Ideas for teaching history to elementary students
History allows you to recreate a world and thus can be a very appealing subject for elementary students. Role play, fantasy, drama, mystery, heroes and heroines are already key components of their play and social lives. Teach historical periods or themes in depth, from multiple perspectives with support from primary sources and children’s literature, trade books and web resources over several weeks or a month or more rather than covering many in a superficial manner. When selecting children's fiction about the era, choose materials on different levels if needed, and also with different perspectives.
1. Make local, state and global connections. You can teach any aspect of U.S. history and connect it to a particular town or state by examining how what was happening locally fit with the national context. You can also make local ties with global issues.
2. Make knowledge connections and expand themes. Use a social studies topic as the basis for an integrated cross-curricular unit. You may also expand the theme within and throughout social studies. Connect history to geography. Connect civics to economics. Connect through time. For example, when teaching community, a typical third-grade focus, examine what community meant in different times. How did communities function in early history? In the middle ages? In ancient China? In the Roman empire? In the American colonies?
Connect beyond American history: Ancient Greece and Greek philosophers, Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Vikings, the Mongol Empire, Arabic Culture and the Islamic World, India and Eastern Religion, Imperial Russia, the English Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Chinese Dynasties, etc.
3. Make personal connections: Always teach more than one point of view and teach about the lives and culture of regular people, including children, stressing the interpretive nature of the subject.
Two dozen social studies/history teaching ideas
- Create a newspaper representative of the era.
- Study every detail about a day in the life in a specific year of representative people in a particular place. For example during the the early 1800s in Michigan: a man, a woman, a child, a Native America, etc. Include social class and ethnic diversity as well as diversity of occupations.
- Critically examine many primary source materials including diaries, legal documents, maps, etc.
- Recreate important artifacts as realistically as you can (perhaps with the help of your art teacher).
- Create art in the style of the era and in the style of different peoples and groups.
- Create models of the architecture of the era.
- Examine the musical instruments and songs of the era. Learn to sing the songs. Study the words. What do they say about the culture?
- Examine historical photographs for evidence of the lessons you are teaching.
- Read and recreate the plays and or epic poems of historical eras or classical civilizations.
- Study the law and economics of the age. Set up trading systems to recreate the era and practice math. Set up courts or trials.
- Study the religions and or myths of an age. What were the prevailing ideas about life, god, goodness and fate?
- Study the education of the age. Recreate their lessons.
- Recreate famous debates or conflicts between historical figures, writing scripts if you’d like, or doing role plays.
- Research specific people and interesting lifestyles in depth, creating class books describing them. This can be an individual or group project.
- Consider how events might have turned out differently. Write alternative historical outcomes.
- Learn words in the language of this era. Speak them. Also study how language changes with cultural change or invasions.
- Read multiple sources describing events and compare them.
- Compare texts to film versions of history and to primary sources.
- Write letters to famous historians or authors who work on this period. Include questions.
- Interview people to see what the common knowledge about an era is.
- Study the technology in depth. What things did people use? How were they made? How sophisticated were their ideas of science? What were the connections between science and religion?
- Create multiple strand time lines that show what was happening to various groups and which address culture and ideology as well as political history.
- Teach another class or the whole school by making books, putting on plays or having festivals.
- Connect historical events to modern current events. Make a bulletin board comparing themes.