A great way to engage students in learning is through something they love, which includes highly anticipated athletic events for many students. High-profile examples include the Summer and Winter Games. History is frequently made at these events. That’s what makes the games a great resource for real-world, engaging lessons that will leave a lasting impression on students.
Summer and Winter Games Activities for Elementary and Middle School Students
The following Olympics activities for elementary and middle school students will get your kids researching and learning more about these athletic events. Seven thought-provoking social studies and language arts activities will show students the impact of the games on world history. Five math activities will help them see how math works in the sports world. Read on!
The Summer Games have been disrupted, postponed, or canceled at least eight times in history. In this downloadable PDF timeline activity, your students will research the events that significantly affected the games. If your students get stuck, this resource has the answers you’ll need to help them out.
Engage students in looking back at a significant moment in sports history. The 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, Germany occurred during a tense era in world history. The following brief passage from HMHInto Social Studies®“The Second World War“ for Grade 6 gives insight into what track star Jesse Owens faced during these games:
In 1936, Nazi Germany hosted the Summer Olympics. Hitler intended to show the world the racial superiority of Germany’s Aryan athletes. The U.S. Olympic® team delivered a very strong message to Hitler. African American athletes won 14 medals. Four of those, all gold, were won by track star Jesse Owens. During the long-jump competition, the German champion Luz Long gave Owen advice on his takeoff. Owens won gold, Long won silver, and this strange pair became friends. On the medal stand, Owens saluted in the military style, while Long extended his arm in the Nazi salute. Sadly, after proving the falseness of Aryan supremacy on a world stage, Jesse Owens returned to an America that treated him like a second-class citizen. Even after achieving Olympic glory, he could not take a front seat on a public bus.
Have students independently research the story of Jesse Owens. Start a discussion about what happened in 1936, the details they found, and their opinion of the events that unfolded. Students then will research and choose a quote from Owens and reflect in writing or discuss their ideas with the class. Owens made statements about his relationship with other competitors, his reception after returning to the United States, fulfilling dreams, and the battles we all face within ourselves. Have your students discuss what the statements they selected reveal about Owens.
Activity 3: Good Sports (Social Studies/Language Arts), Grades 4–8
Challenge students to research a prominent athlete from the past or present century. To get started, direct them to a list of top athletes to choose from. Then students should gather relevant information from multiple credible sources using the internet and reference books to support their writing. Finally, have them prepare a brief report, emphasizing any obstacles the athletes faced before or during their career and how those obstacles were overcome. Allow time for students to present their reports to the class.
Activity 4: Pinpoint a City (Social Studies), Grades 1–6
Since 1896, there have been 29 Summer Games held in 23 cities and 23 Winter Games held in 20 cities. In this activity, your students will locate past, present, and future host cities on a map. This is ideally a fun, interactive activity for elementary students. If you are conducting this activity virtually, consider displaying a world map behind you.
What You Need
Wall or floor map of the world
Teacher-made (or purchased) flags of various countries
Tape, glue, wooden craft sticks or toothpicks (to hold flags)
Help children match each country’s flag to the appropriate locations on a large wall or floor map of the world. You can assign each student one country to locate, depending on the size of your class.
Activity 5: Life in a Year (Social Studies/Language Arts), Grades 4–8
Students will collaborate with one another to write and publish a digital magazine that captures what life was like during a particular Olympics year. They will use the internet to gather sources to cite in their work.
What You Need
Word processing and computer art programs (optional)
What to Do
Choose any Olympics year. Have students share what they know about that year and think about what life was like during that time.
Divide the class into editorial teams. Tell students that each team will publish its own digital magazine “Year in Review” issue to recreate what life was like during the year chosen.
Tell students that their magazines should include articles from the following departments: the arts (including movies, radio, and television), fashion, sports, politics, government, and international affairs. The magazine should include a special section on sports to highlight the athletes who participated that year. Suggest that they vary the formats of their stories, such as mixing straight news, feature articles, and photo spreads. Advise students to study current magazines to help them decide on formats.
