I’ve been inboxed a few times by social studies teachers asking how to make their instruction more engaging for students. I thought I’d share a list of ideas you can try to make your social studies lessons more fun for students (and you, too). While I’m writing this list with the upper elementary teacher in mind, these ideas will work in any K-12 classroom!
Show What You Love About It
If you’re excited to learn about and teach history, your students will notice, and they will benefit. If you make it painful or boring, your students will pick up on that, too. History may not be your favorite subject, sure, but find something you enjoy about it and share it with them. They’ll be more interested if they see that you care!
Connect the Past and Present
History becomes a lot more interesting when you help your kids connect what they’re learning to things that are happening now. I love helping kids see that we are learning about real people and real events, and that the choices people made a long time ago affect how we live today. It helps to put things in context by using analogies and references to popular culture that they’ll understand (memes are a fun way to do this).
Move Past the Textbook
Ugh, the old textbook. Okay, I do use a textbook occasionally, but I prefer to use other teaching tools to make information more accessible. Teaching only out of the textbook is a surefire way to put your students to sleep. There are so many wonderful, authoritative, diverse resources out there that you can put in your students’ hands! Your local library can often be a great place to find them.
This is especially key for English language learners, but it appeals to everyone. I love using rich images to set the scene, if you will, whether it’s a photograph, drawing, map, artwork, or film clip. Costumes and other primary sources really take it up a notch, too!
Make It Hands-On
This goes for every subject, right?! It can be a little trickier for social studies, I think, but if you get creative, you can really have a lot of fun making your lessons hands-on. For example, when I introduce a new unit or lesson, I like to bring in props to pass around. This might include replicas of primary sources, like a copy of the Constitution, a time capsule, or something more basic, like items from the grocery store to teach about your state’s products and industries. You can also do hands-on projects like making relief maps, creating biography buddies, writing “old” documents, and cooking food. Cumulative events like Colonial Day and Market Day are great ways to let kids experience life in another time period.
There are lots of benefits to getting students up and moving around the room, so I look for ways to incorporate movement during my social studies units. How about trying –
- a human timeline
- a game of 4 Corners
- acting out a skit (a situation, conversation, or event)
- a simulation
- using the tableau strategy
- teaching a dance from a certain region/time period
- using hand motions along with mnemonic devices
Use Project-Based Learning
Using inquiry-based instruction in social studies is absolutely a way to make lessons more engaging and rigorous for your students. An escape room is an awesome example, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated if you want to start small. STEM projects are another great option to get students creating and collaborating!
There are tons of amazing nonfiction and historical fiction books you can use as read-alouds during a history lesson each day! I love using these to help make people’s voices come to life. You can also use them with guided reading groups and literature circles to bring history into your ELA block.
Include Music and Art
I love teaching cross-curricular lessons! Bringing music and art into social studies really appeals to students (and frankly to me, too). You can set up a gallery walk to analyze historical paintings, play music from a specific time period, and make up new lyrics to contemporary songs to teach tricky concepts. I also love doing an art project for each unit.
Speaking of, click here for a free, easy-to-use drawing activity for Captain John Smith!
Just because you’re learning about the past doesn’t mean your teaching has to be stuck in the past. There are SO MANY great social studies and geography websites and apps out there. Find some ways to get your kids using technology to learn about life long ago! Here are some ideas:
- use interactive websites
- search digital collections of primary sources
- visit virtual museum exhibits
- Skype with historians
- use green screen technology to record students ‘going back in time’
- try VR field trips or Google Earth (great for geography or famous landmarks)
- play audio and video podcasts
- use an app like Chatterpix when studying historical figures
- make animated videos (Powtoon is great for this)
- use QR codes
- try augmented reality to make printed primary sources come to life
Let Students Be Part Of It
In addition to covering all of the content laid out by your curriculum, you can make social studies more meaningful by helping students look at their own place in history. If you have time, have them research your city/county/state/region. Carve out some time for students to share about their own families and backgrounds. Let them act out scenes from history, research topics that interest them, and find interesting historical facts to share! Anything you can do to personalize history will make your lesson more interesting!
Plan a Field Trip
A must! If you can’t take students on a field trip, try bringing one to you. Lots of museums and organizations have people who will visit the classroom for a small fee. You can also invite a guest speaker to do a presentation. And there are plenty of digital field trips you can go on, too!
Hope you’ve found some helpul ideas to make social studies fun for you and your students! Happy teaching!