Inaugural Activities and Discussion Questions
Spark your students’ creative energy and utilize their thinking caps as you share these fun inaugural activities and discussion questions to help them understand and engage in presidential inaugurations past and present.
Editor’s Note: The NCBLA has always encouraged the adults who live and work with young people to engage their kids in current events by watching and discussing them. This year the FBI is warning everyone about the potential for armed protests in Washington, D.C. and all 50 state capitals in the days leading up to and including Inauguration Day. With the possibility for violence at hand, we recommend that educators and parents proceed cautiously in their decisions about whether to watch the inaugural activities live this year. A possible alternative is to share the inauguration video with young people later in the day with sensitivity as needed. This can be managed by video recording the events or by finding them on news streaming services.
In addition, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has required major changes to inaugural activities. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has announced that the 2021 inauguration will be orchestrated mostly as a virtual event with no large public gatherings. President Biden and Vice President Harris will be sworn in at the West Front of the Capitol as is traditional. Other events will take place across the country and be broadcast on television and online.
This new interpretation of the inaugural activities provides a perfect educational opportunity for young people, teachers, and parents to COMPARE and CONTRAST how inaugural events were organized in the past to how they will be organized this year when our nation is experiencing a public health crisis. We encourage you to use these materials in creative ways to maximize their educational impact with the young people in your lives.
• Play “Inaugural I Spy”
• Design a Parade Float
• Inaugural Themes and Art
• Host an Inauguration Poetry Reading
• Write Poems Celebrating the Presidential Inauguration
• Bibles and Relics: Connecting with Past Presidents
• In His or Her Words: Listening to the Inaugural Speech
• Design the Oval Office
• Host a Kids’ Inaugural Ball! Ideas and Activities
• Create a Political Cartoon
• Visit a Presidential Historic Site, Library, or Website
• Reference Sources
Play “Inaugural I Spy”
The 2021 scorecard includes four pages of pictures and short biographies of the incoming president and vice president and their families, as well as the outgoing president and vice president and the leaders of the Supreme Court and Congress.
Watch the inauguration, live on TV or the Internet, and have your kids identify, then check, the important “players” taking part in this year’s inaugural ceremonies. Be sure to have young people look for and check off the historical sites, too! If you are unable to watch the inaugural ceremonies live, then watch what you can later that evening on the news or on YouTube.
To print the 2021 I Spy Presidential Inauguration Scorecard, click here.
The scorecard includes names, descriptions, and photographs of the president and his family, the vice president and his wife, the Chief Justice, and the leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives. We have also included photographs and descriptions of four significant Washington, D.C. landmarks, just for fun. See if you and your kids can find them all during the broadcast. Encourage kids to write down the names of other politicians, entertainers, and celebrities they see on the backside of their scorecard. See who can “spy” the most number of people! To download and print the I Spy Presidential Inauguration Scorecard, click here.
Design a Parade Float
Months of design planning and hard labor go into the construction of the elaborate floats we see during the inaugural parade. Some floats reflect the theme of the inauguration, others show off the industries and resources of a particular state, and then there’s the president’s float—a float designed to celebrate the newly inaugurated president’s life. The float created for Eisenhower was a golf course putting green. For George Bush the president’s float was an aircraft carrier that hauled one of the planes Bush had flown during WWII. For President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, floats representing his home states of Hawaii and Illinois were created. Whatever is being fashioned for the next inaugural parade will be a surprise until it glides down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day!
Pose this question to your kids: If you could design a float for the new president, what would it look like? Draw a picture of your design.
Your class or family might want to create your own inaugural parade of floats. Each person can choose a theme for his or her float. A larger class might consider having each student create a float for a certain state. Or, you might want to show off your school or community in your float design!
Young people can also find inspiration for parade and float themes from the articles and illustrations in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. For example, “Presidential Pets” might be a great theme for elementary and middle school students who will find inspiration in Steven Kellogg’s article and double-page illustration of White House pets in Our White House.
