When I was a kid, westward expansion was one of my favorite units because of the Oregon Trail computer game. Was that a favorite for you too? I could sit on the computer for hours trying to safely get my family out west without them drowning in a river or catching a deadly disease.
As an educator, westward expansion remains one of my favorite U.S. history units, but for entirely different reasons. If you’ve read any of the other posts in my hands-on history series, you know that I am passionate about finding ways to make history fun and engaging for students. I love teaching westward expansion because the topic provides LOTS of opportunities for hands-on learning and engagement. Here are some of my favorite westward expansion lesson plan ideas!
You can also find lots of ideas for teaching Westward Expansion in this video I created.
Westward Expansion Reading Comprehension Activities
When it comes to making history hands-on and engaging, my first tip is to ditch the textbook. Few things are more overwhelming or boring for a student than a giant textbook. But, students still need some type of reading activity for learning new westward expansion facts and for improving reading comprehension skills.
Instead of a textbook, I use short westward expansion reading comprehension passages and questions. These passages provide students with the information they need to know. Then, I expand upon that information through hands-on activities. Often, I am short on the amount of time I have to teach history. So, I will have the students read the passage for homework or during their ELA block. That way, students know the important facts and we can get straight to the hands-on activities during our limited history time.
Louisiana Purchase Debate
If you’re looking for a westward expansion lesson plan idea that incorporates communication and critical thinking, you should consider hosting a Louisiana Purchase debate. While it is viewed as the best land deal in American history today, the Louisiana Purchase was controversial at the time. To discuss the pros and cons of the deal, divide students into teams. Have each team debate whether the United States should purchase the Louisiana Territory. For each team that decides to purchase, I have them fill out this $15,000,000 check to signify the purchase.
Westward Expansion Journals
Most likely, you teach the Lewis and Clark expedition after the Louisiana Purchase. One aspect of the Lewis and Clark expedition that I find most fascinating is that the men and their team discovered hundreds of new plant and animal species. One of my favorite westward expansion lesson plan ideas is to have students research Lewis and Clark’s discoveries and create a journal with their findings.
Manifest Destiny Activity
Discussing the concept of manifest destiny is an important aspect of a westward expansion unit. When teaching manifest destiny, I use a task card activity to incorporate inference and critical thinking skills. Each task card has a scenario related to the causes and effects of westward expansion and manifest destiny. Students must decide what they would do in each scenario. I sit the task cards at stations around the room for students to rotate through. When they finish, we discuss their responses as a class.
Westward Expansion Timeline Activity
As part of my manifest destiny lesson plan, I also have students research when each state was admitted to the Union and use a chart to record their findings. If time allows, I also have students create a timeline with the information. This is a great way to help students compare when states were added and visualize how the United States grew. It is also an opportunity to work some math skills into a U.S. History unit.
Westward Expansion Board Game
My favorite westward expansion lesson plan has to do with the Oregon Trail. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I loved playing the Oregon Trail computer game as a kid. I wanted to find a way to recreate this game in my classroom, so I created an Oregon Trail board game. As part of the game, students must successfully travel from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon by rolling a die. Along the way, they must overcome surprise challenges and keep a food log to make sure their family does not starve. This is one of my students’ favorite activities of the entire westward expansion unit!
Gold Rush Simulation
Another westward expansion lesson plan that my students enjoy has to do with the California Gold Rush. I set up a few mining stations around my classroom with fake gold. I call on a few students to go pan for gold at the stations. After those students have had several minutes to search for gold, I call on a few more students. I repeat this process until every student is up and searching for gold. This provides an opportunity to show students that most gold rushers did not find gold. The ones who arrived in California first may have gotten rich, but most were not successful because the gold was gone by the time they arrived.
Westward Expansion Map Activity
There are lots of opportunities to incorporate map skills throughout your westward expansion unit. I have students create maps throughout the unit to show things such as:
- the Louisiana Territory
- the route taken by Lewis and Clark
- the Oregon Trail
Westward Expansion Review Games
My last westward expansion lesson plan always includes review games. There are two review activities I use as part of my westward expansion unit: task cards and an escape room. My task cards help students review information from the unit and examine questions that model the format used for state testing. For all of my U.S. history units, I use different task card games to help my students review.
You can learn more about how I use task cards with this video.
When it comes to having students review U.S. history, escape rooms are my absolute favorite! My Westward Expansion Escape Room includes seven challenges that incorporate reading, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. I put each challenge at a station. Students rotate through these stations to solve puzzles and decode messages about westward expansion. I constantly hear students talk about how much they love these escape room activities. Anytime a student is having fun and loving what they are doing, they are more likely to remember what they are learning.
Hopefully, you now see why I love teaching westward expansion. With all these hands-on activities, this is a fun unit for the teacher and the students. Most of the westward expansion lesson plan ideas I have detailed here can be replicated in your classroom, but I know planning time can be a problem for many teachers. If you are short on time, I’ve got you covered! The following resources are available in my store:
- Westward Expansion Unit
- Oregon Trail Board Game
- Westward Expansion Task Cards
- Westward Expansion Escape Room
If you prefer shopping on Teachers Pay Teachers, these resources are available in my TPT store.
I hope your students enjoy completing these westward expansion games and activities. I am passionate about creating hands-on history lessons so that we can inspire students to have a love for history. If you want quick and easy access to more engaging U.S. history ideas, be sure to bookmark the Hands-On History page on my blog.