Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Social Studies


Currently, social studies are defined as the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities with the end goal of promoting civic competence. As an integrated field, social studies involve a myriad of processes and content. The social studies include concepts drawn from anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, sociology, and many other subject matter areas. While it may seem overwhelming to ask young children to gain all the knowledge and skills implied in this definition, the major goal of today’s social studies is to introduce children to the skills, attitudes, and knowledge required of the citizens of a democracy.

There have been a variety of approaches to teaching social studies content and skills to young children over the long history of early childhood education in the United States. Before the 1930s, children memorized facts about history and geography with no thought of relating these facts to the everyday world of the child. In the 1920s and 1930s, theorists and teachers emphasized the social skills of cooperation, sharing, and negotiating, but too often the curriculum was turned into a training program that ignored the complexities of social studies content. The holiday curriculum, still implemented in many schools and sometimes described as a “tourist curriculum,” gives children a brief glimpse into some selected cultures. This approach to the social studies also frequently introduces stereotypic and simplistic concepts of these cultures and their beliefs. Children experience a few activities, foods, and clothing and then move on to the next holiday.

Beginning in the 1930s, the emphasis in the social studies curriculum began to shift to a more child-centered and democratic pedagogy that emphasized children’s firsthand experiences within the community of the classroom. Progressive educators, such as John Dewey (1944), emphasized both teaching activities that began with children’s daily life experiences and the democratic classroom where children participated in decision making and rule setting. In the early 1960s, Jerome Bruner inspired further changes in the social studies curriculum when he advanced the belief that curriculum content should emphasize the structure of a discipline. Many early childhood educators adopted two of Bruner’s (1960) basic ideas: (1) introduce the key concepts of a given discipline to children on a developmentally appropriate level; and (2) use inquiry-based teaching strategies to facilitate children’s concept acquisition.

Since the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, the social studies curricula has expanded to include a strong emphasis on multifaceted, antibias and multicultural learning and experiences, akin to a social justice pedagogy. One of the central foci for teachers of this form of social studies curriculum is to create conditions through which children learn to value and respect diversity. Such a curriculum goal is not easy and requires that teachers examine their own values prior to creating experiences for children.

An antibias classroom actively challenges prejudice, stereotyping, bias, and negative decisions made about persons on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, gender, and ability. It introduces children to different family types, religious beliefs, and ways of living. This focus goes far beyond that of introducing children to cultures removed from their everyday experiences; rather, it invites children to explore and respect the diversity of life styles represented in their own neighborhoods and the larger multicultural society. These goals require that teachers also acknowledge the need for children’s families to be involved in negotiating an early childhood curriculum.

Contemporary perspectives on social studies curriculum require teachers to make choices about strategy and subject matter as they plan children’s experiences. Many of these experiences draw upon ten general themes identified in 1994 by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) for kindergarten and the elementary school. From within this framework, teachers of children in preschool programs may easily create experiences that are developmentally appropriate for their classrooms.

• Culture. The study of culture—the art, language, history, and geography of different people—takes place across the total curriculum. To become a citizen of today’s global community, children must be exposed early to the universals of human cultures and the ways in which they differ. The teacher of four-year-olds might, for example, display depictions of children by artists from two cultures, and have the children compare color, media, and use of line. Then the children might discuss the artists’ diverse interpretations of children. Using the methods of the social sciences, data about diverse cultures and various ‘images of the child’ could be gathered and presented for discussion.

• Time, continuity, and change. Young children should be supported to understand themselves in terms of the passage of time, and to develop the rudimentary skills of the historian. For example, three-year-olds can ask their parents about their physical characteristics as infants; and they can collect images of themselves when they were younger and compare this data with their current lives.

• People, places, and environments. Young children are generally eager to learn how to locate themselves in space, to become familiar with landforms in their environment, and to develop a beginning understanding of the human-environment interaction. Four-year-olds, for example, could make maps of their school using blocks and other manipulatives; as well as through other forms of symbolic representation.

• Individual development and identity. Children can learn to identify the various forces that shape their identity. How people learn, what they believe, and how people meet their basic needs in the context of culture are part of this theme. The teacher might read a book about an Asian child and help the children to compare that child’s beliefs with their own, or share a book such as My Grandfather’s Journey to illustrate the mixed emotions involved in immigration and acculturation.

• Individuals, groups, and institutions. Children have already developed beginning concepts of the role of such institutions as schools and families in their lives. A good teacher builds upon these understandings and forges a strong home-school connection. There are many possibilities for gathering data on families and integrating them into the curriculum. Similarly, five-year-olds might investigate the roles and responsibilities of the persons who work in their school. Findings could be displayed in a class book or other representational forms.

• Power, authority, and governance. The emphasis is on beginning experiences in how communities structure themselves to function. Preschool children can make choices about which areas of the classroom they will spend time in during the “free choice” part of the day. When conflict occurs, they will learn to negotiate a solution with the help of the teacher. Young children are also capable of helping to establish rules regarding areas of fairness and safety.

• Production, distribution, and consumption. At the basic level, children grasp economic concepts such as labor, wants and needs, and goods and services. The creation of a grocery store in the dramatic play area, the selling of tickets to a puppet show are just two of the many ways in which teachers can help children experience economics in action.