There are many ways kids can create their own parade of floats. One way is to draw pictures on paper and then tape them in a long parade line on a classroom or hall wall. Or, they can make their floats using shoe boxes or tissue boxes. Cut pictures from magazines. Puff balls and pipe cleaners make great animals. Brightly colored construction paper, foam sheets, and even popsicle sticks can be used to create and build just about anything they might want to add to their floats. They may also want to make floats from wagons, or other wheeled toys or objects, and form an mini-inaugural parade in a neighborhood playground or recreation center or school hallway.
Read all about inaugural parades on this website in the article “Americans Love a Parade.”
You can find pictures of past parades and floats at your local library. You can also find photographs online on the Library of Congress website LOC.gov.
Inaugural Themes and Art
The inaugural luncheon is held in National Statuary Hall within the Capitol. A new tradition was started in 1985 for one or two paintings to be selected to serve as a backdrop for the head table. The painting is chosen to reflect the official theme of the inaugural ceremony. In 1997 portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were selected to highlight the 200th anniversaries of their inauguration as president and vice president in 1797. In 2005 a gleaming portrait of Wyoming titled Wind River, Wyoming and painted by Albert Bierstadt in 1870 was borrowed from a collection in Colorado to commemorate the 1905 inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt, as well as the 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition.
The theme for President Obama’s first inauguration was “A New Birth of Freedom,” which was selected to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The committee selected a landscape titled View of the Yosemite Valley by Thomas Hill, having noted that “the painting reflects the majestic landscape of the American West and the dawn of a new era. The subject of the painting, Yosemite Valley, represents an important but often overlooked event from Lincoln’s presidency—his signing of the 1864 Yosemite Grant, which set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias as a public reserve.”
The theme for President Trump’s inauguration in 2017 was “Uniquely American.” To highlight that theme, the painting The Verdict of the People by George Caleb Bingham was borrowed to hang at the inaugural luncheon. The painting features citizens in a Missouri town celebrating and mourning the results of an election.
For the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, the theme is “Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union.”
Have your kids consider paintings that reflect this year’s inaugural theme. Together, look at art books and catalogs of museum collections at your library. Also, most major museums provide pictures of their collections on their websites. A good place to start a search might be the online collection of the National Gallery of Art.
Your kids might want to paint their own piece of art for the inaugural. For example, young people who are inspired by Abraham Lincoln might choose to paint a portrait of Lincoln or a landscape featuring the log cabin in which he was born. For links to homes and historic sites associated with Lincoln, check out “Abraham Lincoln” in the “The Presidential Fact Files” on this site.
And, ask your kids: If you were elected president what would you choose for your inaugural theme? Draw and/or paint a picture that symbolizes that theme. This is a wonderful opportunity to discuss the concept of theme and symbols. There are many incredible illustrations in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out that you can show to your students to inspire them.
Host an Inauguration Poetry Reading
Poet Elizabeth Alexander read a poem she wrote to celebrate President Obama’s first administration at the inaugural ceremony in 2009. And in 2013, Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco delivered the inaugural poem. But poetry reading has not been standard tradition at presidential inaugurations. In fact, prior to President Obama, only two previous presidents included a poetry reading. Robert Frost recited a poem for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, and Bill Clinton included poets on the schedule for both of his inaugurations. Maya Angelou read a piece for the 1993 inauguration, and Miller Williams read a poem he wrote for the 1997 inauguration.
Read and share with your kids one or all of the previous inaugural poems. Read them aloud or have the young people in your life read them aloud. Poems are meant to be heard!
- “The Gift Outright,” the poem that Frost recited from memory at Kennedy’s inauguration.
- “Dedication,” the poem Frost wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration, but was not able to read due to the glare on his paper from the sun reflecting off the snow.
- “On the Pulse of Morning,” written by Maya Angelou for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.
- “Of History and Hope,” written by Miller Williams for Clinton’s second inauguration.
