Social Studies Today

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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).

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