Travel The Oregon Trail

I was in my wife’s classroom on Saturday helping her turn her tables into “Covered Wagons.” She is reading the book- Patty Reed’s Doll: The Story of the Donner Party by Rachel K. Laurgaard in her 4th grade class. In a few weeks they will go on a trip to Donner State Park and visit the actual site where theDonner Party spent that horrible winter in 1846-47. I actually got this idea from an old friend Hal Resnik. We figured out today that we bought the PVC pipes 14 years ago and they still work great. The PVC has to be half inch (three-quarter inch is too thick). We use twin bed sheets we bought at K-Mart for $3 each, and clothespins to hold the sheets on.













Note clothespin:














Each class period when you read the book the students attach the cover and read “inside” their wagons. I’ve also used the covered wagons when reading Tree in the Trail by Holling C. Holling.












WE attach the “hoops” (PVC) with duct tape. Like us, you’ll want to error on the heavy side with the tape to make sure they are very secure.

One fun activity we always include is having the students put up the covers as fast as they can. They get very good at it. I designed an art project as a prep for doing the covered wagons. We research what was brought along in the wagons. Supplies, foods, etc. Then the students make folded paper wagons and “stock” their wagons with all their provisions.


It’s a great MESSY project.


I show scenes of covered wagons traveling the trail from the movie “How The West Was Won” to build the students’ schema.


My wife clothespinning the cover with her recovering broken wrist.

Learning is messy!

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16 thoughts on “Travel The Oregon Trail

  1. Does your wife know about the wonderful online collaborative project called westward Ho that usually begins in January and simulates a trip on the Oregon Trail. Leni Dolan from California started thias project many years ago and so sadly passed a way a few years ago. Someone else has taken the project and hopefully will continue to do it.

  2. Covered Wagons, also known as Conestoga Wagons were made in Lancaster County PA. We have a Conestoga Valley School District, and a town named Conestoga. Did you know these wagons were made to be water tight while crossing rivers? Students may think of them as the original SUV. Enjoy the studies!

  3. I was trolling around and hit the link to this. What a cool idea! I love that your wife makes the tables covered wagons. This type of thing would not just be cool to erect to read under, but to do learning centers as well. Even the eighth graders I teach would love something like this.

    • Hi Michelle – Duct tape one end of the pipe to a table leg, VERY SECURELY, and then bend it over to the other side and tape that end in place. Really works more easily than it might seem. Hope it works for you!

  4. Not sure how far you are from Sacramento. But Sutter’s Fort has an amazing environmental living program. I was able to take my 4th graders about 12 years ago when I lived in California. It was AMAZING! Kids became the characters of the gold rush! Loved it.

    Patty Reed’s doll is a great book. Disney also had a movie about the Reeds called One More Mountain.

    • Yes been there, it is great trip. Closer for us in Reno is Donner State Park. A replica of Patty Reed’s Doll is on display there as well. Also have them make replicas of Patty Reed’s Doll in class while reading the book. Students visit the sites Donner Party folks stayed, then travel miles away where the Donner family wagons were after one broke an axle – so there are really 2 sites where the Party spent the winter. We purposely would schedule visits as close to the date they got there as possible so students could experience the cold … and we would keep them off the bus after walking the trail for a few minutes in the cold and explain that the Donners could not just jump on a heated bus to eat a nice sack lunch. Made a great conversation then and afterwords in class about how tough that was. Messy learning for sure. 🙂

  5. Hi,
    Can you please tell me how long your pvc pipe is? Is it 10 or 20 or somewhere in between? I am shopping tomorrow after looking a bit today. I’d love to get this set up for my fourth graders soon as we are doing an OR Trail simulation. Thanks for your inspiration and creative sharing of ideas. 🙂 I know that it bends easier when it’s longer but I don’t want to have to store 20 feet.

    • It was the 10 foot ones. Definitely not the 20 foot length. They fit inside our car with the back seats folded down and the ends reach from the windshield to the very back of the car. Hope that helps. It really is a great way to set up the unit. Between my wife and I we must have done it 10 times or more, students always very excited about it. Have fun!! Learning is messy! 🙂

      • Thanks, Brian so much!

        We’re getting this done today after school! Yeah. I appreciate knowing the length of your pipe. I figured it wasn’t 20 but it looked nice and high. I appreciate you getting back to me so quickly and now that I’m in fourth grade to stay, I will do it in years to come. Pretty cheap investment really for the costs. 🙂

  6. I love this idea! The students will always remember this interactive lesson and of course learn along the way!! This will also integrate all the other subject areas and technology into the classroom. So inspiring!