- “Praise Song for the Day,” written by Elizabeth Alexander for Obama’s first inauguration.
- “One Today,” written by Richard Blanco for Obama’s second inauguration.
A poem was not recited at the inauguration of Donald Trump. For the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Amanda Gorman recited her original poem “The Hill We Climb.” Watch our country’s youngest inaugural poet perform for the 2021 presidential inauguration below.
Ask young people: Is it important to include a poetry reading at the presidential inauguration? If so, then why? And what poet would they invite to their own presidential inauguration?
Write Poems Celebrating The Presidential Inauguration
Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out is full of original poetry about presidents and the White House. The poems in Our White House range from poignant to humorous; read them aloud and share them with young people, for it will give them an idea of the wide emotional range that their own poetry can encompass.
In the paperback edition of Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out is a poem written by Nikki Grimes titled “Inaugural Morning,” which commemorates President Obama’s first inauguration. Find a copy of the book at your local library or bookstore, then share this remarkably moving poem with the young people in your life.
Encourage your kids at home and in the classroom to write a poem for this year’s inauguration. You may want to have them read Nikki Grimes’ poem for inspiration! The poem young people decide to write can rhyme or not rhyme. You can introduce kids to specific types and forms of poetry like haiku, sonnets, limericks, and free verse, or leave them to their own devices. They can create a poem inspired by their own hopes for our nation, inspired by the president and the president’s family, inspired by the day itself, or by an issue that is important to them. You can guide them in any direction you choose, in a more formal manner if you are a teacher, and informally if you are a parent or youth group leader. What is most important is that kids have an opportunity to hear a variety of poems read aloud and have an opportunity to write poems themselves. They may also find inspiration in visuals, so if you can provide some historic and/or contemporary photographs and works of art as inspiration, that, too, could be useful. And a great place to start finding great visuals is to share the wonderful illustrations and photographs in Our White House with your kids.
To find websites and books with more visual references that you can use, check out our “Research Resources.”
You can check out a lesson plan related to inaugural poetry on the TeacherVision website.
Bibles and Relics: Connecting with Past Presidents
For his first inauguration, President Barack Obama swore the oath of office on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln. The president used the Lincoln Bible for his second inauguration as well, but was also sworn in using a second Bible—a Bible owned by Martin Luther King, Jr., a gesture recognizing that that year’s inauguration fell on the federal holiday that honors the civil rights leader. Journalist Nedra Pickler wrote that the selection of the two Bibles, “is richly symbolic of the struggle for equality in America, beginning with Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves 150 years ago this month, through King’s leadership of the civil rights movement, and ultimately to Obama becoming the nation’s first black president.”
In 2017 President Donald Trump also chose to use the Lincoln Bible. In addition, he swore the oath on a second Bible, his own personal Bible that had been a gift from his mother in 1955. First Lady Melania Trump held both Bibles, following the tradition established in 1965 when First Lady Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson became the first First Lady to hold a Bible for the presidential oath of office.
President George W. Bush had wanted to swear his oath in 2001 on the same Bible used by George Washington, but poor weather thwarted his plan. Four other presidents did swear their oaths on Washington’s Bible: Warren G. Harding in 1921, Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, Jimmy Carter in 1977, and George Bush in 1989. Most presidents choose to swear on a family Bible, but Carter chose to swear on both the Washington Bible and a family Bible. John Quincy Adams actually chose to swear his oath using a book of constitutional law that had been given to him by Chief Justice John Marshall. Although Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield did not swear on Washington’s Bible, they both chose to sit in the same chair Washington had used during his inauguration. Theodore Roosevelt chose one of the more unusual relics of a predecessor—he wore a ring that contained a lock of Lincoln’s hair!
Ask young people:
- If you were being sworn in as president, would you choose to be sworn in using a Bible? If so, would you choose a family Bible or one used by a past president? Why?
