Today’s social studies are based firmly on the past. The theories of both Piaget and Vygotsky continue to influence the field. Mitchell’s work in the 1930s (e.g., Mitchell, 1934), because of its similarity to Piagetian and Vygotskian thought, continues to provide the foundation for approaches to social studies.

Social Studies Today

Today's social studies is integrated, meaningful, and of high interest. Whatever is introduced to children is

  • Integrated into and with children’s cultural background, personal knowledge, family, and community and embedded into the total curriculum
  • Filled with meaning because it is appropriate for their development, matching their cognitive, emotional, social, and physical maturity
  • Of high interest to children when based on their firsthand experiences, self-choice, and social interaction

Social studies in today’s schools, however, are based on more than just the past. Current learning theory and research are reflected in today’s social studies curriculum.

Active Children

In order to learn, children from birth through the primary grades and even beyond must be physically, mentally, and socially active. Every type of play, whether alone or with others—sociodramatic play, play with materials, or physical play—provides children with physical, mental, and social activity (Colker, 2002).

Both the theories of Vygotsky (1986) and Piaget and Inhelder (1969) support the premise that children’s play is necessary for concept formation. Play, according to the theorists, permits children to do the following:

  • Develop more hierarchical and long-term goals. Play may be the first context in which children are able to delay gratification, to keep on working at something until they achieve their goal.
  • Take the perspective of others, which is necessary to learning. When children play with others they are forced to consider the ideas of others. If children did not consider each other’s ideas, they could not play as if they were mothers, fathers, doctors, beauticians, and so on. This initial ability to coordinate, to think about multiple ideas, will develop into reflective thinking and metacognition (Bodrova & Leong, 2003).
  • Use mental representations. Children may use objects as substitutions for other objects. For example, a child may use a block to represent a scissors as they play barbershop. To be able to use symbolic substitutes for real objects is essential to the development of abstract thought.

Because play is so critical to children’s cogntiive development, large blocks of time in child-care, preschool, and kindergarten settings will be arranged for children’s play. Throughout the primary grades, children need opportunities to continue to play with others, with materials, and with board and other games in order to solidify their learning.


Social studies are not isolated bits of information or knowledge that children memorize but, as Vygotsky indicated, are deeply rooted in children’s cultural background and personal experience. The more situated in context and the more rooted in cultural background and personal knowledge an event is, the more readily it is understood, learned, and remembered (Popkewitz, 1999). Thus, today’s social studies are embedded within the context of children’s family, school, and neighborhood (Garcia, 2003).

No one social science discipline can be separated or segregated from another or from the development of skills, attitudes, and values. Just as social studies are an integrated subject, so is the entire early childhood curriculum. The social studies cannot be separated from any other subject matter of the school. Try to find a key concept or a suggested activity in any of the chapters of this text that does not involve children when they are studying other subjects in school. Most social studies concepts and activities involve children in using language through listening, speaking, reading, or writing; in applying mathematics or science concepts; or in expressing their ideas through art, music, or movement. Many social science concepts overlap those of science and mathematics (Jantz & Seefeldt, 1999).


To be meaningful, social studies content must match children’s intellectual growth. Meaningful teaching requires matching the richness of the learning environment to the intellectual growth of the child. The richness of an environment for intellectual growth is a function of the appropriateness of this match between inner organizations and external circumstances in a child’s succession of encounters with his or her environment. Vygotsky (1978) explained the importance of matching what is to be learned with the nature of children’s cognitive maturity: “It is a well known and empirically established fact that learning should be matched in some manner with the child’s developmental level”. Sue Bredekamp (1998) calls matching what one wants to teach children to their existing knowledge “teaching on the edge of children’s knowledge.”

Today, early childhood educators have increased their understanding of the problem of this match. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has published Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) as well as Reaching Potentials in two volumes: Appropriate Curriculum and Assessment for Young Children (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992) and Transforming Early Childhood and Assessment (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1995).

Recognizing that curriculum must match children’s maturation as well as the context in which they live, the National Council for the Social Studies does not specify scope, content, or sequence in its standards. These decisions, the council believes, are in the hands of those who teach social studies, the people who know the children and the world in which they live.

The search for matching content to a child’s intellectual development continues. By organizing the social science disciplines—skills, attitudes, and values—around key concepts or principles and then describing what we do know about how children grow in understanding these principles, teachers have an opportunity to plan ways of presenting social studies material and content that will have meaning because it will match children’s developmental level.

A measure of meaningfulness is guaranteed when teachers realize that children are very young and do have a long time to grow. Then social studies are conceptualized as an initial foundation of social and physical knowledge on which later logical knowledge will be built. The social sciences are meaningful when young children are not pushed to attain concepts beyond their intellectual reach. Learning is a much more complex and drawn out process than is generally acknowledged. The type of complex, meaningful learning that occurs in school and throughout the life span takes place over weeks, months, and years; and there is good reason to believe that the nature of the learning process changes as the tasks of mastering a complex body of knowledge unfold.

Of High Interest

Interested children learn. Interest leads to “meaningful learning, promotes long-term storage of knowledge, and provides motivation for further learning” (Hidi, 1990, p. 549). Whether studying history, geography, economics, current events, or cultures, children must find the material of high interest. It is their interest that motivates them to satisfy their curiosity about themselves and the world in which they live, promoting a sense of competence (Wigfield, 2002). At least three other factors stimulate children’s interest in social studies: firsthand learning, self-choice, and social interaction. All the social studies in this text begin with children’s firsthand interactions with their world. All of social studies teaching is grounded in children’s firsthand experiences, play, and spontaneous activity.