Have teams publish their magazines and do a brief oral presentation to compare life during their research year to the present.
Activity 6: Compare and Contrast Summer and Winter Games (Social Studies/Language Arts), Grades 4–8
Are the Summer Games more popular than the Winter Games? Are you more of a track-and-field person, or do you enjoy watching skiing (or both)? There may be reasons fans prefer one event over the other, such as an interest in certain sports or famous athletes. Your older elementary and middle-grade students will compare the seasonal events in this activity. Upper elementary students can research, take notes, and create a Venn diagram, and middle school students can write an essay. This activity is a great way to introduce students to the games while sharpening their research, critical thinking, and writing skills. The steps below provide guidance for writing a compare-and-contrast essay:
Have your students research and gather relevant details about the Summer and Winter Games. They should note a few similarities and differences between the two events.
Next, students should plan and prewrite their first drafts. A Venn diagram can help them brainstorm. Students should structure their body paragraphs using the block method of organizing (where they discuss one subject in full before moving on to the second subject). The first body paragraph focuses on Subject A, and the second focuses on Subject B.
After planning the structure of their essays, students can then focus on developing their thesis statements, where they clearly state the two subjects, prepare a hook for the introduction paragraph, and draft a conclusion paragraph that summarizes key points and restates the main idea.
After your students finish planning their essays, they’re ready to write their drafts (consisting of an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion).
Then, they should revise, edit, and share the final version of their drafts with others.
Encourage critical thinking using our Winter Games scavenger hunt. While watching one or more events during the Winter Games, have them look for the items in our bulleted list. This flexible scavenger hunt activity works across grade levels and subjects—choose the ideas that work best for your classroom:
You could have younger students look for the basic shapes, numbers 1–10, and winter words (e.g., snow, ice, cold, winter, boots, gloves) they discover while watching the games.
For social studies class, students can write all the countries of the world (or continents for a quicker hunt) they notice competing while watching the games.
For ELA class, prepare figures of speech or language concepts for students to listen for (e.g., metaphor, simile, proper noun, adjective, and alliteration).
Don’t feel limited by our list—feel free to add more! Your students can share what they discovered in class afterward.
Math Activities for Students
The Summer and Winter Games provide a great opportunity to see math in action. Three-time Olympian™ DeeDee Trotter hosts an exploration of how math and sports intersect, as three student athletes get the scoop from a javelin thrower, a Paralympic™ cycling hopeful, and a U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee dietitian.
In this activity, your students will work in small groups, drawing a bicycle and a track and then racing the bicycle around the track. They will graph data to see how close they can get to pacing themselves like an elite cyclist. To do this activity virtually, have students try using a digital timer on their own and then report back with their data.
Have your students design and name an athlete. Make sure they include traits about that athlete, too, such as the person’s sport. Then, have your students research the nutritional information of different ingredients and use those details to make the perfect post-workout smoothie for their athlete.
Students will set a goal and track their progress. For students who are first learning about rates, the activity not only shows a real-world example but also helps improve their lives along the way. For older students, the activity has a high ceiling and can contextualize topics including multivariable functions and nonlinear approximations.
How do you celebrate and learn more about the Summer and Winter Games in your class? Share your Olympics lesson plans for elementary and middle school students with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook or email us at email@example.com.
Give your students the chance to act like historians and develop their analytical skills with HMH Into Social Studies. This dynamic program includes engaging digital magazines and hands-on activities that will captivate your class.
Learn more about the Math at Work web series: you and your students will watch industry leaders work with real students to demonstrate the importance of math in jobs across the globe.
Into Social Studies®, HMH®, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt® are registered trademarks of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Olympic®, Olympian™, and Paralympic™ are trademarks or registered trademarks of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. This blog, originally published in 2021, has been updated for 2022.