Over the River and Through the Woods – Thanksgiving Song
“Over the River and Through the Woods” is an American classic that I think a lot of folks recognize and love. It’s one of those ubiquitous songs that pops up now and again and immediately feels familiar. However, it feels like “Over the River” is one of those songs that lives on the fringe. We know it, but not very well. We can immediately sing a snippet of it, but that’s about as much as we can do. Is is a Christmas song? Thanksgiving? It’s a song on the fringe. We know it, but not as well as we could.
I really started to love this song when I realized that it was such a fantastic example of a true-blue American Thanksgiving song. There are a lot of silly turkey songs out there that piggyback new lyrics onto old melodies, but not a lot of REAL Thanksgiving songs. “Over the River” actually talks about Thanksgiving and going to see relatives and eating pumpkin pie. Once I learned all the great connections I could make and that it was an authentically “Thanksgiving” song, I knew I had to teach it!
I’ll admit that I didn’t really teach this song until about a year ago. I just felt that I didn’t have the right resources or lesson ideas to teach it well. To me the song feels like I should be using it with younger grades. I can’t exactly explain why, but it just felt like a “young” song. When I spent some time going through the particulars of the song, I realized that it should probably be used with older classes. There are just too many verses for younger kids and the words are not always the easiest for younger kiddos to pick up (and it’s those words that make the song really interesting)!
So, here are some resources and ideas for YOU to use as you teach the song. If you have a favorite activity for “Over the River” leave a comment below and share your idea with me and anyone else who reads this blog post!
Learning the Song – The Process
When I teach this song, I usually just start with the first verse and get that really set in their minds before I go on. In fact, if I’m using this over a two-day or three-day lesson period I’ll just introduce and teach the initial verse that first day. As usual, I’ll sing the whole thing for them once through, usually with a banner image/picture on the whiteboard just so they have something other than me to look at if they want. Often kids will respond with “I’ve heard that!” or “I know that song!”Once I’ve gone through the whole first verse at least one time, I’ll go back and have students echo sing with me as I go through the song phrase by phrase. I make up very basic actions to go with the song just so that kids have something physical to do (to keep them from fidgeting) and also because I think adding actions help them remember the song better. For “over the river…” we do actions with our hands of going up and over a bridge and then “through the woods” I make my hands spread out to be like trees on either side. Sometimes for “over the river” I add a hop. Your preference. 😀 For “the horse knows the way” I add in the act of bouncing reigns on the horses back and with the “over the river… grandfather’s house away!” I do the over and sides actions again and point off in the distance for “away.” On “we will not stop for ball or top” I do the “incomplete pass/football ref” action on will not stop and let the kids do a quick hop or spin on ball or top.
I do not go on and do anything else with the song until I KNOW that kids know this first verse. My thought is that if kids have this verse in their heads as a foundation that they can change out the words for other verses later with few problems. I also make sure to teach this verse SLOWLY. It’s so easy to just teach the song fast and assume that kids have it, but honestly they probably don’t. I take my time, over enunciate some words, go at a very easy tempo, and repeat repeat repeat. Later I’ll speed up the tempo a bit, but not at first.
Teaching the Vocabulary
After we really have the first verse down I’ll stop and go back to talk about some of the vocabulary. Kids are familiar with several of these special words, but not all. For instance, kids might know a sleigh by sight, but they might not understand when or why you would use one. Thanks to Santa they know the word “sleigh”, but they might just think it’s his special vehicle and is only meant for flying. I take some moments to connect sleigh with snow and talk about how it’s like a carriage without wheels, made specifically for snow. We talk about the presence of a sleigh in Jingle Bells and then that connection leads to a short chat about the horse pulling the sleigh (later in the song called a dapple-gray).
We might also talk about the doll and top mentioned in the first verse. “Why does the composer use those words? What kid is going to be asking for a doll or top for a toy?” This is a great reason to talk about the history of the song, the cultural context from when it was written, and the toys that kids used to use. After you’ve talked about riding in a sleigh to go somewhere, kids are already thinking that this song must be very old. It’s easy to make the segue to talk about old-timey toys.
For me, this whole discussion leads to a quick talk about the history of the song. I talk about Lydia Maria Child, the woman who wrote the poem that the lyrics for this song are based on. Then I talk a little bit about where the song came from and how that compares to where we are. Kids love when I pull out the map and show them how far their state is from the state where a song is written. We talk a little about New England too. I teach in Michigan and kids around here can tell you all about “Great Lakes States” but aren’t as familiar with the South, Southwest, Midwest, or New England. Talking about those regions expands their knowledge base a little bit and connects with what they learn in their homerooms. Our 4th graders learn about “regions of the United States” throughout the year, and taking the time to talk about New England really ties right in.
One more thing that’s pretty fun is that “Grandfather’s house” actually exists (click the picture above to see more). Historians have found the place that the poet Lydia Maria Child was referring to in the original poem and you can see pictures/learn more about it. Yet ANOTHER reason that I love learning about the history of these folk songs!
Additional Verses – Use Student Groups/Teams
Usually on day two with this song we start to explore the second, third, and fourth verses of this song. The first verse is the most familiar and well known, but the other verses hold some real treasures of vocabulary and story telling. I project the lyrics on the white board and we go through it slowly at first. Often, I’ll just put up the words and sing all the way through for them while they follow along on the screen.
One thing that has worked really well for me in the past is when I hand out different verses to different groups. I’ll sing through the whole song for them once, and then I’ll give each group a paper with lyrics for one of the verses. That group is then in charge of their verse and needs to come up with special actions that match the lyrics of their verse. I’ll give them 5-10 minutes to come up with actions as a group and then we sing through the whole thing as a class. When your special verse comes up you present your lyrics and actions to the class.
Often I’ll make this a rondo form so that it goes 1st verse, 2nd verse, 1st verse, 3rd verse, and so on. Coming back to the first verse over and over like a chorus gives a little break in between each verse so the next group can prepare to present their actions. This also keeps all kids active because even if their special verse isn’t going right then, they know they can’t get too off track because they’ll have to sing again in just a second.
Extra Resources to help you Teach
I don’t actually have this book, but I have always wanted to get it! The book has some really wonderful illustrations that help to explain many of those old words that kids don’t immediately understand. I always think that it’s great to have a picture to put a difficult word or old story in context for kiddos. As I said, I don’t have this book but if YOU do please leave me a comment to tell me what you think! It’s on my wish list.
Click the picture to see the book in more detail on the Amazon website!
UPDATE from 2023: Since writing this blog post I’ve found several more books that I absolutely love. Learn more below:
I also like to look for YouTube videos that can be used to reinforce the songs that we’re learning. You always have to be careful with what you pick because they might just be really low-quality or might veer off into different topics. You can never be too careful with YouTube videos and I would NEVER suggest you pull something up and show it to kids without previewing it first… you just don’t know what might pop up on screen!
Here are a couple videos that I might use on day two or three to further reinforce the lesson or use as a singalong. Click the image below to go to YouTube.
I hope you had fun reading about how I introduce and play around with this fun little folk song. There are endless opportunities for “what comes next” with this song. If you have any other ideas of how to extend the lesson, please leave them in the comments below so that we can all gain ideas for the next time we teach this song!
If you liked the visuals and resources you saw in the above blog post then check out this Favorite Folk Song Set for the song. I have it available to download as a PowerPoint presentation and also as JPEG files. Included in the set are a lot more pages of historical context, vocabulary, background for the song, visuals, and aids for teaching. You can use the PowerPoint for visuals and explanation as you teach or you can post the images out in the hallway as a bulletin board that reinforces the content you teach in class (or you can do both)!