The Ballad of Jesse James.” Woody Guthrie did a version of that song, too. Learn more about ballads at our Ballads Lesson Plans.
  • Read or see the movie of the novel True Grit by Charles McColl Portis. Compare this fictional treatment with what you’ve learned about Ft. Smith’s wild days.
  • Arkansas was never part of the trail drives and cowboy culture, but we had some pop culture cowgirls, including Dale Evans and Patsy Montana, composer of “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” (hear it here). Have students make a collage of pop culture images of women of the Wild West, and compare them with real Western women.


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