Veterans Day vs. Memorial Day: What’s the Difference?

Plus fun activities to teach them.

Military saluting at Veterans Day assembly in school gym and cemetery decorated with American flags for Memorial Day.
We Are Teachers: Petty Officer 1st Class Crystalynn Kneen, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; Remember, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Who does each day honor?

veterans day banner for veterans day vs. memorial day
Honoring America’s Veterans/Veterans Day via

Veterans Day honors everyone who has served in the military, whether they went to war or not.

memorial d ay image with soldier saluting a flag
Emily Toma/Memorial Day via

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.

tombstone and flag for veterans vs memorial day
Sharefaith/tombstone and flag via

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

wounded warrior project logo
Wounded Warrior Project/veteran via

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

portrait of a veteran to teach veterans day vs memorial day
Jennifer White/veteran portrait via

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

kids craft military medals to teach veterans day vs memorial day
Laughing Kids Learn/bravery medals via

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

thank you note to a veteran
ABCs of Literacy/thank-you notes via

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

create a thank you wall
Amy McGough/thank-you wall via

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

veterans receiving care packages packages via

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. 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

patriotic wind sock craft to teach veterans day vs memorial day
Kids Activities Blog/windsock via

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

person putting coins on a headstone of a veteran
Wounded Warrior Project/coins on a headstone via

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

american flag paper fans
Red Ted Art/paper flag fans via

Create fans for students to wave at a parade or place at a headstone.

Make a flag pinwheel

american flag pinwheel to celebrate veterans day vs memorial day
Crafts by Amanda/pinwheel via

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

school parade for memorial day
Enterprise News/school parade via

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

examples of firework painting for memorial day
Rainbows Within Reach/firework painting via

Use images of students and paste them onto splatter-painted “fireworks.”

Take a remembrance walk

girl blowing flowers in a field for memorial day
Jar of Joy/girl in field via

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

activity comparing and contrasting veterans day and memorial day in a venn diagram
Think Grow Giggle/Venn diagram via

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 poppy lady book cover

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

red poppies made of coffee liners for veterans day vs memorial day
Kids Activities Blog/red poppy craft via

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

students completing a service project for veterans vs memorial day
Grant Images/service project via

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

virtual exhibit at the world war 1 memorial for veterans day vs memorial day
WWI Memorial/exhibit space via

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:

Get even more activities: Meaningful Memorial Day Activities for Kids.

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Veterans Day vs. Memorial Day: Both are national holidays that celebrate military veterans, but they're distinct for good reason.