Social Studies Activities

Your children learn about what is happening and has happened in the world in their social studies classes. The following activities are designed to broaden their knowledge of this area and increase their interest. Many will also provide family members a chance to work together. These activities are especially fun in the summer. Your children's time will be especially well-spent if you can tie these activities to what they will be studying in school the next year. Choose activities based on your children's ages. Younger children will need some assistance with many of these activities.

Social Studies Fun on the Web

Take the time to explore with your children websites that have activities that may appeal to them. A good place to start is at www.kids.gov. This is the official portal of the U.S. government. It has games and activities for different age levels as well as links to other sites. Another good site is the National Parks website at www.nps.gov/learn. It offers many games and activities through its Junior Rangers, Web Rangers and Park Fun programs. Use a search engine, if you wish, to find even more "social studies fun for kids."

Celebrating the Fourth of July

Make the Fourth of July a more meaningful holiday that goes beyond picnics and fireworks. Add to the fun of the Fourth of July through poems, songs, music, and facts that every American should know. Choose age-appropriate activities.

March around the house or yard to the music of John Philip Sousa such as "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and "The Washington Post." Be sure to tell your children the names of the songs and the composer.

Find books of poetry associated with the early history of the United States. Read aloud "Paul Revere's Ride" and "Old Ironsides." Enjoy singing together such songs as "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee Doodle." Be sure to look up the histories of these poems and songs to make them more meaningful.

Find out if everyone in your family can sing the first verse of "The Star Spangled Banner." If not, practice singing it together. Continue by singing such songs as "America the Beautiful" and "America." Also, check that everyone knows the words to "The Pledge of Allegiance."

Families with older children can read and discuss the Gettysburg Address and the preambles to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Your children will study these documents at school and may be asked to memorize them.

Attend community events that stress the patriotic nature of the holiday.

Learn how to correctly display the American flag. Find out the history of the American flag. Be creative and make a flag cake. Make drawings or paintings of the first flag.

Your family history

Children spend considerable time in school learning about well-known families both past and present. They also need to know their own family's history as well as the major historic events that occurred in their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents' lives.

Make a picture scrapbook as a family project that includes your immediate family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Add great-grandparents whenever you have pictures. Tell your children stories about each person and what was happening in the world when he or she was a child such as seeing the first man walk on the moon.

Enhance the scrapbook by having your children draw charts or family trees to illustrate the relationships between the generations. During their school years, children will make several family trees so now is a good time to make one. It is possible to really expand the information on their tree by using genealogy websites. They can enter information about the dates of births, deaths and marriages for as many relatives as possible. Genealogy can make personal history come alive for every child.

Making salt maps

Help your children master the art of making salt maps for your first activity. It's fun and a handy skill for future social-studies projects. Select a location that your children will be studying next year, and make a salt map of it to familiarize them with its geography. For example, a third- or fourth-grader could be studying his or her state while a middle-schooler might be studying other countries.

Here is a recipe that you can use. Mix together 2 cups of flour and a cup of salt, then add 1/4 cup of water. Knead the mixture until it is smooth. You might have to add more water if the mixture is too dry or flour if it is too sticky. The dough is then spread on a board in the shape of the map that is being made. If you like, you can add dough in areas where there are mountains and make indentations for rivers and lakes. Bake the map in the oven at 300 F for about an hour or until it is hard. After the dough has cooled, you can paint the map and label cities, rivers, mountains and other details.

Go back in time

Visit historic homes and farms in your community that portray what life was like in the past. The ones with docents who pretend that they are living in a specific era are particularly good choices.

Try to replicate meals of different time periods, such as meals the first colonists would have eaten. To make a meal like this truly authentic, you could cook it over an open fire in iron pots.

Birthday events

Your children can learn about the interesting things that have happened on the day they were born. By using a search engine or visiting the Web site www.historychannel.com/thisday, they will be able to find some of these facts. If your children will be studying U.S. history, they should look for facts about this country. If they will be studying another country or continent, they can look for events that occurred in those places.

This activity can be expanded by having your children search online for events that happened on their birthdays in different years. Then they can make a timeline of these events, which is something they need to know how to do for social-studies classes. For example, on Oct. 5, 1953, Earl Warren became the 14th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; on Oct. 5, 1983, Lech Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize; and on Oct. 5, 1984, the first space shuttle was launched.

Learning about immigrants

The United States has people from many different countries. Acquaint your children with some of the well-known people who have immigrated or simply are working in this country. Take a trip to the library and find age-appropriate books on these people. They can choose people like basketball superstar Yao Ming from China or California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger from Austria. Talk also with your children about where their relatives immigrated from. They can find these places on a map or globe.