• Science, technology, and society. With this curriculum focus, children are introduced to changes in technology, and invited to explore such questions as: “What changes does technology bring to our lives today?” They can also be invited to imagine such changes, for example, how the environment might look if we did not rely on the automobile to get from place to place. Children can become creative environmentalists when asked “What will be the eventual result if we use cars more instead of less?”

• Global connections. This curriculum focus is contrary to the views of many parents and teachers of young children, because it advises that children be introduced to topics of great importance in our global society. Some believe that young children cannot comprehend such issues as the global environment, human rights, and economic interdependence. However, with the careful supervision of the teacher, five-year-olds may forge cross-cultural connections, for example, through e-mail and letter writing. They can then ask and answer questions with their peers from other countries.

• Civic ideals and practices. Through this theme, children meet the central purpose of the social studies—full participation in a democratic society. According to Seefeldt (2001), more than ever before, children need opportunities to acquire knowledge about what it means to be a citizen; and to gain a basic understanding of the principles of freedom. Without such knowledge, children are ill prepared to assume responsible citizenship in the future and to support freedom wherever it exists or emerges around the world. The early childhood classroom can be an ideal setting in which children gain these dispositions and understandings. “A necessary condition of freedom is the ability to think and make decisions. Decision making is fostered throughout the day, not just at activity center time” (Seefeldt, 1993, p. 7).

Each of the ten themes guides teachers in selecting or deriving content based on children’s interests, previous experiences, developmental stages, and skills (Mindes, 2005, p. 14). These social studies themes also include a focus on knowledge, skills, and attitudes and values.


Social Studies Planning and Teaching

Using teaching strategies based on the work of Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky, teachers assist children in constructing their own knowledge through firsthand, meaningful encounters with the environment and with other children and adults. Vygotsky (1978) saw children learning to think and behave in ways that reflect their community’s culture by mastering challenging tasks in collaboration with more knowledgeable members of their society. Teachers provide the raw materials for integrated thematic units where children employ the techniques of the social sciences such as gathering, analyzing, discussing, and presenting data. The emphasis is on inquiry and employing problem-solving skills to learn content.

Living in a democracy requires that young children begin the process of building connections to their immediate social group (their peers in the classroom), their school, their neighborhood, and eventually the broader community. According to Dewey (1944, p. 192), “A curriculum that acknowledges the social responsibilities of education must present situations where problems are relevant to the problems of living together, and where observation and information are calculated to develop social insight and interest.” Within the small democracy of the preschool or primary classroom, teachers provide children with opportunities to practice respect for the rights of others, promote the common good, participate in making choices and developing class rules, and develop a firm sense of identity and self-efficacy. Key social skills that might result from such social studies experiences include learning how to interact effectively with others, express one’s own feelings and empathize and take the perspective of others, develop effective strategies for making and keeping friends, and resolve conflicts effectively. In this sense, a social studies curriculum is similar to a Social Curriculum, or a curriculum for social development.

Many early childhood educators believe that a focus on knowledge and skills as they support children’s responsible engagement with each other leads to the development of positive attitudes and values. For example, when teachers encourage a group of young children to “adopt” a stream or a playground, children can learn about those spaces; they can also gain a much-needed sense of responsibility and participation in their community. Additional ways to introduce young children to the principles of community responsibility and caring include learning the habits of recycling, visits to a veterinary clinic, carefully facilitated intergenerational contacts, and opportunities to mentor and interact with classmates who have special needs.

In summary, the social studies have evolved from rote learning of facts to a complex marriage of content and process. Today’s social studies are based on much more than current theories about how children learn and the wisdom of experts in the content areas. They are also based on beliefs that John Dewey expressed long ago when he described schools as sources for societal change. Of all the content areas in the early childhood curriculum, the social studies curriculum is perhaps the most essential to the changing needs of an increasingly globalized world. As the center of the early childhood curricula, the social studies integrate the disciplines through meaningful age appropriate, hands-on, inquiry-based thematic units, projects and investigations with the end goal of preparing young children to fulfill their role as citizens of a democratic society. “The youngest among us are not expected to assume responsibility for nurturing freedom throughout the world, but the conditions that will enable each to contribute to freedom must be present from the beginning of their educational experiences and continue throughout the course of their schooling” (Seefeldt, 1993, p. 4). See also Curriculum, Social Studies; Development, Language; Gender and Gender Stereotyping in Early Childhood Education; Pedagogy, Social Justice/Equity; Race and Ethnicity in Early Childhood Education; Symbolic Languges.

Further Readings: Bruner, Jerome (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Copple, Carol, ed. (2003). A world of difference: Readings on teaching young children in a diverse society. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Dewey, John (1944). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press; Isenberg, Joan Packer, and Mary Renck Jalongo, eds. (2003). Major trends and issues in early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press; Mindes, Gayle (2005). Social studies in today’s early childhood curricula. Young Children 60(5) 12-18; National Council for the Social Studies (1994). Curriculum standards for social studies: Expectations for excellence. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies; Say, Allen (1994). My grandfather’s journey. New York: Houghton; Seefeldt, Carol (1993). Social Studies: Learning for freedom. Young Children 48(3) 4-9; Seefeldt, Carol (2001). Social studies for the preschool/primary child. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall; Seefeldt, Carol, and Alice Galper (2005). Active experiences for active children: Social studies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill; Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Alice Galper