How to Make Government a Class Favorite

Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy

What comes to mind when you think about planning and teaching a unit on government? At a recent social studies conference, we polled a large room full of teachers. The most frequent responses were ìboring,î ìdry,î ìall about authority,î ìquestionable office holders,î and ìa turn-off for students.î Only a few teachers had positive feelings about the topic. In contrast, a class of first and second graders, at the conclusion of their three-week unit of study on the topic of government, voted it as one of their favorite social studies experiences of the year. What can make the difference?


Powerful Social Studies Teaching

We encourage teachers to revisit the five elements of powerful social studies teaching (meaningful, active, challenging, integrative, and value-based) endorsed by the National Council for the Social Studies and plan accordingly.1 For example, to be meaningful and engaging, content must connect to the studentsí lives. Students in the unit we describe have the opportunity to monitor their day from the time they get up until they go to bed. They come to realize that nonflammable pajamas, safe foods, seat belts, and stop signs are all the result of regulations provided by the government for peopleís protection and safety.

Active teaching involves a walk to the local police station or library to learn what services these institutions provide and how they are financially supported. Students learn that such services are too costly for most families to purchase individually; therefore, the government uses taxpayer money to provide these services for everyone.

Students can learn about local government leaders, what they do, and how they are selected. Visits to governmental offices, classroom visits by local leaders, photos, and taped interviews can be used. One parent said that he got interested in learning more when ìMy son knew the name of the township supervisor and even pointed out his picture in the newspaper. I knew I wasnít as involved in the local government as I should be.î

Integrating this unit of study with the rest of the curriculum can occur through the use of childrenís literature selections and writing activities as well as through instruction about the funding of services through taxes and the percentage designated for each service. Finally, the unit provides many opportunities for examining values. Families are asked to discuss which of their local community services they rank most important and why, and a lesson entitled ìPeople Solve Problems Togetherî helps students to realize that the government cannot do everything and to appreciate the role of volunteerism. With parental support, students can experience first hand what it means to provide community service.


Textbook Treatment of Government

Elementary social studies textbooks tend to sprinkle bits and pieces of the topic of government across chapters, without developing it as a topic to be examined in depth. Even if it is developed as a unit of study, the content tends to be far removed from childrenís lives. For example, in one kindergarten series there is a lesson ìRules and Rule Makersî in a unit ìI Know How to Get Along With Others,î and a lesson on the Pledge of Allegiance in a unit entitled ìI Know Where I Am.î For first graders, there is a lesson on following the rules in a unit entitled ìSchool Daysî and a unit entitled ìMy Country, My Heroesî with heavy emphasis on the Pledge of Allegiance, Independence Day, and America the Beautiful through literature. The book for second grade students devotes an entire unit to ìBeing a Good Citizen,î with lessons devoted to ìProud Americansî and ìCountryís Government,î ìCommunity Government, and Our Freedoms.î The third grade book scatters government across the units. There is a lesson ìCommunities are Built for Governmentî in a unit ìWhere People Start Communities,î and a unit ìLiving Together in a Community, State, and Nationî that heavily emphasizes the structure of government.

Overall, textbook treatments focus on branches of government, government leaders and what they do, patriotism, rules and laws, problem solving, and voting. While most of the content of these chapters is worthwhile, the approach seems to lack the grounding and context that defines government within childrenís own world. It is for that reason that we use cultural universals as organizers for social studies units for the early grades.


Cultural Universals

Anthropologists and other social scientists often refer to cultural universals (sometimes called ìsocial universalsî or ìbasic categories of human social experienceî) as useful dimensions for understanding a given society or making comparisons across societies.2 Cultural universals are domains of human experience that have existed in all cultures, past and present. They include activities related to meeting the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as family structures, government, communication, transportation, money or other forms of economic exchange, religion, occupations, recreation, and perhaps others as well. The term implies that activities relating to each cultural universal can be identified in all societies, but not that these activities necessarily have the same form or meaning in each society. On the contrary, it recognizes variations among societies (as well as among individuals within societies) in orientation toward or handling of common life events associated with each cultural universal. (For example, government structures are universal and affect childrenís lives everywhere, but different forms of government exist in different parts of the world).

