Little Historians: Adding Social Studies into Your Early Childhood Program

With a unit on the inventor of the stoplight, it’s easy to get little learners excited about history, STEM, African-American stories and more! 

When you hear the word history what do you think of? Most of us have ideas about learning history, and very few of them involve any early learning environments. We might remember a lecture about war or a group project about how bills become laws – not really the kind of thing that a preschooler can be successful with.

But there are great ways to share history and social studies with our youngest learners in developmentally appropriate ways! The Indiana Foundations, the framework developed for helping Hoosier children zero to eight, defines social studies as “the study of people, relationships, and cultures.” But what does that mean for very small learners? Well, the Foundations goes on to say: “The primary purpose of social studies is to help people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. It includes learning about the environment, how people lived in the past, live today, work, get along with others, and becoming a good citizen.”

With that definition, it becomes a lot easier to think about great ways to teach our little ones about the past.  I recall years ago teaching in my Head Start class of 3-5-year-olds, and history was always a struggle for me. After all, I knew that children at that age really don’t have a strong understanding of time concepts and making connections to the past. Then I realized that I was way over thinking this process. When I scaled back my thinking to align with the definition above, connecting those tiny historians to the past became infinitely easier.

How did I do that? By focusing on the things that happen every day in a high-quality learning classroom: centers, group exploration, creative time, and family engagement. Since this month is February, I’ll share an example using African-American history in my old classroom.

  • Literacy Center: In the library center, I added many books with a lot of pictures that were connected to different African American inventors.
  • Group time: Then during large group time, we talked about African-American inventors, including Garret Morgan who helped to create the modern traffic light. My students were really excited to explore his creation, so we talked more about that. I asked probing questions about how they got to school and if they had seen a traffic light. Then, I added more questions like “When do you see it?,” “What are the colors?,” and “What do each of the colors mean?”
  • Art: In the art center I put out red, yellow and green paint and allowed the children the chance to create with those colors. The children were also given cut outs of yellow, green and red construction paper to create with. In hind sight, just letting them cut out their own circles would have been even better and saved my hands some trouble. But you live and you learn.
  • Family Engagement: Another great way to expand upon this is to just invite your classroom family members to your classroom to do some storytelling and share their family history and traditions. This is a wonderful way to help children learn, but also engage their families in the process.

None of this required any grand gesture. Incorporating social studies can be little things that allow you to start engaging conversations and help children build their vocabularies. If you have a Black History Month study, you don’t have to rush and remove these items from your classroom because by March 1. These are great ideas to incorporate in learning year round. All of these instructional approaches align very nicely with both Indiana Early Learning Foundations and developmentally appropriate practices for children.

It is always important to remember to follow the specific needs of the children in your classroom. What might work for one class may not work so well for another. So be ready and willing to adjust as needed and follow the children’s leads and interests as much as possible. Let me them be a part of their learning process. Always remember make it fun and engaging. It’s not about the product it’s about the process and the journey.

Resources/Books for History with Early Learners

The Indiana Early Learning Foundations- Indiana’s Early Learning Development Framework Aligned to the 2014 Indiana Academic Standards:

Scholastic Books are a great resource for a variety of books that can be purchased for the age group you need:

Here is a link to some great developmentally appropriate ideas to support your black history learning opportunities: