© 2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Toying with Ideas:

Board Games and Social Studies

Maria Elena Galvez-Martin

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” reads the aphorism. Many teachers would agree that there seems to be a link between intelligence and playfulness. Play has been defined as voluntary and intrinsically motivated, symbolic, meaningful, pleasurable, rule-governed, and episodic activity.1 Through play, children develop cognitive, language, creativity, memory, motor, and problem-solving skills. Playing with other children is the foundation of socialization.2 Piaget’s and Erickson’s theories support the notion that “play contributes to intellectual and psychological growth. Toys, therefore, have cognitive and symbolic value.”3

The use of toys in the elementary classroom has tremendous potential to help students learn and retain relevant social studies content. Especially at the elementary level, students can benefit from a hands-on approach to learning social studies by doing—not only by listening and reading. A challenge for teachers is to instill a playful situation with social studies content, to set up situations of “serious fun.”4 We do not need to rely on the more expensive educational toys; some familiar and inexpensive toys and games can be used to explore social studies concepts.

When introducing a toy or game into the classroom, let the children play with it in a spontaneous way, in as much as the toy or game will allow unstructured manipulation. In this way, students get to “discover” the toy or game and thus may feel some ownership of it, so that it seems more than just sterile classroom equipment.5 If a game is introduced, read the rules aloud, but allow the students to act in a playful manner, which may not initially include following the formal rules, but rather, moving pieces and cards about in an imaginative way.6 In this first stage of play, the teacher acts as an observer and participates only if the children ask for instruction or guidance.

After some free play, give directions on how the toy could be used to illustrate a specific event, fact, or concept depending on the toy that is being used. Then, again, let the children play. They will probably continue acting in a playful manner, but might want to learn more about the particular content as introduced by the teacher. At this point, the rules of a game, which the teacher can help interpret, should be followed exactly.

The teacher could ask individual students for feedback on the particular event, fact, or concept described earlier by the teacher and illustrated with the toy. A classroom discussion could follow. A child may then role-play or provide explanations of the content that was taught. Even at this point, the teacher should not provide too much overall structure to the play activity. A teacher may want to use the same toy over a period of several days in order to review and reinforce the content, as well as to extend the lesson.

Toys can be used at different moments in a lesson, that is to say, as an introduction to a particular topic, as the content of the lesson, or as a review of it. If possible, the toy or game could be made available after a unit of study has ended for use during recreational time. Finally, one could also find out whether many children have that toy or a similar one at home and suggest follow-up activities for those who do.

I have listed toys, games, and lesson plan ideas that I have used to teach concepts of history, geography, and economics in a course during the summer of 1997. I hope these activities will inspire teachers and their students to have some “serious fun” with social studies. G



1. D. P. Fromberg, “Play” in C. Seefeldt, ed., The Early Childhood Curriculum (New York: Teachers College Press, 1987).

2. M. B. Bronson, The Right Stuff for Children Birth to 8: Selecting Play Materials to Support Development (1995). (Available from ERIC Clearinghouse: document ED 390 573); G. G. Fein, “Learning in Play: Surfaces of Thinking and Feeling,” in J. L. Frost and S. Sunderlind, eds., When Children Play (Wheaton, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, 1985).

3. B. Mergen, Play and Playthings (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 104.

4. Dan Rea, “Serious Fun in Social Studies” Middle Level Learning 1, no. 6 (September 1999): 2.

5. B. Spodek and O. N. Saracho, “The Challenge of Educational Play” in D. Bergen, ed., Play as a Medium for Learning and Development (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, 1987).

6. N. Bennett, L. Wood, and S. Rogers, Teaching Through Play (Bristol, PA: Open University Press, 1997).


About the Author

Maria Elena Galvez-Martin, Ph.D., is the principal of Franklin Middle School in Springfield, Ohio.



The Egyptian/Mayan Dig

Manufacturer: Buried Treasures/Educational Insights

Grade Level: Lower and Middle

Subject Area: History


After spending some free time with parts of the game, assign students to groups of four.