Child choice is encouraged. Through centers of interest, children can select their own learning experiences and activities. Children who are given choices—who initiate their own learning experiences and activities, choose the centers in which they will work, and then make choices within the centers—are more likely to succeed because the problem of match is at least partially solved (Seefeldt & Galper, 2000).

As social beings, children want to be with others and learn to relate ever-more effectively with them. Relating with others, children are exposed to different ways of thinking, knowing, and valuing—all of which lead to expanding cognitive powers (Pattnaik, 2003). Feeling competent socially and cognitively, children are fully motivated to want to continue to learn more about themselves, others, and the world in which they live (Stone, 2003).

Skills, Attitudes, and Knowledge

Using the recommendations of the NCSS (1998) and national history, geography, and civics standards, today’s social studies revolve around introducing children to the skills, attitudes, and knowledge required of citizens of a democracy.

Focus on Skills

Within the small democracy of the preschool or primary classroom, children begin to develop the social and participatory skills required of citizens in a democracy. They will be taught and gain the skills necessary to cooperate and share and begin to assume responsibility for themselves as the total group. The National Standards for Civics and Government (Center for Civic Education, 1994) state that students in school should learn to do the following:

  • Respect the rights of others.
  • Respect the privacy of others.
  • Promote the common good, clean up the environment, and care for the school.
  • Participate in voting and in developing class rules and constitutions.

Civics and government standards suggest that these skills are best developed by “providing students [with] opportunities to practice these skills and to observe and interact with those in their community who are adept in exercising them” (Center for Civic Education, 1994, p. xiii). Good citizenship is not just a matter of the observance of outward forms, transmitted from the old to the young, but also a matter of reasoned conviction, the end result of people’s thinking for themselves (Center for Civic Education, 1994).

Citizens of a democracy need to have the skills of thinking and inquiry. Those skills are promoted throughout the social studies curriculum. “Intellectual skills and civics are inseparable” (Center for Civic Education, 1994, p. xii), and being a citizen of a democracy means being “able to think critically” (p. xii). Wade (2003) suggests a civics curriculum focused on civic projects and aimed at developing concepts of a common good. In this way, young children are most likely able to develop the concepts key to citizenship in a democracy.

Involving children in study of their here-and-now world gives them the platform for posing questions and finding answers. As children study their world, they collect data, observe, survey, weigh, measure, compare, and contrast things in their here-and-now world. After considering the information collected, children reach conclusions. Through inquiry, they use an array of tools appropriate for study of their world. Teachers scaffold children’s use of tools and provide time and opportunity for children to reflect on and reconsider the results of their activity. Only as children make sense of their own world, whatever or wherever that world is, will they develop the thinking skills and knowledge of content necessary for productive citizenship.

Focus on Attitudes and Values

Children need to develop attitudes and values congruent with the democratic way of life if democracy is to continue. The attitudes and values of respect for each individual, freedom of speech, setting and following rules, learning to make choices, and participating in the democracy of the classroom are fostered through the social studies.

The NCSS (1998, p. 3) maintains that the focus of education is on how values are formed and how they influence human behavior rather than on building commitment to specific values. The values and attitudes of the fundamental rights to life, liberty, dignity, equality, and speech are best taught by helping students to weigh priorities in situations in which conflicts arise.

Focus on Standards and Knowledge

More than ever, children need knowledge and a basic understanding of the world in which they live. Without knowledge of history, geography, economics, current events, and global interrelationships, children will be ill-prepared to assume responsible citizenship in the future.

In the past, social studies content was limited in scope, trivial, and lacking in connection to major social education goals (Brophy & Alleman, 2002). Today, however, there is an awareness of the richness of concepts key to the social studies and how these concepts can be meaningfully introduced to very young children (Levstik, 2002).

National associations have identified social studies content that children are to learn during the primary grades. Geographers, historians, economists, civic educators, and social studies authorities have all identified what children should know and be able to do from kindergarten through grade four. Pre-kindergarten standards developed by CTB/McGraw-Hill (2002) and reviewed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York articulate what children 3 to 5 years of age should know and be able to do in the field of the social studies. Additionally, the NCSS identifies themes around which social studies teaching can be organized. Below are eight of those themes:

  • Culture. The study of culture—the art, language, history, and geography of different cultures—takes place across the total curriculum. To become a global citizen, children must recognize the universals of human cultures everywhere.
  • Time, continuity, and change. In the context of their lives, children come to understand themselves in terms of the passage of time and develop the skills of the historian.
  • People, places, and environments.Children learn to locate themselves in space, become familiar with landforms in their environment, and develop beginning understanding of the human-environment interaction.
  • Individual development and identity. Personal identity is shaped by one’s culture, by groups, and by institutional influences. How people learn, what they believe, and how people meet their basic needs in the context of culture are themes within this topic.
  • Individuals, groups, and institutions. Institutions such as schools, families, government agencies, and the courts play a role in people’s lives. Children can develop beginning concepts of the role of institutions in their lives.
  • Power, authority, and governance. Understanding how individual rights can be protected within the context of majority rule can be introduced to young children in the context of their classroom.
  • Production, distribution, and consumption. Because people have wants that often exceed the resources available to them, a variety of ways have evolved to answer questions such as “What is to be produced?” and “How is production to be organized?”
  • Science, technology, and society. This theme deals with questions such as “How can we cope with change?” and “How can we manage technology so that all benefit from it?”