One of my favorite memories from elementary school was playing a classic video game on a green monitor of the APPLE IIe. Do you remember that game? Yep, the video game was called The Oregon Trail! It was always a favorite as I had to name my family members, buy the supplies needed for the trail, go hunting, cross rivers, and then cross my fingers hoping I wouldn’t die! (If you want to relive that classic game, click here!)
Fast forward a few decades from the late 80’s and I find myself teaching a unit on westward expansion that focuses on the Oregon trail. I’m trying to figure out how to make this unit relevant and enjoyable for my students. I start drifting into daydream mode, and that classic computer game begins to capture my attention. As I’m lost in all the fun memories of the video game, I snap out of it and begin to ponder, what if I can recreate a similar excitement for my classroom? What if I could somehow get my students to experience the Oregon Trail right here in my room. That’s when the Oregon Trail Simulation began to take shape.
After some brainstorming, and talking through some ideas with my student teacher at the time, I came up with the Mister Harms classroom version of “The Oregon Trail.” It’s a simulation that students have always enjoyed. It has been tweaked and improved over the years, and has become one of my favorite units to teach!
This interactive simulation gives students a glimpse of what life was like on the Oregon Trail and is definitely a class favorite when we study our unit on Westward expansion! I start the simulation by teaming the students into family wagons. Each wagon team creates their own family relationships and why they are heading west. After creating their family history, teams determine their income and occupation by rolling dice. When they receive their money, teams prepare for the long journey by purchasing supplies at the “Jumping Off” point in Independence, Missouri. During this time, and for the entire journey, each member of the group has a specific task to keep the group organized. One student keeps track of the money, another records all supplies purchased or used, the third emigrant is responsible for adding and subtracting all pounds of food purchased or eaten, and finally one team member keeps track of the calendar by documenting how many days each stretch of the journey has taken. Not only are the students learning history, but with all the documenting, they will challenge their math skills as well!
Grouped into wagon trains, students must depend on teamwork to successfully finish the trail. By rolling dice, keeping track of supplies, and following a map, students get to learn about this historical event in an enjoyable way. All wagons travel the same trail, but their speed and outcome is all determined by the rolling of dice. In the Oregon Trail Simulation, a traveling guide explains the various outcomes based upon the dice being rolled. For example, If a team rolls a 1 they will have an equipment problem. If their second dice is a 2, a broken wagon axel is the outcome. This event requires the team to add an extra day in order to fix and replace the axel if they purchased an extra. During their travels, students can also stop and go hunting or fishing, and their success is also determined by the rolling of dice.
Throughout this entire process, I explain the various historical content by lecturing on the forts, landmarks, trials, and daily life on the trail. As we complete each leg of the journey, students are directed to document their experiences in their personal journal of the trail. This aspect of journaling combines the learning of historical content with creative writing. It is fun to read through the student journal entries as each one is so different. Each journal is from the perspective of their character with the variety of experiences from their specific wagon train.
Ultimately, the simulation ends when we get to Oregon. The entire class learns about the trail at the same pace, but it is a race in that the first wagon to get to Oregon in the least amount of “trail days” becomes the winner! This activity truly keeps students engaged while learning about the Oregon Trail. If you already have your own curriculum regarding the Oregon Trail, you can easily use this simulation right along side whatever you may be teaching. If you do not have much information regarding the Oregon Trail, I recommend checking out my Oregon Trail Presentation. This presentation is a PowerPoint style guide through the Oregon Trail as it highlights the major stops, landmarks, trials faced, and includes many primary source quotes and images. I highly recommend the Oregon Trail Presentation as it helps bring the traveling of the Oregon Trail to life.
After 10 years of tweaking my idea to create a classroom version of that classic video game, I have come to enjoy this simulation each and every year. Since it has become such a success, I am making this simulation available to all teachers and classrooms. If you would like to bring the experiences and excitement of the Oregon Trail Simulation & Journaling Activity to your own classroom, click the image below. Giddy up and Westward Ho!….How about you? Have you tried this simulation or something similar in your classroom? How did it go for you? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below!