Children, Technology and Social Studies

Teachers discover early in their careers that children can learn important citizenship lessons by exploring their own interests. Those who have encountered children’s fascination with books like Burton’s (1939) Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel know that student interests extend beyond gadgets and into technological change. The role of technology in our world and the civic implications that it holds for us can be explored through children’s literature which addresses: how things work, how technology affects everyday life, and how society shapes its technological future by building on the past.

Technology and How Things Work

Books which catalog technological inventions/products and illustrate how they work can be used
to stimulate student inquiry about how technology has changed to meet human needs. David Macaulay (1988) The Way Things Work, for example, cleverly illustrates a wide range of technology in action. Story lines explain how everything from airplane wings to wedges actually work. Older students and even adults find it difficult to put this book down. Teachers might also introduce young readers to Everyday Things and How They Work (Wilking, 1991) from the Tell Me About series by Warwick Press. The book responds to questions that students and young inventors ponder, like “How do light bulbs work?” and “How does a camera take pictures?” Similarly, Invention (Bender, 1991) catalogs devices used to accomplish routine but necessary tasks like calculating, weighing, and printing. Like the other books in the Eyewitness Books series, Inventions uses detailed photographic illustrations to provide an intriguing look at its subject.

Technology and Everyday Life

Teachers should consider the longer works of David Macaulay to build a connection between people, place, and technology, Mill (Macaulay, 1983), for example, traces the technological, economic, and social impact of a fictional mill in Rhode Island. