Play the Iroquois Plate Game

3.8 based on 70 ratings
Updated on Jul 16, 2014

Thanksgiving these days is all about turkey, gravy and seriously delicious pie. But as kids learn in school, the first Thanksgiving was much more than that: a three day celebration at which the first Puritan settlers ate side by side with Native Americans who had helped them survive against tough odds.

Nowadays, as we mark the holiday this is a good time to salute the colorful customs of those tribes that once lived across our Eastern Seaboard. The Iroquois, for example, once maintained a sprawling alliance that stretched into Canada. Here is a “Sacred Plate” game that was played at the “Ceremonial of Midwinter,” marking the close of each year. Make it with your family this Thanksgiving, and enjoy it through the holidays!

What You Need:

  • Strong, plain white paper plate (either use a reinforced plate, or place a simple plate inside a wicker “plate basket.”
  • Markers in natural colors such as brown, black, green, yellow, dark red
  • Six large, flat, dry lima beans
  • Ruler

What You Do:

  1. Pull out your six lima beans. Remember: look for six large, flat, dry beans. If you have trouble finding these (ours came from a local grocery store), you may also want to check the great outdoors for fallen nuts or seeds. Just make sure they are relatively flat and have two sides.
  2. Use a marker to color one side of the lima bean, leaving the other plain. Set them out to dry thoroughly.
  3. Now use the ruler to draw one line across the diameter of your plate, and a second line to form quarters, like this:
  4. In each section, have your child draw one of the four Iroquois clan symbols: turtle, wolf, deer, and bear. Encourage creativity here!
  5. To play the game, you will place the six beans on the plate, and grasp it with two hands. Bang it on the ground so that the beans hop up and then land. In Iroquois tradition, the player scores if five of the six beans turn up one color, and the first player to reach 10 points wins the game. Our testers did note, however, that this can get frustrating for very little kids, so we also used a variation allowing four out of six, and it was a hit!
  6. Although this game is fun just in itself, it also lends itself to a little probability exploration if you’ve got a math maven in the house. When you play, try making a chart with tally marks: how often did you get to 3 out of 6, 4 out of 6, or 5 out of 6? Is there any way to predict what’s most likely?


Julie Williams, M.A. Education, taught middle and high school History and English for seventeen years. Since then, she has volunteered in elementary classrooms while raising her two sons and earning a master's in school administration. She has also been a leader in her local PTA.

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