- Would you choose to honor a previous president by swearing on his Bible or using an object connected to him? Which president would you like to honor and remember during your own inauguration? What object of that president’s would you like to use?
Read more about the presidential oath of office in “The Presidential Oath of Office.”
In His or Her Words: Listening to the Inaugural Speech
Almost every president has made a speech to the nation following the inauguration ceremony. Some presidents’ speeches have inspired generations. Franklin Roosevelt assured us that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
If young people cannot watch this year’s inaugural ceremony and speech live, try to record it or watch it on YouTube. Tell young people that as they listen to the president’s speech, they should take note of any promises and plans he or she makes. Have them write these things down. They should think about what the president said and consider what plans seem reasonable. Have them discuss what plans they think the president can accomplish. Which plans or promises do they think are too “pie in the sky?”
Have kids focus on an idea or issue expressed in the speech that reflects their own interest—maybe it’s something they believe is very important to their family and interests, or maybe it’s something they believe should not be a priority right now. Encourage them to write a letter to the new president and vice president expressing their feelings.
Encourage kids to read the editorial pages in the next few days after the inauguration. Have them compare their thoughts on the inaugural speech with the editorialists’ opinions. Who agrees with them and who does not? Did any editorial or column cause them to reconsider their thoughts? Also encourage kids to write a letter to the editor expressing their thoughts. They should include their age with their signatures because if their letter is well written and their opinions are expressed cogently, their age may be a positive factor in getting published either in traditional print or on the newspaper’s website.
Design the Oval Office
Each new president has a budget and staff to redecorate the Oval Office—the president’s main working space—to reflect personal tastes and interests. The Oval Office as designed for George W. Bush included ecru walls, antique gold draperies, light gold damask sofas, and several paintings of Texas by Texas artists. The Bush oval office also featured busts of three leaders he admired: Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Dwight Eisenhower. In 2010, President Obama remodeled the oval office to include new striped wallpaper, new and reupholstered furniture, and a new rug. The oval-shaped rug was designed in wheat, cream, and blue and includes these five quotes around its perimeter:
- “The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt
- “The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But it Bends Towards Justice,” Martin Luther King Jr.
- “Government of the People, By the People, For the People,” President Abraham Lincoln “No Problem of Human Destiny is Beyond Human Beings,” President John F. Kennedy
- “The Welfare of Each of Us is Dependent Fundamentally Upon the Welfare of All of Us,” President Theodore Roosevelt
President Obama’s oval office also featured an eclectic mixture of decorative objects and artwork. China that had previously adorned the Oval Office shelves was replaced with technological models and patents (including Samuel Morse’s 1849 patent for the first telegraph), Native American pottery, a framed program from the 1963 March on Washington, and many family portraits. Featured artwork includes Childe Hassam’s “The Avenue in the Rain,” Norman Rockwell’s “Statue of Liberty,” and a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr.
After completing an overhaul of the Oval Office that included not simply hanging new wallpaper, but also replacing the decades-old heating and cooling system, President Donald Trump chose to keep the Resolute desk, which had been used by every president since Jimmy Carter, except for President George H.W. Bush. Trump also opted to re-use many of his predecessors’ furnishings, such as the rug designed by First Lady Nancy Reagan for President Ronald Reagan and the gold drapery created for President Bill Clinton. (Read more about the Resolute desk in “The Resolute Desk: A Gift of Peace” on this website.) Trump also included portraits of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Jackson; busts of Churchill, King, and Lincoln; photos of his parents; a collection of law enforcement badges; and a letter President Nixon wrote Trump in 1987.
Ask young people: What do you think the artwork and objects the president selects for his or her office say about him or her? If you were president, how would you redesign the Oval Office?