Each student in a group digs Egyptian or Mayan archaeological treasures;

Each student researches information about the items of treasure;

Each student describes the work of an archaeologist;

Students report to their groups the information they have gathered about the archaeological treasure they have discovered.

In a class discussion, students describe the work of an archaeologist and compare it to that of a historian.


U.S.A. Puzzle Map

Manufacturer: Small World Toys

Grade Level: Lower and Middle

Subject Area: Geography


Give students about ten minutes to play and grow familiar with the puzzle.

The teacher calls out the name of a state, then students find that state and place it on the map. If there are not enough puzzles for each student to have one, place the students in groups of three or four and they can take turns choosing a puzzle piece.

(Note: For this lesson to be effective and achieve its objectives, the next three steps should take place over several days or weeks.) Ask students to disassemble the puzzle and repeat step 2, but this time students must correctly state the capital city of a state before placing the puzzle piece in its location.

Students disassemble the puzzle, then the teacher calls out the name of a state. Students place that state on the map, but then name the bordering states according to directions (the state to the north, south, east, and west) as they place these states on the map.

Students disassemble the puzzle, then the teacher calls out the name of a state. Before placing it in its correct location, students name at least one major economic product of that state.


The Magnetic State-to-State Game

Manufacturer: Smethport Specialty Co.

Grade Level: Lower

Subject Area: Geography


Give students about ten minutes to play and grow familiar with the game.

Have students play the game in groups of four, following the directions provided with the game.

After the game is over, each student gives a reason why they needed to travel (with the use of information provided in each magnetic state piece).

Using the pointer on the class map, each student indicates the travel route taken from the state of departure to the state of arrival.

Let students play the game once more. (Note: This lesson may be played over several class sessions in order to strengthen memory skills in terms of the location of states.)

Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? Jigsaw Puzzle

Manufacturer: Great American Puzzle Factory

Grade Level: Middle

Subject Area: Geography


Give students about ten minutes to play and grow familiar with the puzzle. Then, in pairs or in groups of four, the students assemble the puzzle.

Have students disassemble the puzzle and put it together while identifying continents and oceans.

Then, if possible, ask students to name the countries traced in each puzzle piece (this task would depend on the grade level).

Assign each group a continent. Each member of a group identifies one landmark, the “hiding place,” and the fictitious “thief.” The students take note of where the landmark was found and where it belongs (indicating the country).

Each student researches the characteristics of the landmark.

Each group reports their findings to the class.

(An extension to this lesson follows). Each student of the group selects a country from the assigned continent, then they must guess what each picture or drawing means as a representative feature of that particular country.

Students research a prominent geologic, cultural, or economic fact of the chosen country that is represented by the landmark.

Each student reports his or her findings to the class and displays a map (to scale) of the country, indicating where, on a world map, their country is located.


Junior Monopoly

Manufacturer: Parker Brothers

Grade Level: Lower and Middle

Subject Area: Economics


Give students about ten minutes to play with the game pieces.

Place students in groups of four and play the game following its rules.

After each group has finished playing the game, students discuss in their groups what they have learned about purchasing and selling.

In a whole-class discussion, students define the concepts of money, price, cost, purchase, and sale. (Other concepts that may be addressed include counting, producer, consumer, and investment strategy.)

Grocery Shopping

Grade Level: Lower and Middle

Subject Area: Economics


Students are split into two groups: consumers and store employees (cashiers).

Students arrange the classroom to look like a grocery store by setting up products with labeled prices, as well as some sale prices.

Consumers are given play money and a shopping list of things they must try to buy (they can buy additional things if money permits). One or two items should be in short supply.

Students play the parts of sales clerks and consumers.

The game ends when all the consumers have spent all their money.

Students discuss what happened and how things went on this grand day of shopping.

Students discuss and define the concepts of purchasing, selling, supply, and demand.

Students discuss the importance of doing grocery shopping with a shopping list and a budget. (Note: As follow up, the students could be asked to visit a grocery store with their parents, record the prices of some specific products, and then compare prices between stores.)