Cultural universals have special importance for early elementary social studies because much of the basic content taught in the primary grades focuses on them. Teaching students about how their own and other societies have addressed the human needs associated with cultural universals is an effective way to establish an initial knowledge base in social studies, preparing the way for the more discipline-based courses of the middle and upper grades.

First, human activities relating to cultural universals account for a considerable proportion of everyday living and are the focus of much of human social organization and communal activity. Thus, instructional units on cultural universals provide many natural starting points for developing initial social understandings. Until they understand the motivations and cause-and-effect explanations that underlie these activities, children do not understand much of what is happening around them all the time. As young students develop such understanding, the previously mysterious behavior of their parents and other significant adults in their lives becomes comprehensible, and they become equipped with intellectual tools that will enable them to begin to develop efficacy in these domains.

Second, children from all social backgrounds begin accumulating direct personal experiences with most cultural universals right from birth, and they can draw on these experiences as they construct understandings of social education concepts and principles in the early grades. If cultural universals are taught with appropriate focus on powerful ideas and their potential life applications, all students should be able to construct basic sets of connected understandings about how our social system works (with respect to each cultural universal), how and why it got to be that way over time, how and why related practices vary across locations and cultures, and what all of this might mean for personal and group decision making.


Government: A Unit Description

Following are lesson topics and goals for the government unit that we designed and then observed being implemented in the classroom. First and second graders voted the unit among their favorite social studies experiences of the year.3 There are two striking differences between this unit and the material on government found in many textbooks. First, the unit is much more personal. Second, the content is developed in depth by focusing on big ideas over a concentrated two- to three-week period and using literary connections to promote meaningfulness (Sidebar 1).

Lessons One, Two, Nine, and Ten are featured in this article because they illustrate our attempts to convey the ìhere and nowî meaning of citizenship to early elementary students and to promote a sense of efficacy in this domain.4 We begin the first lesson by emphasizing that students are members of their classroom community as well as the larger community that incorporates their homes and businesses. As members (citizens) of this community, they are expected to follow its rules, which are designed to help people get along, keep things fair, protect individual and public property, and keep people safe. The larger community has rules and laws for similar reasons. Just like in the classroom, good citizens in the adult world are respectful, responsible, and think and act for the good of the community. As part of their first home assignment, students are encouraged to discuss with their families how they practice being good citizens in their community.

With that context in place, students are ready to think about the community services that are provided locally, how they make the community a better place, and how they are financed. This is the focus of Lesson Two. Students learn that different communities have different needs based on their location and size, and that families often select the communities they live in based on services available. They also learn that families pay money to the community. This money is called taxes and is used for the community services. Every community elects leaders who make plans and laws and provide services that people would find difficult to provide for themselves.

The students and the teacher generate a list of community services provided by local governments. Using a map of the local community, photos of the places where services are provided, and job descriptions of service providers (for example, firefighter, police officer, town librarian, etc.), students begin to realize how these individuals, paid by tax money, work to meet the needs of the community. Nonfiction childrenís literature can be used to focus on specific community helpers. As part of a home assignment, families discuss which community services they particularly value and why, underscoring that these services are funded by the tax money that they pay to the government.

After students have been exposed to familiar and not-so-familiar community services that provide things families couldnít afford on their own, they are ready to learn about local governmentís role in providing rules and laws that keep us safe. They learn that local leaders are paid (as professionals) to make sure that life in the community allows people to carry out their daily activities in a safe and orderly environment. They are paid with tax money collected by the local government. Students are introduced to a local government leader by having a guest speaker visit the classroom, taking a field trip to a government office, or studying photos and listening to a taped interview.

