Are more and more students looking a little bored and bleary-eyed during history and geography lessons lately? As a first-year teacher, it's easy to become so focused on covering all the necessary content that you overlook opportunities to bring social studies to life. These easy-to-do, hands-on activities will help you put a quick end to social studies doldrums.

Follow Your Favorite Sports Team Across the USA

Obtain a copy of a major sports team's itinerary for the season. If possible, choose a team located in your city or state or one that students follow. Have students locate and mark on a map of the United States the cities to which the team travels for out-of-town games. This can be done in small groups or as a class, depending on the age of your students. You might also have student research and discuss how and why various teams got their names. For example, Pittsburgh Steelers (home to steel industry), Phoenix Suns (sunny climate), Portland Trail Blazers (association with the Lewis and Clark expedition).

Coast-to-Coast Baseball Team Pictures

Here's another sports team-oriented map activity. Divide the class into two groups: American League and National League. Have students collect a picture of one player from each team within each league. During class, have each student place their picture on a large map on the location that corresponds to each player's home team. This activity can also be adapted to football, hockey, or basketball in the U.S. and soccer internationally. Choose the sport that's in-season or the one about which your students are most enthusiastic.

Junior Cartographers Locate and Identify Neighborhood Landmarks

Have students write the words: home, school, library, hospital, police station, fire station, friend's house, or other neighborhood places on separate pieces of paper. Provide students with string and invite them to use the string to create a simple outline map of their community and then place neighborhood landmarks on the map. You might want to ask how many students placed their home in the middle of the map. The students will feel like real cartographers when you explain that this was a common practice used by the first known cartographers, who drew the world in relation to their own countries.

Clothesline Time Line

Make a time line using a clothesline and hang it in the classroom as close to the ceiling as possible and display all year. Work with students to mark the left end of the time line with a picture representing the earliest historical time period you have discussed in class. For example, if you have studied dinosaurs and the Jurassic period, you might display a picture of a stegosaurus with a date. As historical events are discussed in your classroom, encourage students to suggest pictures and dates to add. Use clothespins to attach the pictures to your time line. By the end of the year, the time line will be full and students will have constant visual reminders of the many topics they have learned about.

Paper Plate People

Have student research famous people they are learning about in history class. Once they have completed the research, have students draw a portrait of the person on the white paper plate, using symbols to characterize the individual's contribution to society. For example, Paul Revere in a tri-corner hat shining a silver teapot or Squanto holding corn seeds and an ear of corn. On the back of the plate, students should list three clues that they can read aloud as the rest of the class tries to identify the famous person from history. A wooden stick or straw can be attached to the back of the plate to make it easier for the student to display the plate. To practice time line skills, have students lineup in chronological order to create a paper plate time line.

Sing Me a Geography Song

Invite the class, small groups or individual students to create a song, poem, rap, or advertising jingle about a geographic area, country, or state you are studying in class. Explain that the song must be historically and geographically accurate. Depending on the age of your students, you might add extra guidelines about the length of the song. Consider performing the song for families or another class. For inspiration, obtain recordings of famous city/state songs such as:

  • Hooray for Hollywood
  • Arkansas Traveler
  • My Old Kentucky Home
  • Carry Me Back to Old Virginia
  • Please Come to Boston
  • Midnight Train to Georgia
  • Georgia on My Mind
  • Yellow Rose of Texas
  • California Here I Come
  • I Left My Heart in San Francisco
  • Chicago!
  • New York, New York
  • Galveston
  • Rocky Mountain High
  • Oklahoma
  • Moon Over Miami
  • Kansas City
  • By the Time I Get to Phoenix
  • I Love New York
  • Hotel California
  • Callin' Baton Rouge
  • New York State of Mind
  • Take Me Home, Country Roads (West Virginia)
  • California Girls
  • Philadelphia Freedom
  • Wichita Lineman


These ideas were adapted from Making Social Studies Come Alive! by Marilyn Kretzer, Marleine Slobin, and Madella Williams (© 1996, Scholastic).