Enhancing 4th and 5th Grade Social Studies with Hands-On-Activities

Enhancing 4th and 5th Grade Social Studies with Hands-On-Activities

McGuire, Pam

Through teaching, I strive continually to bring to my students not only facts but also a joy of learning. Want to see a smile on your student’s face? Give them hands-on-activities. These lessons, projects, and activities will bring another level of understanding to the student. I will give three examples of activities using the fifth grade as a model.


Nystrom produces my favorite large desk maps. They are two-sided laminated maps. Using these maps, students link history and geography. I have used them to introduce a lesson, enhance a specific area of a unit, conclude a lesson and to link past to present.

Students work in partners. Using a study guide, they follow directions. They must either answer a question or mark on the map. There are a variety of questions ranging from simple map interpretation skills to higherlevel thinking skills. Working in partners, students work cooperatively to answer the questions and follow the directions. As the students work, the teacher facilitates. For example, fifth grade recently completed the “The British Colonies” map exercise. (Standard 5.4)

The objectives were:

1. Recognize that ocean ports were necessary to the British colonies.

2. Locate early British settlements on the east coast of North America.

3. Locate the western boundary of the British colonies.

4. Identify three groups of British Colonies on a map.

5. Describe the size of the British settlements relative to the width of North America.

Figure 1 is an example of the study guide sheet.

Students enjoy working with the large maps. It builds not only knowledge, but social skills, too. The students work cooperatively, share perspectives and learn together. It is fun! When students are happy, the learning process becomes enjoyable.


In this activity, students create the form or physical shape of a state noting geographical features using a homemade product called “goop”. Using an atlas as a guide, they paint the state with watercolors in relief form. They research information specific to the state, typing the information on a card to be placed on the back of the state card (5″ x 5″ card stock). Gluing (use glue gun) tongue depressors on the card for handles, the students can circulate these cards. They can be used for review, presentation, and questions and answer sessions.

This is a three-day lesson. Day one, students draw out of a hat a state card. Following the state information sheet (prepared by teacher as to information required), students research their state and complete the state information card. Day two, hand out atlases and “goop.” Students form state on to 5″ x 5″ cut card stock. Paint state form using watercolors. Following atlas use colors to comply with relief map of state. Paint can be applied to wet “goop.” It takes 24-48 hours for state to dry, depending on thickness. Glue gun handles on to card. Glue on information card to state card.

“Goop” Mixture

Next, you should mix and heat on medium temperature, 5 lbs. salt and two cups water. Mix in a separate bowl, one-pound cornstarch with two cups of water. Stir until smooth. Add cornstarch mixture slowly to salt mixture, stirring constantly while still on the stove. When the two mixtures are thoroughly combined, remove from heat, roll into golf ball size balls and place in Baggies. This will keep nearly indefinitely if airtight. This mixture should make approximately 30-35 balls.

This would be a perfect activity to use in fifth grade, Standard 5.8 (5.8.2) or 5.9. I have a variety of resources on hand including state flash cards and The Big Book of America by Roger Hicks, ISBN 1-898784-23X. Students utilize the library and Internet as well.


In this activity, students create character cards. Again, using fifth grade as a model, characters such as John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Chief Tecumseh, Chief Logan, Sequoyah (Standard 5.3.6), John Smith, Virginia: Roger Williams, Rhode Island; William Penn, Pennsylvania; Lord Baltimore, Maryland (Standard 5.4.2), King George III, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (Standard 5.5.4), Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Molly Pritcher, Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren (Standard 5.6.3) could be the subjects used.

The teacher creates the categories for information. There should be four as the card has four sections. Using the American Revolution as the main topic, students would focus on women’s roles (Standard 5.6.3). section l ofthat standard looks at important facts about women. section 2 identifies the role they played in the American Revolution. section 3 is an illustration of the woman portrayed in her role. section 4 asks students to analyze how she was influential during this time. I have had the students create different types of poems (narratives, limericks, etc.) using information learned in section 4. Use large sheets of cardstock cut into 12″ x 12″ squares, one per student. see Figure 2 for folding of card and inside, four -section diagram.

Students research the subject, compile information, and type information to fit on sections of cards. Students become very creative with this assignment using computer technology to enhance their work.

The front of the cards must contain the persons name and picture, illustration or drawing. I allow the students to be very creative using a variety of materials to artistically form the cover, ribbon, yarn, paper, stickers, computer graphics, colored construction paper, etc. The students become their characters in the presentation of their card.

Using hands-on activities and projects stimulates students, touch on more than one type of learning modality and challenge the students in learning factual information, fine arts, and critical thinking, problem solving skills. I have had so many students tell me “Your class is fun,” “I didn’t realize I learned so much,” “What do we study next?”

The State Geoform activity and Character Cards create incredible visuals both as learning tools and bulletin boards. I have had teachers use the “goop” activity to study and review landforms, such as rivers, deltas, plateaus, isthmus, etc. Fourth grade teachers have used it to recreate the study the state of California.

The “Character” Cards could also be used in a variety of venues such as “Event” Cards, “Battle” cards for American Revolution studies, “Mission” cards in fourth grade or “President” cards, to highlight and study the United States Presidents.

These hands-on projects encapsulate and utilize intellectual skills through learning and application of the standards. The skills of reasoning, reflection and research are applied, specifically chronological and special thinking, research and evidence findings and statement of points of view and opinion, and interpreting history through summarizing and identifying. Finally, these lessons are cross-curricular for example the Character Card activity uses the concept of geometry in the folding process.

My students and I have fun, incorporating fine arts, and learning at the same time. Feel free to email me with questions or comments. I am happy to share lesson plans.

Pam McGuire graduated from Chico State University with a secondary teaching credential. She substituted for a year in grades 1-12. She quickly realized junior high was the most dynamic area. After teaching at C. K. Price Middle School in Orland, California, for eight years, she moved to San Jose. She currently is teaching at Holy Family Education Center, a parochial school, focusing on the 7th and 8th grades. She has been at Holy Family for six years and serves as the Social Studies Department Chair. For the past three years, she has been a presenter at the CCSS conference, focusing on handson-activities to enhance social studies. This year marks the five years she’s enjoyed taking students to Washington, D.C.

Pam McGuire


Copyright California Council for the Social Studies Spring 2004

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