Students learn that the leaders of the community have three basic jobs: make plans and laws, solve problems, and make the community a pleasant place to live. These leaders make the rules that become laws that need to be followed by everyone. Laws protect the rights of the people. Some protect property (for example, zoning), others protect health (for example, pollution ordinances) or safety (for example, speed limits). Often there are signs in our communities to remind us of what we should and should not do (for example, ìNo littering, $100 fine,î ìSpeed Limit, 30 mph., ìHandicapped Parking Only,î ìPark Closes at 10 p.m.,î or ìNo dumpingî).

Students learn that laws help guide our lives and remind us of our responsibilities toward other people. The police and judges who enforce the laws are also part of the local government. Once a law is made, there is a penalty for breaking it (for example, people can get ticketed and have to pay fines for speeding, littering, or parking illegally). Laws are intended to make the community a better place, not merely to limit behavior. To illustrate this, students select particular laws and discuss why they exist (for example, What would happen if people drove at any speed they wanted or ignored stop signs?)

After students have developed an understanding of and appreciation for their local government, they are ready for lessons on state and national government, and on voting as a part of practicing responsible citizenship. Only then will students be ready for lessons about government as it relates to the nationís history. It is within this framework that they are introduced to symbolism, patriotism, and historical events that they may have heard about before they had a context for making connections. Exposure to a broad brush historical overview, using pictures, narratives, and graphics (like a timeline), sets the stage for helping students to begin to understand democracy and to contrast it with forms of government that exist in other parts of the world. Students are introduced to the idea that with rights come responsibilitiesóamong them to help pay for services and to respect the laws that the people, through their government, have agreed to live by.

Lesson 9 focuses on the functions of government regulations, to help students appreciate that rules and laws are not just restrictions. They are designed to help people get along, keep things fair, protect individual and public property, and keep people safe. To illustrate the value of government regulations, one of the students is followed through his or her daily activities, using a photo essay. Links are made between routine activities (eating, riding on a bus, watching television) and the government regulations that make them possible in a modern society (Sidebar 2). Students may develop similar lists as they work with their families on a homework assignment.



After students begin to understand and appreciate the importance of government and how its work is reflected in our lives, the teacher should point out that governments cannot do everything and help students understand and appreciate the value of volunteerism. Lesson 10, ìProblem Solving Together,î teaches that when enough people volunteer to solve a problem, the need for making more laws or raising taxes to pay for additional services is lessened. Individuals can personally contribute time and money to help solve problems that affect members of the community. Even children can do things in their free time to make their community a better place.

While there is a range of possibilities for engaging early elementary students in volunteer initiatives, the class we observed focused on reuse and recycling. The teacher showed photos and provided real-life examples of volunteers who have joined together to reduce pollution (for example, students were encouraged to bring their lunches to school in reusable containers and to sort their trash into two binsóone for trash and one for paper). The teacher explained that some people in their community, in their free time and without getting paid, help in recycling projects, tutor students, transport food to the homebound, help care for stray animals, visit patients in hospitals, teach English to immigrants, and help operate polling places on election day (to list a few examples of volunteerism).

The members of one class we observed brainstormed what they could do as volunteers to fight pollution. They decided that they would work with adult volunteers to sort trash and place it in the proper recycling bins. They agreed to adopt reusable lunch containers as well as to collect and use recyclable items for art projects. They also wrote letters to their families explaining their volunteer efforts and suggesting how family members could participate and display positive citizenship. The teacher provided an array of childrenís literature books that piqued studentsí interests in volunteer activities that can make a difference in solving local problems (without requiring new laws).


Summary and Conclusion

It is possible to teach students about government earlier in the elementary years—and to do so with enthusiasm and excitement. We believe that the key is to relate government to the students’ lives by emphasizing its functions: how government helps us, protects us, and provides services that children and families need or want, but cannot acquire or afford on their own. As students make these connections, they develop a sense of efficacy that translates into expressions of appreciation, such as “I understand,” “I can explain,” “I can see how the government influences my life,” or “I can volunteer even as a child because government can’t do everything.” If you enable your students to make such connections, you too might see them vote on this government unit as one of their favorites. Perhaps some of them will be encouraged to serve in a leadership capacity when they grow up.