Encourage kids to use crayons, colored pencils, markers, and/or watercolors to sketch their designs for the oval office. Would they like a patriotic scheme of red and blue like the colors used by Bill Clinton? Have them design the rug, which always includes the presidential seal in the middle. Would they like to change the furniture, perhaps adding more chairs? Also, have them think about the art they would like hung on the walls of the office and the sculpture they would like to include. Presidents have access to the entire Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art collections! Would they like to include paintings and sculptures that they love or pieces that symbolize their ideas, or both?
Show your students photos of different presidents’ oval offices.
View samples of the art and sculpture in the Smithsonian’s many collections on the Smithsonian website.
View samples of the art and sculpture in the National Gallery of Art.
Discover the history of the Resolute desk in the article, “The Resolute Desk: A Gift of Peace” on this website.
Host a Kids’ Inaugural Ball! Ideas and Activities
Host your own Kids’ Inaugural Ball at home, in school, at your local library or bookstore, or at your local community center!
- Have kids arrive in costume dressed as their favorite president or first lady—or dressed as a former presidential kid! Each young person can share a few facts about the person he or she is pretending to be and then have the rest of the kids guess who he or she is! The NCBLA’s book, Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, can inspire costume ideas and provide facts. And for more links and information about the presidents and first ladies check out the articles on the “Presidents” and “First Ladies” pages on the site.
- You can always serve punch and cookies at the ball, but you might want to check out historic White House menus and food ideas in “A Taste of the Past: White House Kitchens, Menus, and Recipes” on this site. This article contains some samples of recipes and past inaugural menus, as well as White House cookbook references. You may want to print some historic White House menus and recipes to share with the kids, and even try out some of the recipes yourself! Pick a recipe from our web article or one of the White House cook books—which you can find at your local library—and with help from your kids, create one of the recipes to share at your inaugural ball!
- Using paper, cardboard, string, glue, tape, markers, crayons, and sticks create White House Pet stick-puppets and masks! Show kids the illustration of White House pets done by Steven Kellogg (pages 167 – 169) and the illustration of Teddy Roosevelt’s children and pets by Chris van Dusen (pages 96-97) in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Use these great illustrations to inspire kids to create their own White House pet stick-puppets and masks. Have the kids sketch out their ideas—they can draw a historical White House pet or a new pet to keep the president company. Then using their sketch as a reference, have them draw their pet or pet’s head—if they are creating a mask—onto larger paper and/or cardboard. They can leave them black and white or fill their drawings in with color. Let them figure out how to construct their masks or stick-puppets! You give them all the supplies they need, and a bit of visual inspiration with the illustrations from the book—and let them do their thing!
- Plan your ball to have busy activity moments as well as quiet moments. Sharing stories and poetry work well for those for quiet times! Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out can provide all the stories you need! Read the poetry, articles, and stories from the book aloud with the kids and invite them to discuss what you have read. And encourage kids to share their own stories—stories about meeting presidents or presidential candidates, stories of visiting Washington, D.C. and/or the White House or Capitol, stories of their own families coming to America. For example, ask if anyone has a relative serving in the military now or a relative who served in a past war; ask if anyone has visited a site such as Plymouth Plantation, Williamsburg, or Gettysburg; ask if anyone has ever met presidential candidates on the campaign trail; and ask the kids to share a little of their experiences with everyone.
- Have the kids draw what they might wear if they were invited to one of the “grown-up” inaugural balls held in Washington. Have them decide what kind of ball it would be and let them decide the theme—a cowboy ball, a rock and roll ball, or maybe a “Cinderella” ball with gowned ladies and men in formal attire. Then have the students draw their costume or uniform—something that would be suitable for their chosen ball theme.
- Provide a dance floor and play great music—as loud as you can! And encourage them to dance!!! Include good ole American rock and roll, waltzes, polka music, the hokey-pokey, country and western, and square dance music. Have fun teaching the kids different kinds of dances or just let them explode on the floor in their own style.
