I will never forget the first time I asked first graders where Earth is. While some looked a bit puzzled by my question, others confidently pointed up. Up? Why of course, it is in outer space! Young children are expected to master map skills and to know where they live. If you have ever tried to teach little kids the names and layers of places in which they live, you will understand how very difficult that can be for both student and teacher! I have used songs, books, and the recent Me on the Map crafts and activities that are abundant on Pinterest! In spite of the fact that my students could create the visuals and sing the songs,most remained confused by the difference between city, county, state, country, and continent. At least by the end of the lessons they all pointed to the ground when asked where Earth is!
Now, I have an idea that I think may be just the answer to this difficult learning task for young children! The best part is the map skills can be incorporated into actions that will teach lessons far beyond the simple social studies standards of mapping. We spend so much time in school learning academic skills, that we often forget the importance of building social character skills in our children. Those skills are equally important or, perhaps, even more important in the education of the whole child. Our world is in great need of people who have developed empathy, responsibility, and a sense of caring. Would you rather guide your students to become excellent test-takers or excellent thinkers, problem solvers, and people? In teaching small children where they belong in the world, you can teach them that they and their actions can make a difference...
Begin with a song! Singer-songwriter, and my friend, John Farrell, has written a song that is perfect for this task. It's the Little Things puts into words and music the idea that when we work together, we can make this world a little better. Take the time to teach the song to your students. You can even add hand signs to make it more interesting!
Once your children know the song, introduce the concepts of space and community. To which communities do they belong? Family, neighborhood, class, school, town, state, country, and world are all communities which include your students. As they think of little things they can do to make the world a little better in their home, school, or town, they also will develop a sense of the place.
As the song says, it's the little things that make a difference. While the ideas need to come from the children, they can include simple ideas like making special cards for the lunch servers, leaving a treat for the custodian, taking the trash out at home without being asked, asking a new friend to play at recess, sharing toys, or writing a letter to Grandma.
Our school developed a special friendship with the residents of a nearby senior housing center. Classes visited to read or share holiday activities. They made May baskets and Christmas surprises to leave on the doorknobs of the residents. Other classes make sack lunches for our local soup kitchen for the diners to take home for an extra meal. The possibilities are endless! Just ask the kids! They will undoubtedly have more ideas than you can imagine.
One year we had an early snowstorm that broke many branches in our school arboretum. The damage was extensive. The first graders banded together to clean up the area, stacking all of the broken branches and debris in one corner by the gate for the building and grounds people to remove. The sense of ownership and pride was intense as the young students saw what they could accomplish together!
As the students successfully complete acts of kindness at home and at school, challenge them to think of things that might help in the larger community, country, or even the world. I was fortunate to loop with my class, keeping the same students two years in a row. My second grade students took on a local deer problem, creating a brochure to help people deal with the growing herd in our town. They took on a global problem as they created a video to ask for help in saving orangutans in Borneo by not purchasing products with palm oil. One of their favorites was learning good sportsmanship by offering a challenge to friends in Seattle during a Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl a few years ago. We lost, but the kids followed through with smiles as they wished their friends in the Northwest congratulations for the Seahawks win! Each of their actions was tied to a map as they developed an authentic sense of each place and how it related to them.
As you plan for the coming weeks, remember the hats your students wear... Can they make the world better as a neighbor, a friend, a family member, a class member, a school member, a citizen of the community, a citizen of the country, a citizen of the world? Even the youngest people can make a difference! As they take action, they will sort out their place in the world, and ultimately, make the world a little better!