Social studies lessons are more engaging for elementary school students when they can connect the history to themselves. It’s often more difficult for children to learn if they can’t see the relevance of the topic to their own lives. A strong lesson plan keeps children both engaged and interested, but it can be tricky to come up with one that will inform as much as it entertains. Here are five engaging social studies lessons, in the hopes that they inspire you to create some of your own for your elementary students.
- Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts
Teaching elementary students about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott is an engaging way to introduce them to the Civil Rights Movement and boycotts themselves. You may want to begin by asking students to define “boycott” and discuss the concept using their background knowledge. Once students have a good understanding of boycotts, you could ask them to think about whether there is anything they would like to boycott and why. For younger students, this would work well as a whole-group brainstorm and discussion session; for older students, this would work well as a written reflection or persuasive writing assignment.
Then, introduce Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott with some resources, such as Rosa Parks: The Story Behind the Bus. Older elementary students could explore the online sources themselves, while younger elementary students could listen and respond to a read aloud or shared read of the book, Rosa Parks: My Story.
- The Evolution of Pets
Most of your students likely have at least one pet at home. What better way to make a lesson relatable than to study how their dogs, cats, and hamsters went from wild creatures to beloved pets?
Pose thoughtful questions to your younger students to get them started: What animal do you think the first pet was? When do you think animals started becoming a part of the family? Why do you think people came up with the idea to train wild animals?
Have your students do research to find the answers, and then have a class discussion on what they’ve discovered. Compare the difference between the roles pets used to play in human lives and their positions today. Create a colorful timeline with pictures tracking the journey of pets from wild to domesticated, starting in prehistoric times.
- I Have a Dream and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
While the language and length of Dr. King’s speech may be a bit too much for younger elementary students, there are ways to bring the speech to the primary grades. First, you should introduce Dr. King to students by reading books about him to students and sharing his messages of peace and brotherhood.
Then, cue the video of Dr. King’s speech to a section that is more relatable to younger children (we recommend sharing the portion of the speech from, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation…” to “… join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”). Allow students to listen to the selected portion of the speech and ask them to summarize his message in that particular section. Discuss the students’ reactions to the speech.
Finally, ask each student to think of and write one dream of their own, following Dr. King’s example. Students should then illustrate their dream pages. Compile the students’ pages into a class Dream Book and share it when it is complete.
- Study Your State
While it may be difficult for children to understand the relevance in learning about faraway countries, learning about the state they live in gives them an easy way to make the connection.
Present younger students with photos of the official state flag, animals, plants, and capitol building. Have a class discussion about who’s seen the state animals and where you might see the state flag flying. Teach them the state motto and learn the state song together. Then have the children draw pictures that represent their state: you can break them up into groups and assign a topic, animal, or the state flag, or you can let them choose how they want to represent their state.
For older students, break them up into groups. Assign each a topic to research about the state like history, population and statistics, and geography. Have them develop quiz questions, then allow them to compete in a classroom quiz game. The winning group’s members could receive an extra hall pass, a free homework assignment, or a special pass to sit in another seat for a day.
- Ruby Bridges and Integrated Schools
Some of today’s elementary students may not realize that segregated public schools existed in our country merely 50-60 years ago. One of the ways to teach this civil rights lesson in an engaging way is to guide students through lessons about Ruby Bridges and segregation. Students will have personal connections with the content of the lessons because Ruby Bridges was an elementary school student just like them, and they will be able to empathize with her and reflect on her situation because of the age similarity.
Concepts such as segregation and courage, and social studies topics like segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, separate but equal, and Brown v. Board of Education should be at the center of your Ruby Bridges and integrated schools lessons. You could use primary sources from the time period, or you could instruct students to complete a WebQuest about Ruby Bridges. Remember, the more students can explore the topic with primary sources in a relatable way, the more engaged they will be.
Any social studies lesson for elementary school students can be engaging if teachers relate the material to students’ lives and involve them in exploring topics that are of interest to them. Giving students the freedom to read, research, ask their own questions, and find their own answers about social studies topics with your guidance is a surefire way to motivate them to learn history and love social studies.
Jamie Strand is a former homeschool kid and unashamed science nerd. He’s a community college professor and proud father of two daughters who wants to inspire a passion for science and math in today’s young people. That goal drove him to start SciCamps.org with help from a good friend. When he isn’t teaching, Jamie can often be found digging for fossils in the backyard with his daughters, exploring the local nature preserve, or binge watching Star Trek reruns.
Image via Flickr by tedeytan