family wagon


Today you’ll be crossing 600 miles of trackless wilderness, facing untold dangers. The ones who make it through alive, win.

Choose your pioneer identity. These are all real people who traveled the Overland Trail in 1865. You each have your own wagon and your own imaginary family – complete with spouse, children, other family members, and livestock. You can also see your job and where you are from. Introduce yourself to your teammates. You’ll be traveling together for three months, so it’s important to know who everyone is, and why you are choosing to move west.

First, you’ll need to form into wagon teams and elect a wagon master. It’s important to find someone who will make sure everyone’s voice is heard. You’ll be facing three life and death decisions today, and it won’t be clear what is the right answer…or if there even is a right answer. You’ll need the combined thinking power of every member of your team if you hope to reach Denver alive.

Here we are in Independence, Missouri, the end of the civilized part of the country. You’re about to travel across the Great American Desert (otherwise known as Kansas). Luckily for you, your cousin Sarah came this way last year in 1864, and she wrote you some letters about your journey, so you can have some glimpses into what you might be facing.

So begins our Time Travel Field Trip to 1865. It’s unlike any history lecture, textbook or presentation you’ve ever seen. Why?

First of all, it’s incredibly engaging. History is so often taught as a fait accompli, something where the conclusion is already known, something that happened a long time ago to other people.

This is different.


  • Students face real decisions from the time, and feel the effects of the consequences on themselves, their families, and their friends. It makes history immediate, urgent, and emotionally compelling.
  • Students are not hearing about events from someone else. They live it themselves, which makes it memorable.
  • There’s an element of chance. In addition to group decisions, every individual student experiences real events from the time, chosen after extensive historical research. Dice rolls determine if the student will experience the (usually horrible, because that’s just so much more interesting) consequences. They hold their breath, blow on the dice, and cheer or groan at their results.

Depth of knowledge:

  • Students hear directly from the past at appropriate points in the game. Primary sources are woven into letters from the past and shared both in writing, and in movie form (using pictures and images from the time). They are always linked to what the students are about to face. After all, you care a lot more about what it was like in Independence, Missouri when you are about to load your own wagon with supplies for the trip.
  • Someone once said the devil is in the details. I think the opposite is true. To feel like you are standing in the coarse prairie grass next to your groaning, laden wagon you need the little details of daily life that make history a foreign country.
  • It’s what you have to teach anyway. Before beginning three months of historical research, I looked at the current Colorado standards, and built from there. The pre and post-test, the decisions and events in the game, everything directly teaches your history curriculum for you.
  • Higher-level thinking is engaged when students have to think through the ethics and opportunity costs of real and complex decisions.
  • Students learn essential background knowledge through Reader’s Theater using short comics and plays.


  • It’s a field trip that’s like a spa day for the teacher. When was the last time you had TWO HOURS of uninterrupted plan time? What’s that? Never?* I can tell you when the next time will be…when you schedule your next Time Travel Field Trip! You can book online at Just hit the Schedule Appointment button and pick a day. (Two classrooms per day, 9-2)
  • I bring all the materials, and teach for 2 hours for you. Your kids are happy and engaged, and learning the heck out of your history curriculum. What’s not to love?
  • Oh, and did I mention that the KIDS pay for the trip? Just like any field trip. Just $7.50 per student carries them back in time for the adventure of their lives.

*(If your principal is anything like mine was, you have more meetings that you can shake a stick at.)

Pioneers on the Wagon Train to Denver focuses on:

  • Load your wagon: choose supplies for a three month trip into the wilderness
  • Why did people move west?
  • Choosing trails: do you choose the shorter, more dangerous trail, or the longer, safer one?
  • Crossing rivers: what’s the safest, most cost-effective way across?

All that standards-y stuff:

S.4-GLE.1-EO.c Explain the cause-and-effect relationships in the interactions among people and cultures that have lived in or migrated to Colorado.

S.1-GLE.2-IQ.2 Why did people of various cultures migrate to and settle in Colorado?

“My students created a game about homesteading in Colorado. Most of their work was inspired by the Pioneers Field Trip you did with us a few months ago.” -4th grade teacher, Dakota Valley