Play “Pin President Obama on the Presidential Timeline!” Photocopy and blow up the double-page spread of the Our White House presidential timeline and trivia game that you will find on pages 224 and 225 of Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Make it big enough to be used on the wall as a game board. If you like, mount the Our White House presidential timeline on cardboard or foam core. Also, download the President Obama sticker page from this website at: XXX and photocopy and enlarge it to fit the size of the Our White House timeline and game. Photocopy the Obama figure enlargement so that each kid can have a copy. Cut out the Obama figure and back it with a small piece of sticky foam tape. At your ball, blindfold participants with red bandanas, give them a sticky-backed Obama figure, set them at a distance from the game board, and see if he or she can “pin” the Barack Obama figure to the appropriate spot on the game board timeline! If he or she lands the Obama figure on a board space occupied by a previous president, see if the participant can guess the identity of that president and the significance of the object that is presented with that president. (The answer guide to the timeline trivia game is on pages 226 – 227 of Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out.) If the young person guesses correctly he or she wins a prize! And if he or she gets President Obama in the right spot and can share one piece of information about President Obama, he or she also wins a prize!
For more ball activities, take a look at all the activities already suggested above on this web page and incorporate them with other traditional kids’ party activities and games!
Create a Political Cartoon
Illustrators create different types of cartoons to share their viewpoint with the public or simply to make people laugh. For example, political cartoons provide commentary on political subjects, often using humor, exaggeration, caricature, distortion, symbolism, and irony to make a point.
Have students look through current or past newspapers and magazines for a cartoon about our government, politics, or a president. If you have a computer with an Internet connection, students can look for political cartoons online too. Spend time discussing and analyzing each cartoon. Are the cartoons simply designed to make people laugh or is there another message? What techniques did each cartoonist use to share his or her viewpoint?
After spending time looking at different types of political cartoons, ask students to create their own Inauguration Day cartoons. Another idea is to ask students to dig into history to find some fun subjects to illustrate. Students can choose to draw their political cartoons using pencils, pens, colored pencils, crayons, or even a computer graphics program. Be sure to have each student share his or her cartoon with the class.
Visit a Presidential Historic Site, Library, or Website
More than twenty states are host to presidential birthplaces, historic homes, libraries, and museums. Many of these very special places include extensive exhibits profiling events from past inaugurations and include not only samples of menus and other memorabilia, but also audio and video exhibits that enable you to hear or watch inaugural events, such as swearing-in ceremonies and parades.
Before visiting a presidential museum or library, be sure to check out the special activities calendar by calling ahead or reviewing the website because many libraries offer child-friendly and family-oriented activities to engage young people throughout the year. For a comprehensive guide to finding presidential sites and museums, listed by state, check out the NCBLA’s “Field Trip Guide! Presidential Birthplaces, Houses, and Libraries.”
If visiting a presidential museum or library in person is not possible, you can visit one virtually by checking out content on the library’s website. Many presidential museums and libraries offer articles, curricula, and other multimedia resources you can download and use free. For example, the Jimmy Carter Library website offers a multi-disciplinary educational curriculum titled “The President’s Travels” with content for students in grades 2 through 12. And the research section of the George Bush Library’s website offers online access to millions of pages of records, millions of photographs, video recordings, artifacts, and audio.
“After an Inauguration, the Stars Come Out to Play.” 7 December 2020.
“Bingham’s ‘Verdict of the People’ to take center stage at Trump’s inauguration.” 7 December 2020.
“Donald Trump’s inauguration: Committee plans uniquely American theme for new US president.” 7 December 2020.
“Inauguration of Donald Trump.” 7 December 2020.
“The Poetry-Free Inauguration Makes a Comeback.” 7 December 2020.
“Trump decorated the Oval Office with hand-me-downs from past presidents.” 7 December 2020.
“Trump insisted on hanging bright gold drapes in the Oval Office.” 7 December 2020.
“The Two Bibles Donald Trump Used at the Inauguration.” 7 December 2020.
“What you need to know about Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration.” 7 December 2020.
“The White House Renovation Reportedly Cost $1.75 Million.” 7 December 2020.
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