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Social Studies: Fun, Free, or Cheap

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #57, 2004.

Social studies, practically for free.
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Melissa Morgan

Remember the old sixties song, "Don't Know Much About History"? I'm afraid that song applies to most Americans. Many educators would say we need more money for social studies. However, I think we need less - less government money and fewer boring, irrelevant textbooks.

You can teach social studies for free or cheap, and have a great time learning together with your kids.

By "social studies," I don't mean what generally passes for social studies today - a strange blend of political correctness mixed with a few disjointed facts taken out of context. Let's focus on teaching kids what's most important about history - and where history happened. History, for our family, is His Story - the story of Creation, Christ, Christianity, and a fallen world redeemed by grace.

How can you get started teaching His Story? First plan your course of study, your curriculum. Curriculum comes from the Latin word for race course. World Book and A Beka provide free curriculum guides, sometimes called a "scope and sequence." Use your guide to help design your social studies race course.

Check out your public school's curriculum. Ask to see a copy at your local school, or visit the school web site. Alter their goals to meet your values and needs. Keep in mind that many yearly curriculum goals for social studies are arbitrary. It doesn't really matter if your child learns state history in second grade, third grade, or sixth grade, does it? What if your family moves to another state? How important will your previous state's history be to your child's education? State history may be mandated by state law. Check with your local home school support group to find out. However, if your child doesn't know basic world history and geography as an adult, he or she will not be able to interpret world events or understand issues.

Most students today can spit out a disjointed set of historical details, out of place and time. They become lost in a forest of social-study facts. If history makes sense, your child knows basic events in order, and can answer "who, what, when, where," and even "why."

Create your own outlines and time lines to help your child understand the forest of history. Draw your own maps to help your child learn what happened where. Try wipe-off marker pens on window glass to draw temporary maps in a picture window or even on the outside of a clear plastic shower curtains. If you don't want your work to be permanent, test your pens on an inconspicuous area first.

If you don't want to draw or make your own maps, you can obtain maps inexpensively. Find secondhand copies of National Geographic maps (check used book stores). Get a free National Scenic Byways map and directory from the Federal Highway Administration by calling (800) 4-BYWAYS, or on the web at www.byways.org. For free printable U.S. maps and directions, visit Mapquest, www.mapquest.com. Print out free Anthems, Flags & Facts of Nations, USA States, and Canadian Provinces, at www.imagesoft.net/flags/flags.html.

I know several families that placed a large world map on their dining room table. They covered it with rolled plastic, cut to size, from a fabric store. The maps could be changed weekly or monthly, providing interesting dinner time conversation topics. I've also found dollar store place mats that displayed maps and historical facts.

Quality textbooks can provide a guidebook to history and geography. If we had a question, we looked it up. We found that textbooks written for older students generally provided a more complete picture and were written in a more interesting manner. Since we studied the text together, it didn't matter that the reading level was advanced. You can save money by borrowing textbooks from friends or buy textbooks at a used book store, library sale, or discount outlet. Ask parents homeschooling older students for recommendations.

Our family enjoyed wooden map puzzles (from dollar stores), old atlases and almanacs (compare old maps with new maps), software borrowed from the library or received as gifts ("Travel the World with Timmy," "GeoSafari"), free software demos and downloads at Riverdeep (www.riverdeep.net) and even old board games from garage sales ("Game of the States" and "Go to the Head of the Class").

You can teach social studies without textbooks, especially in the early grades. For daily study, we used inexpensive workbooks, such as The Light and the Glory. We also enjoyed older literature sets, such as "The Bookshelf for Boys and Girls." We purchased our set at a garage sale for five dollars. Many literature sets include at least one volume with historical fiction and biographies. Our set included the volume titled Great Events and Famous People, published in 1958. You can also easily find biographies and geography in the Childcraft series, published by World Book. Find it at most libraries.

We borrowed biographies (such as the American Adventure Series), historical novels (the "Little House" series, History Mysteries, American Girl series, American Adventure series), and carefully selected movies from the library. Find supplemental reading through books such as Carolyn Hatcher's Let the Authors Speak, Revised: A Guide to Worthy Books Based on Historical Setting. We used the inter-library loan system to borrow resources from all around the United States. (Ask your librarian to help you do this.) We assigned reports and special projects that required researching a country or historical period.

Try these free and inexpensive social studies projects:

  • Learn social studies together as a family through vacations, international festivals, church mission materials, short-term missionary trips, history reenactments, and visits to firehouses, military posts and courtrooms.

  • Take advantage of holidays to study history. Many calendars list a holiday for every day of the year; some include unusual and foreign holidays. Often gift shops will give out free calendars around Christmas time. Simply look up information about specific holidays in an encyclopedia or on the internet. In an Internet search, include the word "free."

  • Make your own history paper dolls. Find pictures of clothing in the World Book, another encyclopedia, or an antique clothing book at the library. Use any set of paper dolls, and trace them to make historical clothing for them. To help paper dolls stand the test of time, laminate them or attach cardboard backs.

  • Selectively clip newspaper stories with a historical or geographical interest. Look up the location on a map.

  • If you watch the news or listen to news radio, ask your kids questions about what they hear and understand. You may be surprised by what they think!

  • Download free electronic books from the Internet. Check out the following websites for free electronic books: "Project Gutenberg, promo.net/pg/, or Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library, etext.lib.virginia.edu

  • Make your own "Game of the States." Use a large piece of cardboard from an old cardboard box. Draw a map of the U.S. Use index cards to make a card for each state. Take turns matching the state cards to the map. Make the game harder by writing the state capital and interesting facts on the back of each card. Download free electronic geography flash card demos at www.flashcardsonline.com/cards.html. Quiz each other.

  • Study "You Are there" or "which way" historical books from the library. Then write your own, using your child as the main character.

  • Kids may think history is boring - but not when they realize history involves them personally! Study your family genealogy together. Make a "Star Chart" or family tree, on a large piece of poster board, or newsprint. Place a picture or star next to each relative's name. Create your own All About Me or Where I Came From book. Go back into history as far as you can, connecting ancestors with important historical events. When you've traced your family tree back as far as possible, study the history of your earliest known ancestors. Learn as much as you can about your ancestor's geography, culture, and government. Then learn the history of previous cultures, even if you can't trace your ancestors directly. Most people are descended from many cultures. You could pick two or three to study each year. To find out more, look up books such as Climbing Your Family Tree, or Genealogy Made Easy.

  • Stamp collecting teaches history and geography and can be surprisingly affordable. Display stamps in an inexpensive paperback stamp album. I've occasionally found old stamp albums at used book stores. If you dredge up an old album, it will probably already contain stamps. (Most will be interesting, but worthless.) To learn more, borrow books on stamp collecting from the library. Ask relatives and friends (especially those who travel to foreign countries) to save stamps for you.

  • "Play history" with your kids. If you're studying the civil war, pretend to be a Civil War general and act out the Battle of Gettysburg. How about the Boston Tea party? You might throw a few tea bags into the bathtub together! Cardboard and old clothing make great props. Use your imagination. Make sure your kids understand the purpose of all this fun. Ask questions about what they learned.

Try the links below, for social studies standards, testing and curriculum selection.

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