Visiting seats of government power

Acquaint your children with the government of your state by visiting your state capitol. If this is not a practical suggestion, you and your children can go online and make a virtual tour. Before you visit the capitol, have your children use an almanac or go to the state's Web site to find out some basic facts about your state, such as the names of the state bird, animal, flower, motto, song, your district's representatives and the governor. Before you visit the capitol, find out if tours are given, and arrange to join one, if possible.

If you can't visit the state capitol, visit city hall or the county seat. Many are in very historical buildings. And some will offer tours and even let you visit different meetings so that you can see local government in action.

Making papier-mâché globes

Children always enjoy hands-on activities. By making a papier-mâché globe, they can not only get a picture of where things are located but do such things as tracing the routes of famous explorers. Young children can color the oceans and land masses and use a marker to indicate where they live. As they get older, children can add more details such as the names of the continents and oceans and finally the names of major countries.

Here is one recipe to help you get started on this project. Begin by using a simple mixture of flour and water. Mix one part flour with about two parts of water until the consistency is like thick glue. You might need to add more water or flour to get this consistency. Mix thoroughly. Adding a few tablespoons of salt helps prevent mold. Blow up a balloon, and then cover it with strips of newspaper dipped in the mixture to form your globe.

Getting a head start on geography

Give your children a head start in learning about the places they will be studying this year in social studies. The more children know about geography, the better they will understand social studies.

Find a map of a place your children will be studying this coming year, such as South America, Europe, the Far East, the United States, Canada, or their home state. Quite often, it is possible to find blank maps in learning stores as well as online. Have your children use encyclopedias or atlases to fill in the maps with the names of such things as countries, states, capitals, oceans or rivers. They can then color the maps. Laminate the maps, and use them as placemats. Once they are back in school, encourage the children to point to and talk about the areas that they are studying in social studies during family meals.

This activity can be expanded by helping your children learn where more places are located. Hang up local, state, or national maps, and then have them circle the places where friends and other family members live.

Learning about ethnic foods

Tie several of your family meals to foods that are traditionally associated with countries or times that your children will be studying in social studies next year. Your children should research online or in books what different meals would be like. For countries, your family can prepare typical foods or eat in ethnic restaurants. For the past, you can try to replicate meals of different time periods, such as meals the first colonists would have eaten. To make a meal like this truly authentic, you could cook it over an open fire in iron pots.

Comparing presidents

Barack Obama took the oath of office holding President Abraham Lincoln's bible. Many have written about the similarities and differences between these two presidents from Illinois. Help your children compare the two men. Make this task easier and more enjoyable by having your children read, or read to them, stories of the lives of these two presidents. Then, based on their ages, here are some suggestions of comparisons your children can make: Place of birth Who raised them Members of their immediate families Ages when they became president Length of service in state legislature Height and weight Service time and positions in U.S. Congress Speaking abilities Military service Mode of transportation to inauguration Criticism of inexperience during presidential campaigns Books that they wrote Titles of cabinet members Wars fought during their presidencies

Modern inventions

Modern inventions are often explored on the TV program "Modern Marvels" on the History Channel. Your family might enjoy watching this program together.

Your family can also have fun talking about inventions that we now consider everyday items. One night at the supper table, make a list of items that the children have seen or used in their lifetimes: iPhones, Scotch tape, Kleenex, trains, radios, cars, jet airplanes, Wii, television, cell phones, iPods, dishwashers, dryers, washers, TV, electricity, cameras, hide-a-beds and the Internet. Add to this list by looking for more useful inventions in your home. Enter all these items under the heading "children."

The next night, work together to list the items that parents, grandparents and great-grandparents used in their lifetimes. This will give your children a good timeline of what new inventions each generation enjoyed.

Having fun with stamps

When you mail a letter, you put a stamp on it. Then the post office puts the date on the envelope when the stamp is canceled. Look at the mail that comes into your house for the next few days. Put aside all the stamped envelopes.

Look at the different stamps with your children. They may see stamps with flowers, flags, famous people or celebrities on them. Introduce the idea of becoming a stamp collector to your children. Use a search engine to find sites featuring "stamp collecting for kids." The American Philatelic Society's Web site has many intriguing facts about stamps. Did you know that stamps actually started a war and that one country issued stamps that were also phonograph records?

Preschool and Elementary School: A trip to the post office is an enjoyable part of learning about stamps. There are so many pretty stamps for children to see. Let your child buy a stamp and use it to mail a letter that he or she has written.

Middle School and Beyond: Have your children make several cardboard pictures of themselves. On the back of each, they are to write their names and addresses. The pictures are to be given to friends and family members who are leaving on a trip along with instructions to mail the picture back when their final destination is reached. This will give them interesting stamps to study.

