ECE Social Studies: Definition and Applied Activities

by Kristi R. Lachlan

What is Social Studies?

            If you did a random survey on the street asking people to define Social Studies, the responses would most likely indicate the study of some historical period, maps, or of a particular country or region.  The question triggers memories of high school and college lectures in stuffy classrooms for many.  In actuality, Social Studies begins much farther back in the personal timeline than middle or high school.  Humans actually begin social studies at birth through the many ways that children explore and experiment with social interaction (Mindes, 2006).  Humans are social animals.  As far back in history that we look in our evolution, relating and interacting with each other, or socialization, has been a key factor that sets humans apart from other species (Berns, 2013).

Social Studies emerged as a field “at the beginning of the twentieth century as a holistic approach to citizenship education …to help immigrant children understand the history and social mores of their new country” (Mindes, 2006, p. 4).  As an elementary school subject, social studies combined history, geography, and civics designed to support growth and understanding of “American heritage and…the skills and sensitivities [necessary for] participation in our nation’s democratic society” (Mindes, 2006, p.5).  The field has evolved over time to incorporate many more facets of social life and is not exclusively held as instruction for school-age students any longer, but extends into the preschool years focusing on self, family and community (Mindes, 2006).  Overall, there are many themes of study within Social Studies, such as  “culture; time, continuity and change; people, places and environments; individual development and identity; individuals, groups and institutions; power, authority and governance; production, distribution and consumption; science, technology and society; global connections; and, civic ideals and practices” (Mindes, 2006, p.6).

Applied Activities

The chart below organizes and provides examples of student activities in social studies appropriate for the 4-5 year old preschool classroom.  Each activity is aligned with a concept (or concepts) of study that are applicable in the areas of family, time, change, people, places, space, social growth, identity, culture, government, production/ trade, money, civic ideals, and politics.

Concept Alignment.

HISTORY 1 2 3 4
GEOGRAPHY 5 12 8 10
CIVICS 9 16 6 11
ECONOMICS 15 14 7 13



1 Timeline of Life:  collect from parents one photograph from each year of the child’s life and help them to assemble a photo timeline of themselves as they have grown up from year to year since birth.


History/Self, identity, time, change
2 Family Tree:  Using either photos from home, photos from a magazine, or drawings made by the children, assist them with building a family tree of their family structure.  It should be a simple version going back to grandparents unless they choose to extend it farther, in which case the teacher should support the extension.  There are books on all types of family that can be shared during circle and story time during this lesson.


History/Family, identity, change, people
3 Our School Year Scrapbook/Time Capsule:  This is a year-long project that should be added to each week of the year.  The students should select something to add to the capsule (a Rubbermaid bin they have decorated) for each week.  The capsule can be pulled out monthly to review the contents and remember the year and all of the good times that have been had and the fun learning that has happened.  The same can be applied to having the children take photos and build a scrapbook or yearbook if the technology support is present.


History/School & Community, identity, change, people, places, time
4 Thanksgiving Unit:  A basic introduction to the story and history of the first Thanksgiving using books, videos, and role plays.  You could even help the children prepare a simple play for presentation to parents on Thanksgiving lunch day.


History/Country & World, time, people, places, culture, social growth, trade, civic ideals
5 Map of My Room:  There are many ways to do this activity.  You can use pieces on a felt board for the children to organize depicting where things are in their room.  You can also use paper and magazines to make a my room collage asking the children to glue the photos of the furniture in the place things are in their room.


Geography/Self, space, identity
6 Classroom Rules:  Class rules should be developed together, with teacher guidance so that regular rules regarding respect and behavior are present.  These should be simple and be kept to about 3-4 rules to be created and displayed in the classroom and talked about often.  Peaceful conflict resolution should be encouraged to settle disputes.  Civics/School & Community, civic ideals, politics
7 Fundraisers:  Classroom based fundraisers are great because the students can help the teacher set a goal for what they want to raise money for and then talk about what they want to do.  An example is a fish fry run in one of my schools.  The students make the hush puppies to take to the kitchen for cooking and help cut the potatoes for the fries too (with child safe utensils).  They help the teachers to bag up the orders and get them ready for pick up.  They collect the money with adult assistance and then help/observe counting their proceeds and ordering what they wanted to get if they have earned enough for it.


