Veterans Day and Memorial Day come at opposite ends of the school year. Veterans Day is on November 11, and Memorial Day kicks off the unofficial start of summer at the end of May. They can feel similar—both are about remembering men and women who served in the military. But they’re not the same. Here’s what you need to know about Veterans Day vs. Memorial Day, and how to engage kids in thinking about each day.
- Who is commemorated on Veterans Day and Memorial Day?
- How are Veterans Day and Memorial Day observed?
- What are the origins of Veterans Day and Memorial Day?
- Veterans Day Activities
- Memorial Day Activities
- Veterans Day vs. Memorial Day Activities
Who does each day honor?
Veterans Day honors everyone who has served in the military, whether they went to war or not.
Memorial Day honors people who died in battle or who died after getting injured in war.
How is each day observed?
On Veterans Day, families and communities come together for special services to honor veterans.
On Memorial Day, communities often host parades. People are remembered with visits to cemeteries and memorials. This is the day that people decorate cemeteries with American flags.
How did each day start?
Veterans Day and Memorial Day have different beginnings, but both came out of the aftermath of America’s time at war.
Veterans Day Origins
World War I officially ended in the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German armistice. Veterans Day was established to remember the soldiers who died in that war. (That’s also why Veterans Day was known as Armistice day until 1954.) Now, Veterans Day is a day to honor the more than 19 million men and women who have served.
Memorial Day Origins
After the Civil War, which claimed more lives than any other U.S. conflict, the government established its first national cemeteries. The day started in Waterloo, New York, on May 5, 1866, when officials encouraged residents to decorate soldiers’ graves with flowers. On May 20, 1868, a national Decoration Day was held to decorate the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. And by the late 1800s, communities across the United States observed the day and it was declared an official holiday. Until 1971, the day was known as Decoration Day because people decorated graves.
Activities To Teach Veterans Day
Veterans Day is an opportunity to teach students about the military and who serves and why. If possible, bring real veterans into the classroom or conversation.
Learn a veteran’s story
Each veteran’s story is unique. Invite a local veteran to class to share their story, or read articles at the Wounded Warrior Project. Once students have learned about a few veterans, have them write responses to a Wounded Warrior essay prompt.
Watch a video about Veterans Day
Help kids gain background knowledge about Veterans Day with one of these inspiring and informative Veterans Day videos for kids.
Learn flag etiquette
Taking care of the American flag is an important part of Veterans Day ceremonies. Learn how to fold the flag and take care of it. Then, practice folding the flag appropriately.
Create a portrait of a veteran
Have students draw or paint portraits of veterans that they know (they can bring in photos of family members who have served) or of famous veterans. Examine some actual veteran portraits at the Veterans Portrait Project.
Create military-style medals
Brainstorm the qualities that make a service member great (bravery, dedication, loyalty). Then, have students each choose one quality and design a medal to showcase that quality.
Write thank-you cards
Have students write a thank-you card to a local veteran. Contact local nursing homes or military organizations to get a list of names of veterans that students can write to.
Create a Thank-You Wall
Have students research veterans, both historical and those that are in their own families. Then, combine photos and text to create a Thank You Wall. Here is a list of famous veterans to get students started.
Make and send care packages to veterans
Brainstorm a list of things that soldiers might like to have when they are deployed and work as a class to collect and pack care packages. The Military Wife and Mom has a list of snacks, toiletries, and other items that are great for care packages. Military.com has a list of places you can send care packages.
Learn a song
Check out the Veterans Day and patriotic-themed song list from Songs for Teaching and teach students a song that has history.
Activities To Teach Memorial Day
Memorial Day is more about remembering than thanking, so celebrating this holiday is a combination of acknowledging service members who have died and celebrating the country that they fought and died for. Here are activities that you can do to engage students in reflection and celebration.
Learn more about Memorial Day
Use videos and books to teach students about the meaning behind Memorial Day. Start with this Memorial Day book list.
Create a patriotic windsock
Spend time creating a classroom display or creating windsocks for students to take home. They can take their inspiration from the flag or other patriotic symbols.
Leave a penny on a veteran’s headstone
Memorial Day is about remembering those who have died in service, and leaving a penny on a headstone lets the family of that veteran know that you visited. If you don’t have pennies, leave flowers or flags instead. Read more about the tradition of leaving coins on headstones.
Watch a Memorial Day concert
Check out a concert that has pomp, circumstance, and formality.
Make paper flags
Create fans for students to wave at a parade or place at a headstone.
Make a flag pinwheel
A flag-themed pinwheel is another fun craft that you can make as part of a class-wide or school-wide display, or for students to take to Memorial Day activities.
Host a school parade
Create a space in your classroom where students can reflect on what patriotism or the day means to them. Provide writing prompts and books. You could also incorporate a moment of silence for the whole class.
Create firework painting
Use images of students and paste them onto splatter-painted “fireworks.”
Take a remembrance walk
Take a walk around school grounds and reflect on how people who have served in the military have helped provide us with safe places to walk and live. On your walk, share some Memorial Day facts.
Veterans Day vs. Memorial Day Activities
Students might need to learn the difference between these important days too. Here’s how to help them learn and appreciate the difference.
Veterans Day vs. Memorial Day compare and contrast
Help students understand the difference between the two holidays with a lesson that shows what’s similar and what’s unique to each one. Use videos and books to compare and contrast the two holidays.
Learn more: Think Grow Giggle
Read about the Poppy Lady
The red poppy is a symbol of remembrance thanks to Moina Belle Michael, a Georgia school teacher. Read The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans by Barbara Walsh to learn more about how the poppy became a symbol of remembrance.
Make a red poppy display
After you read the book, make a red poppy craft out of coffee filters to symbolize remembering.
Try it: Red Poppy Craft at Kids Activities Blog
Plan and participate in a service project
Find a local or national organization that supports military personnel and create a class plan to support that organization. Lead students through the process of figuring out what the organization needs, how it helps veterans or military families, and how they can raise money or collect items to help.
Take a virtual field trip
Both Veterans Day and Memorial Day are military holidays, and there are lots of ways to learn about the military to build context for either holiday:
- The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, has online exhibits on the war, war photography, and more.
- The National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, DC, has online exhibits about ships, wars, and Pearl Harbor.
- The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has online exhibits that feature the Pacific and European Theaters.
- The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, has a virtual Wall of Faces where students can learn about those who fought in the Vietnam War as well as other online exhibits.