Children in other countries

It is fun as well as quite educational for children to learn about how their peers live in different countries around the world. Just look the next time you are in the grocery store for areas that are culture specific, such as Chinese, Mexican or Thai. Have them choose a couple of items that are totally unfamiliar to take home and try. Or you can elect to go to an ethnic restaurant in your community.

If you live close to a big city, you may be able to give your children a bird's-eye view of another culture. These cities often have sections where Chinese, Japanese, Indians or Russians live. Be sure to visit the shops in these areas. Plus, big cities often have museums with interesting cultural displays.

Check books out of the library about children the same age as yours who live in a different country. Enjoy reading together about what life is like in these countries for children who live in villages, on farms or in large cities.

Older children can learn a great deal about the people in other countries through TV programs on the History Channel and PBS. Plus, they can go online to "KidSpace" on the Internet Public Library Web site, www.ipl.org/div/kidspace, and take virtual trips around the world.

Map reading

Learning how to read maps can't begin too early. Maps are fun for children of all ages, and even for parents. Keep track of your family travels for a week, month or the rest of the summer. Pin up a city, state or U.S. map for this. Then every time you take a trip, place a small sticker or pin on that spot, even if it is to the local grocery store.

Preschool and Kindergarten: Help your children draw a map of their home or the neighborhood.

Elementary School: You can have your children draw pictures of a room in your house, including its furniture so they will begin to understand the way physical maps work. Have them use different colors to indicate different elevations. For example, the floor could be brown, the bed blue and the top of a dresser red.

Playing social studies games

Games can make social studies come alive. Try the ones below as well as online simulations of historic events.

Map toss: You will need a large map with just an outline of the states. You will also need a smaller map with the names of states and capitals. The children should take turns throwing a bean bag on the map and writing the names of the states that they land on. When all the states are named, they can repeat the process by writing in the capitals.

Globe toss: You'll need an inflatable globe for this activity and several players. The first player calls out a letter like "A" and tosses the globe to another player. If this player can't find a country beginning with "A" in 30 seconds, he or she is eliminated from the game, and the globe is tossed to another player to find an "A" country. If a country is found, this player calls another letter. The only rules are that the same country can be used only once in a game, and don't use "X."

Bingo: Create boards with well-known historic dates. Then have the caller call out events matching dates on the cards. Another version involves using states on the cards, and for the caller to call out capitals. Just creating the game can be a learning experience.

Charades: Review history and pick up new facts with charades. Have your children draw from such topics as: famous sayings, presidents, world leaders, explorers, military heroes and states. Each group of players can choose items for the other team to present to their group.

Re-enactments: Your children can have fun re-enacting history. Have them make puppets and use them to act out such events as: the moon landing, the discovery of America, writing the Declaration of Independence and the making of famous Supreme Court decisions.

Family history

Preschool and Kindergarten: Make family history come alive by spending some time looking at pictures of relatives. Videos are great if you have them. Acquaint them with the names of their relatives.

Elementary School and Beyond: Have your children gather and date five or more pictures of themselves. Then have them find out who was president and what major events were happening when each picture was taken.

Eating foods from other lands

It is fun to investigate the foods that people in different cultures enjoy. Most children are very familiar with both Chinese and Mexican food. However, their knowledge of these foods may not extend beyond tacos and chow mein. This activity should acquaint your children with new foods that they have not previously eaten.

If you live in or near a large city, your choices are endless. Go online or look in the telephone book to find restaurants that serve food that your family has not previously eaten. Imagine the fun your children will have eating in a Moroccan restaurant with their hands or trying chopsticks in a Japanese restaurant. Find a Chinese restaurant that serves dim sum so your children can try a variety of Chinese dishes. Introduce them to curries at a Thai or Indian restaurant.

The idea is to sample food from as many different countries as you can. Eating out can be expensive. So you may wish to visit stores selling specialty items, such as a German bakery or Middle Eastern food store. Or go to the foreign food aisle at the local supermarket to find items that your children might like to try. Then go online and find recipes for a meal that your family can enjoy eating and creating together. Remember, children in the kitchen always need adult supervision.

To make this activity even more meaningful, your children can: find out the names of native foods (peanuts, potatoes) from one area that became popular in another, learn more about the spice trade between India and Europe and find out the names of 10 foods that were native to the Americas.

Seeing how the government works

Middle-school and high-school students should be old enough to attend a civic meeting in your community. You have several choices, from city council meetings to planning commissions to school board meetings on the local level. At the state level, the senate or house is in session for a great part of the year. You will need to find out the specifics as to the time and place of meetings that you and your children can attend. And if you visit Washington, D.C., you can contact your state's senator or district representative for a ticket to visit Congress if it is in session. While it is enjoyable to actually see government in action, your children can get the flavor of how government meetings are conducted by viewing programs on C-SPAN. Also, many TV stations carry local meetings where the discussion is about issues that may affect your family.