1. NCSS Task Force on Standards for Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies, ìA Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building Social Understanding and Civic Efficacy,î Social Education 57, no. 5 (September 1993): 213-223.

2. Donald Brown, Human Universals (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991).

3. For the complete unit of study, see Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy, Social Studies Excursions, K-3, Book Three: Powerful Lessons on Money, Childhood, and Government (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, in press).

4. James Banks, Teaching Strategies for Social Studies: Inquiry, Valuing, and Decision Making, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 1990).


Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy are professors in the department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Sidebar 1

Lesson Topics

Lesson Number Topic

1 Government: A Cultural Universal

2 Community Services Provided by the Local Government

3 The Local Government Makes Plans and Laws

4 State Government Handles Matters that Affect People Throughout the State

5 National Government: Attempts to Help All U.S. Citizens

6 Voting and Elections

7 History of Government

8 Governments Around the World

9 Functions and Services of Government: Paying for Services

10 Functions and Government Regulations

11 People Solve Problems Together

12 Government: A Cultural Universal

From: J. Alleman and J. Brophy, Social Studies Excursions, K-3, Book Three: Powerful Lessons on Money, Childhood, and Government (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, in press).

Sidebar 2

How Government Rules and Regulations Affect a Young Student’s Life

1. The child wakes up in a house or apartment that has passed inspection by the government indicating that it is safe to live in. (It is a sound structure, the roof doesn’t leak, the electrical wiring is safe, etc.). The government often helps families get loans to purchase a home and provides funds to rebuild some neighborhoods.

2. The child brushes his or her teeth. The tap water is supplied by the local government and tested to make sure it is safe to drink. The toothpaste and toothbrush have been reviewed by the government to see that they are made from non-hazardous materials and are safe to use.

3. The child sits down to cereal and milk, which have been inspected and are safe to consume. The Departments of Commerce and Agriculture oversee the inspections.

4. The child gets dressed for school. In checking the labels of the clothing, children may find that the items have been inspected for safety and meet a certain standard (imposed by the government).

5. The child’s lunch money consists of coins and currency minted by the U.S. government.

6. The child goes to the bus stop and waits for the school bus. A police officer drives by. The government is responsible for making sure that the school bus is safe for passengers, that the driver has earned a license to drive a bus (not just a car), that the roads are safe, and that the rules and laws regarding driving are enforced.

7. The child enters the classroom and once again encounters influence of the government. The United States and the individual states have departments of education that make sure that teachers have the proper education and certification, that suitable instructional materials are available, that school is in session for a certain number of days every year, and that students have access to certain curriculum materials (for example, an approved textbook series).

8. The child is asked to take a note to the school secretary. The government makes sure that she and all other school employees have safe and healthful working conditions. The laws also ensure a minimum hourly wage, overtime pay, and freedom from employment discrimination. They provide unemployment insurance benefits to workers who lose their jobs, and workers’ compensation payments when workers are ill and cannot work.

9. The child goes to lunch, where all of the foods have been tested or inspected and government regulations ensure that the meals are nutritionally balanced.

10. After school, the child watches television. The government (FCC) regulates what type of programs can be seen at certain hours of the day and leases radio bands to certain companies.

11. Later, the family goes to a restaurant for dinner. Foods have been inspected for safety; the restaurant has been inspected for sanitation; and its workers must have attained a certain age and are guaranteed by the government to experience certain working conditions. The heating and lighting in the restaurant have been regulated by the U.S. Department of Energy, and the money exchanged was made by the U.S. Treasury Department. A tax is added to the cost of the meal.

12. The child puts on his or her pajamas, which are nonflammable, being made of a special fire-resistant material.