Here are some ideas for using a familiar children’s song, “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” to teach several elementary grade subjects. Most of these lesson plan ideas will cover 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades but can be easily adapted for children older or younger.
Music Ideas: I’ve Been Working on the Railroad Lyrics
Before beginning this unit study, be sure everyone knows the words and can sing this song!
I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, all the live long day/ I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, just to pass the time away./
Can’t you hear the whistle blowin’?/ Rise up so early in the morn/ Can’t you hear the captain shouting?/Dinah blow your horn!
Dinah, won’t you blow/Dinah, won’t you blow/ Dinah, won’t you blow your horn? (Repeat)
Train Math Ideas
• Pre-K – 1st Grade – Use simple math concepts by “adding” and “subtracting” train cars to and from a paper train you make for the bulletin board. Have the kids count the cars and allow each student the chance to “add 1 train car” or “take away 2 train cars” and then recount to get the new number.
• 2nd Grade and up – Now you can begin introducing word problem concepts like the typical “If a train is going 5 miles per hour and goes 10 miles, how long did it travel?” train word problems. Make up your own depending on the math concept you want to teach.
Science Locomotive Ideas
Teachers can begin teaching some geology by explaining the building of the railroads and blasting that was done to create tunnels and railways across the United States. Or, begin explaining the basics of horse power and steam engines to older grade students. Teaching about steam powered engines could also lead to a discussion about the three states of water – liquid, solid and vapor.
Railroad Art Ideas
Each child can decorate or color his or her own train car which can then be displayed across the top of the room to create one large colorful train. Read “The Little Engine That Could” by Watty Piper about a train that struggles over a large hill to bring goodies to children, and let each child draw a picture of what they wish a train would bring them on their train car.
Train Language and Writing Skill Builders
After reading “The Little Engine That Could,” have the younger children write a couple of sentences about a new skill, hobby or sport they are struggling to master. Let them copy the phrase “I Think I Can” from the book and encourage them that, as they continue growing, they will soon be able to conquer their new skill.
Read older children the book “Train” by Charles Temple that talks about a family’s trip on a locomotive and encourage them to write their own version of a train trip with their own family, friends and loved ones.
Train-Themed Play Activities for Indoors or Outdoors
Play a version of the Follow the Leader game. For a large group, create two or more trains and have each child take turns being the engineer (leader) while the other kids are the train cars who have to follow the engineer’s directions.
Railroad Social Studies Ideas
Teachers can begin to explain concepts like immigration and migrant workers as well as explore some cultures that came to work on the railroads in America and how those cultures have influenced us.
1. Piper, Watty. The Little Engine that Could published by Platt & Munk, 1930
2. Temple, Charles. Train published by Houghton Mifflin, 1996