Once your children have seen a government meeting, they will realize that the individuals at the meeting are following certain rules about when members can speak and how votes are held. These rules are called Robert's Rules of Order, and they ensure that meetings are conducted in an orderly fashion. It is not just government meetings that follow these rules, so do 4-H Club meetings, student council meetings and most formal meetings.

To fully appreciate how Robert's Rules of Order are used in a meeting, your family should use them to hold a meeting following a simplified or basic version of these rules. They can be found in books or searched for online. It will be a worthwhile learning experience for children from elementary school through high school.

Getting to know our presidents

Viewing movies is an easy and enjoyable way to help children learn about the individuals who have led our country. The majority of these movies are best for children in middle school and beyond. Avoid showing your children movies about the presidents that are largely fictional.        

You may wish to preview or read reviews of the movies before showing any of them to your children. Here are a few suggestions of movies that will acquaint your children with our presidents:

  Dwight Eisenhower: "Ike: Countdown to D-Day"

 John F. Kennedy: "Thirteen Days," "PT 109"

 Abraham Lincoln: "Lincoln," "The Day Lincoln Was Shot"

 Richard Nixon: "Nixon," "Frost/Nixon"

 Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Sunrise at Campobello," "Warm Springs"

Several television series have documentaries of our presidents that you can find online. One good one is the American Experience series "The Presidents," on pbs.org.

Continue the theme of helping your children become better acquainted with our presidents by letting them watch virtual tours of their homes and sites related to their lives. More can be learned about every president, from Washington through Obama, on the National Park Service's website at www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents.Younger children will enjoy videos of presidential pets. You can find some on the Animal Planet website.

Using maps for trips

Here is a practical way your children can learn more about using maps. Have them plan several trips. The bonus of this activity is that they will also be using some math. Where the children elect to go on their trips will depend on their map and math skills. Maps can be found online, copied from books, obtained from automobile clubs or purchased.

Easy Trip: Use a city map for several trips. The children need to look at the legend and study what the many symbols on the map stand for. They should find and circle places such as parks, airports, libraries, churches, hospitals, museums and stadiums. Next, they can locate their home on the map, and then using the mileage scale, find out how far the most distant park is from their home or the closest library. Not all maps have the same symbols, so the children should investigate traveling to other spots, such as historical sites, post offices or railroad stations.

Medium Trip: Use a state map for several trips. Have your children find the location of their home on the map. Then they are to take trips to specific state or national parks. Next, they need to determine the shortest route to where they are going. This will involve using math. The children should consider whether they should take interstate highways, state roads, county roads or some combination of these roads.

 Difficult Trip: Use a state or national map for several long trips. The children should start all their trips at the state capital, usually indicated by a star on a map. First, they should determine how far it is to a nearby state capital. Then they can figure out the distance to a national park and to a historical site, and finally to someplace they would like to go during a school vacation. To find the distances, they will add the mileage from one city to the next to get the total mileage. The mileage between cities is typically indicated by small black numbers on roads.

Timelines tell stories

Learning how to make simple and complex timelines will pay dividends when your children are asked to make them in their social studies classes. A good starting point is for your children to make timelines showing major events that have occurred in their lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents.

Timelines can be drawn by hand or downloaded from many Internet websites. Have your children make a timeline that shows the life span of a grandparent, a parent as well as themselves. First, dates need to be put on the line. Then different colors can be used to show each individual's life span. Next, onto the line should be the names of the presidents and the years they were in office. A separate timeline also can be created for a parent or grandparent showing the major events that have occurred in their lifetimes, such as wars, trips into space and new inventions.

Learning geography at the dinner table

Unfortunately, geography is frequently a rather neglected subject in schools. Find a blank map online or in a learning store that is an outline of an area your children are or will be studying. Your children can use a website or an encyclopedia or atlas to fill it in with such pertinent details as major cities, rivers, mountains, deserts and other geographical features. These maps can then be laminated and used as placemats so the children will have a daily reminder of the location of places that they are studying.

Making a time capsule

A time capsule is a way to give people in the future an idea of what life was like when the capsule was made. It can be opened in a year or hundreds of years later. Today, more than 10,000 time capsules exist, excluding personal ones. Interestingly, 11 were left on the moon and four in space. Most are in the cornerstones of new buildings.

Have your children make their own time capsule by filling a container with things that are important to them right now in their daily lives. The container can be placed somewhere in your home, such as a closet or filing cabinet. If buried somewhere, the container should be so tight that it will not let in either air or water. Point out to the children that these capsules will be a lot of fun for them to open as adults. For example, it would give their children an idea of what their parents' lives were like. If they are really impatient, they could open the time capsule next year to see if what they thought was truly important when they made the capsule is still important to them.