I’ve made it a priority this year to teach my kids about the United States government. Election year is a perfect time to walk them through the steps of electing a president, to introduce the history of early America (ideally this would include a thorough study of Native American nations), to learn United States geography, and more.
We began our study informally at the primary election on February 1st. Here in Oregon, all ballots are submitted through mail (or drop-boxes). My kids were fascinated with the long line of cars at the library on election day – we waited in our car for forty-five minutes at dinner time just for a turn to drop my ballot into the ballot box. Why, they wondered, was dropping a piece of paper in a box such an important event?
We had ample time to discuss voting while waiting in that line. I explained to them that each of us has a choice and that each of our choices are very, very important. It may not seem like our choice matters – after all, weren’t there plenty of other people in that long line waiting to cast their votes? – but it does. What if all of the people who came out to vote that night had decided, instead, to stay home and eat dinner? What if ALL of them decided that their vote was insignificant and no one at all decided to drop off their ballots? My kids (ages 7.5 and 4 at the time) understood exactly what the problem would be … if each of us decided our vote didn’t matter, no one would vote.
What then, does voting really mean? I explained to them then, and I have many times since, that voting to elect people to work in our government is the primary way that citizens like us can have a say in who is in charge of our country. The people we vote for will end up in charge of many things – what types of laws are made, how taxpayer’s money is spent (whether roads are fixed, parks are maintained, etc.), whether we remain friendly with other countries, whether or not people can easily have access to doctors, and much, much more. If we decide to skip our vote, we lose our biggest chance to say how we would like these decisions to be made. Voting is so important that it is even okay to skip dinner in order to do it!
Over the next few months, we dove into the concept of voting with books. Here is my favorite:
And then we held an election. I taught my kids about the Republican, Democratic and Green parties. We talked about how the democratic and green parties believe in some of the same stuff (environmental and humanitarian issues) and we discussed what happens when some democrats decide to vote green … the republicans win. For a more visual understanding of this concept, I labeled jars with the letters R, D and G, and filled them with votes (little stones). My kids then moved the stones around and saw how by moving stones from the D jar into the G jar, the R jar ended up with the most stones. This was a fun experiment.
When September rolled around, we began weekly activities pertaining to government. My goal was to begin with the history of Native Americans in our country and progress from there (here is a blog with great ideas about studying North America), but with the election just two months away I decided to postpone this topic for Winter and focus instead on a study of presidents and the White House. Since my kids are pretty young, I am focusing on a tangible overview of where the government is located, and who is in charge. I bought this book for myself as a reference and have been able to adapt a lot of big concepts (such as what the Constitution is, the Bill of Rights, the Senate, etc.) to their age-level in our conversations, but I am not focusing on these more abstract concepts in our activities quite yet.
As all of us with elementary aged kids know, hands-on activities are perhaps the most effective way to engage students in what they are learning. We are using this election activity book and loving it. Often I’ll just print out pages and have the kids color them while I read, and then we’ll do the actual activity together afterwards.
My kids have made voting pamphlets, White House pop-up charts, presidential spinning-wheels, and more. We use this book constantly.
But perhaps the best book I’ve purchased for our government unit study is this kids book about presidents.
Each week we read the biographies of one or two presidents and do an activity pertaining to their time in office. We’ve loved this – myself included. Statements such as “[John Adams] was short, chubby and cranky” (pg 6) form clear images in my children’s minds of what our second president was like. When this is followed up by facts about what he accomplished, they have a much better chance of retaining what I read to them.
And yet another one I love for the illustrations, although it is more for older kids because it is written in comic style (which I find tedious to read to non-readers!), is The Buck Stops Here.
We usually read this after I have introduced a given president. The colorful illustrations and little captions reinforce what we’ve already read.
If you are interested in introducing presidents but don’t have time to cover all 43 of them (Grover Cleveland is often counted twice, in which case Barack Obama is actually the 44th …), you can start with the presidents whose faces are printed on currency. This is a great way to tie a study of government into math lessons. Here is a chart that outlines which presidents appear where. Of course the simplest place for young students to start is with George Washington (quarter and $1 bill), Franklin Roosevelt (dime), Thomas Jefferson (nickel and $2 bill) and Abraham Lincoln (penny and $5 bill).
We also filled out The Official United States Mint 50 States Quarters Collector’s Map. This was a fun activity that spanned months and gave the kids an extra boost with their United States geography skills (I’ll cover great ideas for teaching elementary geography in another post!).
Mount Rushmore is another fun way to introduce just a few presidents while also covering a bit of geography and even geology. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are all depicted on these 60-foot vertical rock slabs … why were they chosen? How were the monuments made? When did this take place? A fun addition to a study of Mt.Rushmore would be clay modeling … have each child mold a face (of whomever they choose) into a block of clay. It’s not so easy to get all of those features right, is it?!
But in order to tie a presidential study into our current presidential campaign, I have personally focused a lot on our current candidates. I had my eldest research both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on www.kiddle.co (google’s kid-friendly search engine) and also watch a portion of the first presidential debates with me. I asked her to make her own choice about who she would vote for for president (I asked this of my four-year-old as well) and both of them were able to make decisions based on information they had gleaned from our conversations, the debates, and our reading. This is the essence of casting a vote – extracting useful information about candidates from the onslaught of propaganda out there – and I was very proud of how both of them were able to do this. (Just fyi, the next presidential debates will be on Sunday, Oct. 9th and Wednesday, Oct. 19th … they can be streamed on YouTube if you don’t have access to television.)
And last but not least, we have really enjoyed studying the White House. The history of this building is as fascinating as the families that have lived in it. A great place to start is with this interactive virtual tour of the West Wing, Residence, East Wing and South Lawn. Michelle Obama had the idea to make White House tours available to everyone with a computer and internet connection … her concept resulted in this google-Earth-esque tour. Zoom in on detailed tapestries, paintings, carvings, United States emblems and more as you make your way through the rooms of the White House. My kids and I had fun zooming in on mirrors and trying to find a reflection of whomever was filming this tour … you can go through the building as much as you’d like studying various features.
And as a grand finale, take a visit to Trader Joe’s to purchase their White House Cookie Kit. Give the kids a chance to build (and then eat) a yummy model of the White House! Once we do this ourselves, I’ll update this post with a picture.
I’d love to hear how you are teaching government in your homeschool … I am especially interested in ideas for making the November 8th election an extra special event. We are doing a countdown on our calendar and will probably dress up fancy on that day – whatever it takes to emphasis how critically important our roles as voting citizens are. If you have some clever activities planned for your children, please share!