Elephants on Board Activity Guide

Teaching Guide for Suse MacDonald's
Harcourt Brace, 1999 - ISBN 0152009515
by Mary Lou Meerson

Before reading the book
Ask a parent or a friend to allow the children to examine a truck closely and to sit in the truck bed (while the truck is parked, of course) to become aware of its size. Have them notice how many children can comfortably fit into the truck bed.

Take the children to a construction site. Identify for them as many construction vehicles as you can. Perhaps a parent or a patient construction worker can help you out.

Back home, have the children sketch their favorite piece of construction equipment, whether or not they know its proper name.

Have the children estimate how many children might fit into the vehicle they sketched. Check for realistic estimates. Then have them estimate how many adults might fit in and how many dogs.

Have students list all the trucks or construction machinery they have seen in action. Have them explain how each one works. Help students find an action word that describes each vehicle (digs, lifts, hauls, etc.).

Ask how many children have been to a circus. Ask them to share experiences. Have them list all the animals they saw and pick their favorite one.

Read the book aloud, giving students lots of time to anticipate and enjoy the illustrations. A you read, ask the children to predict whether or not the elephants will be able to fit into each vehicle. Then turn the page to confirm their predictions.

After reading the book, choose several activities from those listed below to support and enhance your own curriculum. Many of the activities call for the students to re-visit the text.

Language Arts

  • Look at the first two pages of text and point out the two signs: the poster on the fence that says "Dooley's Circus" and the sign in front of the pile of dirt that says "No Trespassing". Ask the children why they are there. What are they supposed to accomplish? Then take a "print walk" around the neighborhood or school. Have the children point out and copy any signs they see. Back at home or class, share the signs and discuss why they were posted.

  • Page through the book and point out the sound words, such as whoosh, pop and plop. Ask the children to examine that illustration and decide if the sound word aptly describes the action which it accompanies. Turn to one of the other pages, discuss the action in the picture and have the children suggest an appropriate sound word. They can get ideas from the comics page of a newspaper, which often uses such words.
  • There are six pairs of rhyming words that end sentences in the book. Point out the first two (time-nine and do-two) and ask the children to look for the other three more common ones (worry-hurry, top-plop, and go-show). They may not be familiar with "ascent-bent" yet. (See next activity). You may need to explain that words that rhyme are not always similarly spelled.

  • Turn to the page showing the elephants climbing up on the cherry picker. They will probably not be familiar with the word ascent, so this is a good time to expand their vocabulary. You can teach the words ascent, descent, ascend and descend by having them go up and down a flight of stairs as you say the appropriate word.

  • Build word families for two or three of the simpler words with regular spellings (such as top, nine, fit, will or ride). Write the last letters of the word on a piece of paper or chalkboard. Then write each letter of the alphabet in front of them, saying "Is this a word?". Keep a list of the real words you find.


  • Create math problems at the children's level of ability, using situations from the book. For example: If 7 elephants tried to sit in the mixer but 3 fell off, how many were left? Or, if 5 elephants were in the loader and 3 more squeezed in, how many were in the loader all together?

  • Illustrate telling time, or create time-telling problems, depending on the children's abilities. The times of 12:09, 12:22 and 2:00 are mentioned in the book. You could simply show them these times on a cardboard clock or have them figure out elapsed times between incidents.
  • For those who can tell time, have them tell what time it is on each picture of the clock in the steeple.

Problem Solving and Logical Thinking

  • Look at the picture showing the blowout. What caused it? What could have been done to prevent this happening?

  • Have the children brainstorm other solutions for the elephants when the tire blew out.

  • Do you think that elephants can really fit into a truck? Read the back book-flap to check your answer.


  • Read aloud from a nature book or children's encyclopedia about elephants. Have the children make a chart of where elephants are found in the world, what they eat, how they are used by humans and what distinguishes an African from an Indian elephant.

  • When the elephants finally "climb on board" what do they use to help them? Have you ever used one of these for any purpose? Why are they useful?

Social Science

  • Ask the children if these elephants look happy to be performing in the circus? Do most of the animals they have seen in zoos or circuses seem well fed, cared for and content? Why do some people think that zoos and circuses should not keep any kind of animals in captivity? What do they think?

Drama and Movement

  • For large groups, divide the children into five teams. For smaller groups, individual children may do each activity. Have the children create short pantomimes illustrating these five phrases from the book:
    • we all squeeze in
    • we ride on top
    • we drop with a plop
    • we climb on board
    • we are off to the show

They do not have to be elephants in their skits!

  • Play the section about the elephants from The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens. As they listen, have the children imitate an elephant parade by walking in a line, bent over at the waist, clasping their hands in front of them like an elephant's trunk. They can slowly swing their "trunks" to and fro as they walk.

  • Does anyone know how to ride a unicycle? If not, you can have a bike rally anyway, using bicycles or tricycles.

Music Appreciation

  • Page through the book and see if the children can identify the musical instruments that are shown (drum, trombone and trumpet). Talk about the different sounds that these and other instruments make. If possible, listen to a recording of Peter and the Wolf to identify more instruments. The children can also create their own band using tissue-wrapped combs as kazoos, any hollow container as drums and paper-towel rolls as horns.

Related Literature

  • Read or tell the old story of "The Three Blind Men and the Elephant". Other elephant books include Dr. Seuss' Horton Hatches the Egg and Disney's Dumbo.


  • Have the children examine the fanciful costume that each elephant is wearing. Make large elephant outlines from 12x16 pieces of gray construction paper. Provide scraps of colorful fabric, glitter, ribbons, etc. and have each child "dress" his or her circus performer.

  • Have each child choose a favorite zoo animal and draw and color a large picture of that animal. You can create your own zoo by placing all the pictures around the walls.

Culminating Activity

  • Hold a class or neighborhood circus. Putting on costumes and eating popcorn are the best parts, but you can also have animal acts with pets, tightrope walkers (rope on the ground, of course) and jugglers.


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