Hands-On Ideas to Keep Kids Busy for Thanksgiving

Create a Gratitude Tree

Our “Dollar Spot” gratitude tree, but you can do the same with sticks and construction paper leaves.

We started this as a way to recognize all of the things we’re grateful for. How we do it has changed over time:  one year we used sticks and glued a leaf each day, one year we cut out a paper tree and put it on a closet door, taping a new leaf to the tree each day. A few years ago I happened upon an official gratitude tree in the Dollar Spot at Target and that’s become our tabletop version each year. I simply make new leaves out of construction paper each year and with a little love from a glue stick, our thankful leaves fill the tree during November.

Hint: You don’t have to do it all of November! It can fill as many days as you’d like or just be on Thanksgiving Day. Enlist family members to help. It’s a great conversation starter and fun to see what everyone says. When he was three, my son was thankful for milk. Not mom, not dad, but milk. We all have our priorities. Find more inspiration and options here.

Make Thankful Turkeys

A grateful turkey, made from a foam hand, construction paper feathers and faux feathers, which are fun to play with. The popsicle stick means it can be carried around or even stuck in a flower pot to help it stand up.

A variation on the gratitude tree, a thankful turkey can be another fun way to teach gratitude and can be done on Thanksgiving Day. There are a variety of ways to do them with paper, adding “feathers” to the turkey’s tail for each thankful. Another favorite involves actual feathers, which kids have a blast playing with. All you need is a bag of feathers, construction paper and popsicle sticks. You can use a foam hand as your base or cut hands from construction paper, but I’ve found that the foam hands hold up better. The hand becomes your turkey body, where feathers will be glued, so sturdy is better.

The back of the grateful turkey so you can see the construction.

Have the kids write what they’re thankful for on the popsicle sticks, write on construction paper feathers you’ll use to form the base for your real feathers, or write on the “body,” then decorate away. If you write on the sticks, they become part of the turkey’s plumage along with the feathers. All you need to add now is an eye and a beak. If you want to make it easy for the kids to play with them, add a popsicle stick as a handle and they can fan and play all day.


Go Hands – and Toes – In on Décor

A canvas with three hand prints in different colors to make the turkey tail, then a footprint for the body. Add googly eyes, a beak and a waddle and you’ve got a turkey.

Create a turkey like no other, or a fall tree with unique leaves, with little hands and toes. A set of blank canvases, non-toxic, washable paint (think fingerpaints) and little feet and hands and you have an activity, décor and fun all in one. This activity really does require adult supervision and involvement, so it might be better for pre-holiday, but it’s simple and fun, especially since the kids get dirty. We do these outside, with towels, etc. to clean up. Just use paper plates for the paint—and perhaps a paint sponge to make sure their hands and feet get good coverage.

A fall tree from a handprint and fingerprints.

For the turkey, do three handprints first, overlapping/placing them close enough together that once they’re dry, you can add the foot body. And note: both hands are needed so you have a full turkey tail. Add googly eyes and with a small brush, you can add details, even the year, so you can put them out again and again. For the tree, be sure to get enough paint on their arm so you have a good tree trunk, or simply paint the trunk in yourself (so put the handprint in the center of the canvas). Let the “tree” dry, then let the kids do leaves with their fingerprints.


Craft Tissue Trees

Easy and fun since they get to tear and ball up tissue paper. Crepe paper also works.

Another easy construction paper project, trace and cut out their hand and arm to make a tree. Paste that onto another piece of construction paper. Then let them tear and ball up bits of colored tissue paper they can glue on the tree. They can cover the tree, the ground, the sky with whatever “leaves” they like. There are variations on this where you cut slips of tissue paper and use those as leaves as well, so do whatever works for you/your kids.


Decorate Placemats

There are placemats you can buy to decorate or document thankfuls to add an activity, but this is another DIT (do it themselves) that is easy and keeps them busy. I use manila drawing paper (size 12 x 18 inches), but you could also do butcher roll, regular construction paper, you name it. Crayons, colored pencils, markers – bonus if they’re new because that feels like a treat – and let them decorate. You can add names, drawings, fun messages, whatever they’d like. Or give them a theme and let them go at it. Our dinners are more casual and these placemats add a personal touch to the day.

Build Natural Art

Part of this year’s collection for our natural art. There’s only one bug body in here, but we’re *lucky* to have three others saved for this project. Yay? Yeah, not what I consider art, but everyone’s a critic, right???

Take a walk and let your kids gather items to use for decorating: small sticks, acorns, leaves, bits of bark, flowers, stalks of grass, small rocks, you name it. Get a large enough selection that you have bits to work with. Then give them some construction paper and challenge them to create a picture with the bits of nature you gathered. My son defaults to animals, but this example from the McNay Art Museum shares a portrait inspired by one the works in their collection.

If you don’t have time to go for a walk, your yard can also be a source of finds. You can let them glue their creations in place, or leave it loose and let them create again and again. It can be a guessing game where everyone works to figure out what the creation is or works together to create a story that fits the creations. Our finds for this year include things we’ve gathered as we’ve been walking our neighborhood, including a beetle carcass and a butterfly wing, so there’s no telling what might result. (Please tell me that other kids like to gather that stuff. Please?!?)

Enlist Kitchen Help

This one might make you groan if you dread having people underfoot while you’re cooking, but from chopping to mixing, kids can make great sous chefs. Put them to work doing things that help with meal prep. I admit I get frustrated with folks in my kitchen space, but I also remember watching my grandmother make her famous candied yams. I loved being a part of that and treasure those memories. I want my son to have those memories, too, and know the origins of the family recipes we include in our meal. Thanks to a self-contained chopper, he’s helped with nut chopping since he was three. He’s also mashed potatoes, mixed cornbread, and more. I purposely set things aside I know he can help with so there’s a role for him to play.

Celebrate Native American Heritage

November is more than just turkey, it’s also Native American Heritage Month and the Friday after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day. You can get out and explore the Briscoe Western Art Museum (closed Thanksgiving Day) to see Native American art and artifacts, including Visual Voices, an exhibition featuring contemporary art from present-day Chickasaw painters, potters, sculptors, metal smiths and weavers. We checked it out earlier this month and my son was entranced by an artist’s take on a stormtrooper helmet.

I know what you’re thinking: Kids in an art museum? YES! They are more than welcome (and kids 12 and under get in free at the Briscoe). But for a hands-on learning experience you can do at home, the “Bring Home the Briscoe” activity box includes many beautiful and diverse native groups of the West. Available for purchase ($25 for non-museum members, $20 for members) through Dec. 31, the box contains supplies to complete six different activities, plus a book and links to additional video content for added context. The kits are ideal for children ages 6–12, making them perfect for keeping hands busy over Thanksgiving break.

An Army brat who came to Texas for college and ultimately managed to make the Lone Star State her permanent home, Dawn became a mom “AMA” (advanced maternal age), giving her the opportunity to use a stroller vs. a walker as she navigates the world of motherhood. Her growing up way too fast native Texan loves all things Star Wars, Legos, dinosaurs and keeping his parents on their toes. When she’s not busy parenting the original strong-willed child, Dawn runs Tale to Tell Communications, a San Antonio-based PR and marketing agency. An award-winning writer, Dawn also contributes to San Antonio Woman, Rio Magazine and Texas Lifestyle Magazine. She and her family enjoy exploring all that San Antonio has to offer, going on adventures and playing tourist together as much as possible. Favorite Restaurant: Clementine Favorite Landmark: The beauty of the River Walk, especially La Villita Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Celebrating anything and everything with color, music and food