Learning from the Buildings Around Us


Colin K. Ducolon

Where do you live? How do you get there? How has your home changed over time? Do you know of other homes that have changed over time? Who built them? Who lives there now and who lived there before? When was your house built? When were changes made? What is interesting about your home’s style or design? Why was your home built where it is? Why was your home built as it was? What is interesting about your home?

These are questions I use with my education majors to help them think about the buildings where they live, and to develop lessons on “buildings” for elementary students that connect to themes within the Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.1 We begin our study of buildings with what we know best, our homes. The dorm is the focus for the college student, just as the family home is the focus for the young child.

Asking Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why questions encourages learners of all ages to find out more about the buildings around them. This article describes some of the activities we have done in our weekly social studies methods class, links them to the NCSS Standards, and suggests ways such activities can help young children explore and learn about their own homes and neighborhoods.

Our college campus is in the middle of the “hill section” of Burlington, Vermont, where the lumber barons and businessmen of the late 1800s built large Queen Anne and Shingle style homes. South Willard Street, once known as the “street of wealth,” now makes up the center of our campus.2 Many of these gracious mansions have been purchased and renovated, and are now used as student dormitories by our college.

Young children can also explore changes in their own homes and neighborhoods over time, using questions such as those above. These questions lead children into homework problems, worksheets, maps, murals, and timelines that help them visualize how their own home and/or its neighborhood have changed over the years.


Investigating Time, Continuity, and Change

My college students usually begin our study of houses with a walk around the campus. Each student carries either a photo of a specific building to find or a campus map for locating particular buildings. Younger children find it easier to use photos in locating buildings in their neighborhoods, while following a map challenges older children.

In our neighborhood walks with elementary school students, we provide photos of homes, stores, and public buildings for them to find. Once the buildings are found, we encourage students to sketch the building, noting placement of doors, windows, signs, and special design characteristics. Simple labels are added, and comparisons of these buildings are made during group sharing times.

We also ask children to bring in older photos of their homes and/or buildings in their neighborhood to compare likenesses and differences. Some questions we pose for them include the following: Can you tell how old a building is just by looking at it? What is the same or different in the two photos? How do you think the inside of the building has changed? Why do you think the changes were made?

Children create timelines with these old and current photos, arranging them in sequential order and dictating descriptions and stories that emphasize change. “The shutters are gone.” “The windows are bigger.” “It’s a different color.” “The outside walls look different.” “Where is the garage?” “Is that a new room?” These are some of the comparative observations children make as they arrange the photos and write descriptions.

Photos provide many opportunities for learning. Children classify by location (all those buildings on the west or lake side of your street) by type of building (single family home, apartment house, commercial building) or by building material (brick, stone, wood). They also use contemporary and older photos for storytelling (My Home, Today and Long Ago) or building timelines (drawing pictures and writing descriptions of how one’s home or other houses changed over their lifetime). Our college students have developed matching games for elementary students they teach. Kindergarten students match photos of the same neighborhood building taken from different angles, first and second graders match current and older photos of the same building, and third graders match photos with architectural features.

The student teachers have also developed Venn diagrams that help children compare and contrast building design and use, architectural characteristics, and time periods. Children are asked to sort by labels as varied as nineteenth or twentieth century, New England Cape or Queen Anne style, and private home or commercial building. Discussion can become heated as children decide just where to place a particular photo.

Working with entire units on their particular elementary school, children discover its history, identify its design features, and reflect on its unique place in their community. Teachers and principals have been interviewed, retired teachers have visited classes, and parents have written what they remember about attending the same school years previously. Children love hearing stories of what life was like a long time ago, especially when it relates directly to their school and neighborhood. Student teachers and young children begin to realize that the relative value of a neighborhood school may be affected by its size, its location, and its use as a community resource.

My college students use building outlines to locate specific architectural characteristics of Queen Anne and Shingle style architecture as they walk around the campus.3 Fifteen of the 25 nineteenth century buildings at Champlain College have elements of these two styles. Because many of the homes around Burlington have similar nineteenth century styles, the student teachers can easily use such outlines to help young children locate architectural features on their own homes and neighborhood buildings.

We have found that children’s drawings become much more precise and detailed when specific architectural features are added and labeled. We have seen first and second graders draw and label mansard or overhanging roofs, oriel or bay windows, and wood or aluminum shingles on their drawings. When these drawings and descriptions are assembled into a book, teachers and parents have concrete evidence of the integrated learning that has taken place and how it fosters the study of people, places, and environments.


Acquiring Geography Skills

Maps provide symbolic representations of community streets and buildings that older children can use as models to create their own maps. A bird’s-eye view of one’s neighborhood can be a difficult perspective for children to understand, so we often begin with mapping the primary classroom or students’ own room at home. Children carefully draw their furniture, wall posters, carpets, and floor coverings in creating simple two-dimensional room maps. They soon are able to draw similar maps of their neighborhoods.

As they progress in map making, children begin to understand and use map symbols, scale, and compass directions in reading commercial maps and in constructing their own more complex community maps. They use colors, shapes, and designs to create map legends. Their use of large sheets of graph or grid paper helps them place buildings in more precise locations. We have even used trundle wheels to determine distances on campus, and have taken these wheels into the schools to do similar measuring for making maps of classrooms and neighborhoods. Drawing a map to scale is a challenge that many third graders love.

The college students have made large three-dimensional models of their college dormitory buildings and then used them to create the campus within our college classroom. Furniture becomes street signs, and the floor is turned into roads and parks.

