Every year, people in the U.S. observe Memorial Day on the last Monday of May. On that day, many schools and offices close, communities hold parades, and people visit cemeteries. The day is devoted to paying tribute to those who have given their lives to all of the wars in which the U.S. was involved.
It is common—and important—to discuss the history and culture around Memorial Day, but wherever there's instruction, there can be math instruction. Students who are drawn to discussions around Memorial Day, perhaps because they have family members in the military, may find this holiday as an entry point into mathematical learning.
Memorial Day Math Activities
Activity 1: Design a Parade Float (Grades 5–9)
Get out those markers, crayons, and pencils! Your community is holding a Memorial Day parade, and they don't just want you in it—they want you to design a float for it.
Have students draw their float. It may help to show them pictures of other parade floats so they have an idea of what typically goes on them. Will they need costumes? A sound system? Balloons? When they're finished drawing their float, have them measure it, too. How wide is it? How tall is it?
Now students should calculate the cost of building the float. Have them think about every material listed and estimate how much of each material they would need. For example:
- Amount of wood?
- Amount of metal?
- Amount of wire and papier-mâché?
- Speakers and generator?
Have students research the cost of each material online and calculate the total cost based on quantity. How much money would they need to ask the school for in order to build the float?
To extend the activity, tell students to imagine that the principal says, “If you can reduce the costs by 10%, I’ll give you the money to buy everything.” How would they reduce the costs by 10%? Feel free to modify the question by having the principal instead list a different requirement, such as to “divide the costs in half” or “reduce the costs by 90%.” Try to match this activity with the lesson and students you’re teaching.
Activity 2: Organize a Museum Exhibit (Grades 4–6)
Many students have been to a museum. But have they ever considered creating one? Tell students they get to run a history museum completely out of their imagination. First, have them invent the museum. Encourage creative names and illustrations!
- Name of Museum (example: Jose’s Museum of Iraq)
- Location of Museum (example: Miami, Florida)
Now suppose their museum is planning a special exhibit for Memorial Day. What objects would they like to display for the exhibit? Have them think about the different kinds of objects that can tell a story and draw a crowd. Would their museum have art in its collection? Photographs? Letters? Military gear?
- What objects will the museum feature for this exhibit? (example: helmets, uniforms, diaries, flags)
- What is your budget for the exhibit? (example: $1 million)
Finally, have students plan how to get their budget back. This requires not just calculating how many tickets they have to sell but also thinking about questions like how to get people to come in the first place. Encourage students to use mathematical language in their explanations.
- How much would you charge per ticket?
- How many tickets would you need to sell to get your money back?
- How will you attract people to come to your exhibit?
It's impossible to have Memorial Day math instruction without connecting it to other subjects. You can use this activity to also discuss whether it even matters if a museum makes a profit and what it means for a company to be nonprofit.
You can pair this with other museum-related activities available on Shaped, such as our round-up of free virtual museum field trips and lessons on teaching math using the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Activity 3: Fireworks Celebration (Grades 4–7)
Some places around the country celebrate Memorial Day with public fireworks. Are you teaching prime factorization? Don’t just show prime factors; make prime fireworks!
As you show students how to draw a factor tree (see our lesson on drawing the prime factorization of 36, for example), have them circle or color each of the final prime numbers with different colors. Now every composite number can become a colorful firework! Have students draw the prime fireworks for different numbers and display them for all to see. Consider assigning large numbers with many prime factors such as 3,600 or 20,000.
This is more than just taking an activity and adding color to it; it’s a way to facilitate rich and interesting mathematical discourse. Look for ways to use the fireworks to prompt mathematical discussion:
- Which numbers make the best-looking fireworks? Why?
- Do larger numbers always make better fireworks?
- What properties do the best-looking fireworks have?
- What coloring pattern did you use to make your fireworks? What other coloring patterns could you have used?
Activity 4: Memorial Day Cookout (Grades 2–4)
A common way for friends and families to observe Memorial Day is to get together for a cookout. Tell students they are responsible for organizing the next community Memorial Day cookout. Start by having students answer big-picture questions about their plans.
- How many people will you invite?
- What foods will you cook?
- How many of each ingredient will you need?
Encourage students to be creative and customize their plans for their unique interests and families. Do they want to cook unusual or personally meaningful foods? Do they want to invite all of the cast members from their favorite TV show? Do they want to have their cookout on the Moon? (Although good luck starting a fire! ... Or getting there, for that matter.)
Now try to elicit the inner chef in your students. Have them research how those foods are usually sold. For example, hamburger buns often come in six packs. What is the packaging like for all of their ingredients? How many of each package would they need for the cookout? Have students make and share their shopping lists!
Activity 5: Symbol Geometry (Grades 1–8)
Memorial Day gives us an occasion to think about and celebrate common U.S. symbols. One of the most prominent and popular symbols is its flag. Display a copy of U.S. flag so everyone can see it. There are different mathematical questions you can prepare, based on your students’ ages and interests. For example:
- How many stars are there? How many stripes?
- How much wider are the bottom stripes from the top stripes?
- How many lines of symmetry do the stars have? What about the stripes?
- What are different ways you could arrange the stars?
- What is the flag’s ratio?
- How much fabric would you need to make a flag that’s 6 feet wide?
- How much fabric would you need to make a flag that covers a football field?
Extend the discussion by showing students how symbols can always be analyzed and discussed mathematically. Prompt them to think of other symbols associated with the United States and its military, such as the Bald Eagle, Statue of Liberty, White House, and Liberty Bell.
As students think of different symbols, encourage discussion about different mathematical features of the symbols named:
- How long does it live?
- How tall is it?
- When was it first built?
- What U.S. currency has the symbol on it?
Encourage internet research, and when different students find different answers, be sure to spend time discussing the differences and facilitating mathematical sense-making. You can extend the discussion to include other symbols students may be familiar with, such as company logos, app icons, or symbols on a computer keyboard.
Continue the Celebration
We have an ever-growing library of free resources to help you plan instruction and find the right activity for every student. Be sure to explore some of our related lessons and activities to see if they fit your needs.
You and your students can honor those who sacrificed for their country with these Memorial Day activities.
Teach your students about the symbolism behind flags and the various themes they may represent.
Bring the experiences of U.S. military service members to life for your students with our high school Veterans Day activities and lesson plan ideas.
Looking for games, lesson plans, and activity ideas to celebrate holidays beyond just Memorial Day math activities? Explore our full calendar of activities!