The World at their Fingertips: Young Learners in the 21st Century

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” —John Dewey

What an amazing opportunity young learners have in the 21st century! Technology has opened doors to the world and has brought opportunities to work in a competitive global economy at the touch of a button. Jobs like mine, where I can help teachers and learners all over the world, were not even invented when, as a young child, I dreamed of becoming a teacher. I can only imagine the learning and work opportunities our children will have!

To empower our young learners to be successful in that future, we must find ways to bring the world into the classroom. We need to help children learn how the people, places, and cultures around the world are both alike and different. Social studies education is so much more important than ever because children can now reach, and be reached by, events and people in every corner of the world.

The National Council on Social Studies Standards lists 10 major social studies themes:

  1. Culture
  2. Time, Continuity, and Change
  3. People, Places, and Environments
  4. Individual Development and Identity
  5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  6. Power, Authority, and Governance
  7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption
  8. Science, Technology, and Society
  9. Global Connections
  10. Civic Ideals and Practices

While these topics may seem advanced, there are ways to teach each of them at a level appropriate for young learners, through experiences provided by teachers and families.

The students I taught learned by seeing pictures and meeting people, then talking with me and with each other about similarities and differences. For example, I would teach children that all people have homes, eat, work, have families, and have similar needs and wants and feelings. Then I’d show them that in some places, peoples’ homes and clothes may look different; they may eat different foods based on what is available; they may have different kinds of jobs that are related to where they live; and their families may look very different.

Families and teachers can help children with these ideas by showing interest, acceptance, and joy when seeing situations different from their own.

You can build on children’s questions and interests beginning with the world around them—their family, their school, their friends—and gradually expanding their circle to their greater communities—their city, their county, their state, their country, and their world. Start by simply talking about their immediate friends and their friends’ families, as well as what happens every day. Then extend their knowledge with picture books or children’s periodicals about current events. Use maps and globes to expand their understanding of where they live, from their own area to the larger community and world.

With children in primary grades, it is important to read nonfiction books that include informational text features such as a table of contents, captioned pictures, sidebars, and a glossary. This experience will prepare children learn to read such books independently to better understand their world, from the history of their own community to the geographic features of their continent to the traditions of cultures on the other side of the world.

There are many wonderful resources for teaching the 10 social studies themes to young children. The ABCmouse curriculum, produced by the company I work for, offers hundreds of learning activities that address many aspects of those themes. Also, The Around the World Series by Ann Morris are some of my favorite social studies books for young learners; they are colorful, visual, and easy to understand:

  • Hats, Hats, Hats
  • Bread, Bread, Bread
  • Families
  • Shoes, Shoes, Shoes
  • On the Go
  • Tools
  • Work
  • Loving

Other resources are cultural programs offered by libraries, cultural or ethnic fairs and events, restaurants that offer cultural foods, and museums.

Providing children with rich social studies experiences can be done through one of the greatest gifts we can give our children: our time. This includes talking with them about what they see, encouraging them to draw and/or write about their experiences, and helping them take photographs and create a scrapbook or journal. It also includes travel, whether exploring your own community or visiting others near and far—or even “traveling” through time and space through shared books.

In these ways and others, we must give our children the world, for they are the future citizens and leaders who will shape it.

Rebecca A. Palacios, Ph.D., is a Senior Curriculum Advisor for Age of Learning, Inc., the company that produces the website and ABCmouse mobile apps.

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