Economics/School & Community, production/trade, money
8 Navigating the School:  Children should be taken on a tour of their school to learn the location of the office, playground, cafeteria, library, etc. (as applicable) so that they can navigate their space each day.  They will get practice and get to build confidence by being the classroom line leader on a rotating basis.


Geography/School & Community, space, people, places, civic ideals
9 Character Connection:  Selecting a positive character trait to focus on and teach through allegorical stories, dramatic role play, and reinforcing language.  Feature one trait at a time, reviewing them often and using them in daily language.  Not a weekly trait but change when you feel kids are getting it.  You can also tie the trait into support literature during story time.


Civics/Self, social growth, civic ideals, identity
10 Geography of Me:  Help the children learn their address but from a large perspective.  You begin with the Universe and then move down to the Milky Way.  Then you note that we live on the planet Earth, followed by the continent of North America.  You work your way down to living in the United States and in the state of Georgia, city of Atlanta…down to their street and the number of the house they live in.  They can color and build boxes for each stop on the address and will have a tower that ends in “Me” by the end of the activity.  This takes several weeks.


Geography/Country & World, places, people, space, identity
11 Mock Election:  This is a dramatic play activity and should be done during election time in the year.  The teacher will need to develop funny speeches and may need to get a helper to assist with a puppet show.  Three puppets are running for office…they want to be the teacher.  The children should vote for the puppet that they want to be their new teacher.  Students get to understand what a leader is, the positive qualities of leadership, the voting process, and more in a fun way.


Civics/Country & World, people, places, politics, change, culture, government
12 Culture Day:  Everyone’s has roots in some culture, especially in the United States.  As such, and with the rise in multiculturalism, it is important to have an activity day such as this where families can showcase their culture if they wish to participate.  Children can bring artifacts from home, parents can visit and tell stories from their culture, and even a cultural foods banquet can be served for lunch.  Children will place their photo on a map of the world indicating where their family’s culture has its’ roots.


Geography/Family, people, places, culture, family, identity
13 Money Lessons:  It is important to teach the children how to identify the pieces of money that we use in our country.  They should be taught to identify bills (1, 5, 10) as well as quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies.  You can broaden this by showing them examples of money from other parts of the world and how they are different than what we use.  They can then practice with the money in the play store in the dramatic play center. Economics/Country & World, production/trade, money, culture, people, places
14 Career Day:  Invite families to have a parent or other relative be a special guest to the classroom to talk about their jobs. (or) Have a project where the kids learn about their parent’s job and come to school dressed up like the parent for work and do a show and tell about my mom’s or dad’s job.  Allow children to continue to role play these careers in dramatic play.


Economics/Family, identity, people, places, production/trade
15 When I Grow Up… Help the children to create an all about collage or poster that shows when they grow up what they want to be or do.  This can focus on career, family, where they want to live, if they want a car or a truck…it should be completely open ended and they should talk to the group about “My Future”.


Economics/Self, identity, places, family, social growth, production/trade
16 How Do You Feel Survey:  First, conduct a ‘how do you feel’ survey of the classroom where each child gets to choose between a smiley face, a sad face, an angry face, and a sleepy face.  Do this for several days in a row. Then, have students do the survey at home.  Parents will need to be informed by letter ahead of time.  Have students ask 10 family or friends ‘how do you feel’ and then bring the sheet back and make a chart in class.


Civics/Family, social growth, identity, people



Berns, R.M. (2013). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Cengage Learning.

Mindes, G. (2006). Social studies in today’s early childhood curricula. In Spotlight on young children and social studies (p. 4-9).

Washington, DC:  National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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