The Social Studies Program

The term “social studies” when used to designate certain school subjects is of comparatively recent origin. Although first used in 1916 it is in recent years that it has become the accepted term by which the school subjects which deal with human relationships are known. Included in it are history, geography, civics, economics, sociology, political science, and others. For our purposes it can be limited to history and geography, and perhaps citizenship in the lower grades.

A social studies program can be organized in several different ways: separate subjects, fused subjects, problems or projects units or topics, or activities and experiences. While there is much discussion regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the fused program as against the separate subject set-up in the higher grades, in the primary grades there is uniformity regarding the teaching procedure.

Social studies are very important: The purpose being a systematic widening of the child’s knowledge and understanding of the world as it was created and is sustained by God and always serves His purpose. Therefore, even in the primary grades it should not be neglected. At this level there is no attempt made to divide the material into separate subjects. The contents of the social studies program are generally organized into units which include activities. The lower the grade, the briefer and more numerous should be the units. Some of these units are suggested by a subject that is taught in all the primary grades – nature study or science. Some of the most important geographical concepts are almost certain to be introduced in these units. Acquisition of a concept is a slow growing thing. It is wise to repeat it throughout the grades. Many children in higher grades can reach back into past experiences of primary and intermediate grades and find there valuable generalizations which can then be developed and expanded. Some units which embrace geographical concepts are those which deal with Weather, Seasons, Day and Night (bringing in the globe for study and touching upon rotation, gravity etc.); also a unit on Animals; or Food, Clothing, and Homes; or Occupations as being influenced by natural environment. There is at present an increasing supply of rich supplementary reading material for primary grades treating many of these things. The more advanced readers will benefit greatly from its use, but all pupils will find it profitable for vocabulary enrichment as well as development of reading and other study skills.

One weakness I feel in the social studies program in the primary grades is the neglect of the historic element. Children coming face to face with history as a subject in the fifth grade have very little background. I realize that it is impossible to use the chronological sequence and expect these young children to understand it, but simple time relationships can be taught. A unit on Transportation or one on Indians uses the historic approach nicely and naturally, Historic events and figures could easily be presented to children in the early grades in a simple way. Must a child be in the fourth grade before he ever hears of Columbus? Why not use special days, such as Columbus Day, to lay a little groundwork? Important days and persons connected with the history of the Church should not be overlooked either. Reformation Day should be an important event even to the very young child! Isn’t it also possible and proper to treat, not necessarily in detail, the historic background of the Church in Europe as we talk about the Pilgrims and the celebration of Thanksgiving? February is a good time to introduce and work out a unit on our country’s early history in connection with the birthday celebrations of two of its prominent leaders. If history is, as we believe, the unfolding of God’s plan throughout the ages it is far too important a subject to be thrust in the background! “His-story” has great significance for every one of His children.

One worthwhile way of giving children a little historic background is to read interesting stories to them about some of the historical personages. Such an introduction in the primary grades aids in the jump to the more factual presentation in the intermediate grades. Certain of the publishing companies put out a reading series which devote one or more sections to just such stories. There is also a wealth of biographies available on almost every reading level, and we encourage the children to read them.

Systematic geography begins in the fourth grade. Our present textbook treats a series of progressively more complex human-habitat studies, and it would be very difficult and most confusing to use the fused approach. Historic elements can be brought into the picture as needed to facilitate understanding, but the emphasis is not on history as such. There is an argument as to whether it is pedagogically sound to jump into the strange and unknown world; it might be better to begin with the known and familiar and then gradually expand the horizons. We start out with a unit in the fourth grade on Michigan, and I usually find that the state capital is as far away as the Amazon in terms of the experience of most children. A background on the community and the town is given in the third grade social studies program, but state, country, and continent are new concepts. Geography in the fifth grade deals with the Americans, and the history of the United States does tie in well with the regional approach of our country. But I prefer the broader, more detailed treatment afforded with history as a separate subject, going ahead at its own speed. Concentration on one subject makes for better learning, and if the same topic comes up in a different setting, it has the advantage of being repeated and being looked at from another angle.

Current events is another phase of the social studies program that contributes to the child’s understanding of the world. Especially today with television more attention is being paid to it in the home. Helping the child to comprehend the significance of events should be the work of the teacher in the intermediate and upper grades. There are many interesting current events “weekly readers” published that are on the child’s reading level. The sixth grade is using one this year that has captured the interest of the whole family.

Whether it is through a fused program a unit approach, or through separate subjects, social studies is a means of aiding the child to consolidate and integrate his fragmentary image of the world – to find in it a God-ordained orderliness, coherence, and purpose – and to be able to take his place in it as an intelligent child of God.

Originally Published in:

Vol. 19 No. 7 October-November 1959