We carried this idea into one of our inner-city kindergarten classrooms. When the neighborhood study was completed, children hated to remove the street and parking signs, the roadways and streets taped to the floor, and the large models of their homes carefully placed throughout the room. Their classroom had become their neighborhood.

Often, parents and children work together to make their neighborhood building model just right, and many youngsters go back to their special community building several times to carefully note placement of windows, doors, and special architectural features. Before children place these models on flattened refrigerator boxes or directly on the floor, street layouts are carefully planned and executed.

It is the addition of architectural features and terms, dates when buildings were constructed, and uses of buildings over time to these models that really connects and integrates the many aspects of social studies for both the college student and the young learner. Their photos, maps, models, and drawings demonstrate the effective integration of NCSS Standard 3 People, Places and Environments into our study of the buildings in a neighborhood.


Personalizing the Past

Using the oral history experience, we compare life in the late 1800s with life in the more recent past and today. What did you do after you got home from school each day? Where did you go on Saturday mornings? When did you have to go to bed at night or get up in the morning? With the help of student teachers, young children use audio and video tape recorders to gather such information. Or, these questions are parts of letters that children write to older family members who live far away. The need to write letters to family members is indicative of how the extended family has changed over time, and this, too, becomes a topic of discussion in primary classrooms.

An early homework assignment for my college students is to research two “facts” about a building on campus: one historical, using one of the three books on Burlington buildings (Theme 2 Time, Continuity, and Change); and one personal, from their own experience or a friend’s (Theme 4 Individual Development and Identity). We use these facts, along with photos and drawings, to make our Champlain College Campus Big Book.

Young children also research such facts as they study historical buildings in their own neighborhoods. They visit local historical centers, interview citizens, and complete research in special sections of their town libraries. The town historian or town clerk in small Vermont towns often has a wealth of information for children wondering what their town was like a long time ago.

The Big Book created in our college class becomes the model for the children’s own Big Books titled The Buildings in our Neighborhood or Our Town, Yesterday and Today. Elementary classrooms in our area have used these Big Books along with murals and timelines to share with parents at Open House and other community events.

More personal information about college dorms has included “stories” from resident hall directors or graduates who once lived there, and personal “feelings” about the building and its unique features from current students. When we adapt this idea for young children, we find they love to interview parents or grandparents about their own homes and the people who once lived there. Sometimes we add this information to our Big Books, and other times we create completion sentence strips or suggest journal topics to encourage writing.

After interviewing grandparents, children may complete “When my grandmother was a little girl, she . . .” or begin their journal entry with “Some of the changes in my neighborhood are . . .” They also enjoy creating their own stories about their homes. It is often these child-created stories based on interviews with neighborhood older citizens or from their own imaginations that have provided the most interesting material for children to incorporate into their own neighborhood books.


Extending the Study

A historical study may focus only on selected buildings and their architectural styles and characteristics, or the entire town or community. With the help of student teachers, children have made small pocket size books answering questions such as, How do you know it is old? How do you know it’s Queen Anne? Children answer by drawing specific design features and using new vocabulary to describe their discoveries. We have also made split-page books where we compare two buildings—a single family home and a large apartment complex or a Queen Anne style building with a Shingle style.

Sometimes my education majors study the six or seven most prominent architects working in the Burlington area at the end of the nineteenth century. Their lives, and the lives of the first homeowners, provide fascinating information for both themselves and young children. As we research, we may create fictional stories about the early occupants of our dorms (Theme 1 Culture; Theme 2 Time, Continuity, and Change; and Theme 3 People, Places, and Environments).

Two myths are shared about Jensen Hall, a house built in 1884. One suggests that the corner tower was built so that the owner could watch his fleet of boats on Lake Champlain, while another suggests that a daughter of an early owner was hanged in the tower. Young children are intrigued and eager to create their own tales about historic buildings in their neighborhoods. Some have written stories about people who once lived in their own homes (grandparents and great grandparents), while others have created tales about families who once lived nearby. In all cases, children are making a connection between their own lives and those who came before.

We have also used the CD-ROM Sim Town5 to explore how a community is created, the problems its citizens may face, and how these problems can be solved. Young children create their own town with this interactive, open-ended program. Their responsibilities as town builders include creating streets and parks, balancing population, planning homes and workplaces, and, most importantly, managing the resources of trees, air, and crops.

Children can also identify problems by asking questions. Is there a balance between homes and businesses? What if there aren’t enough jobs to support the families? Are there places for people to have fun? Are people creating too much pollution? What if we cut down all the trees to build more homes or businesses? Is there enough food and water for the town? Young children love building these towns, and are able to connect some of the issues they face in their imaginary towns to issues they and their parents face in their own communities.



Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why questions may help students of all ages focus attention on a wealth of community information. Curriculum does not need to come from a text. It is often all around us, and yet we miss it. Using the immediate environment is a motivating theme for study in our community, and it probably will be in yours, too.



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

2. David J. Blow, Historic Guide to Burlington Neighborhoods (Burlington, Vt.: Chittenden County Historical Society, 1990).

3. Historic Preservation Program, The Burlington Book (Burlington, Vt.: Department of History, University of Vermont, 1980).

4. Ibid.

5. Michael Bremer and Debra Larson, SIM Town, The Town You Build Yourself CD-ROM (Walnut Creek, Calif.: 1995).


Carlough, Peter. Bygone Burlington. Burlington, Vt: Queen City Printers, 1976.

Glover, David. Building. Ocala, Fla.: Action Publishing, l994.

Grimshaw, Caroline. Buildings. Chicago: World Book, 1997.

About the Author

Colin K. Ducolon is chairperson and professor of Early Childhood/Primary Education at Champlain College, Burlington, Vermont.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.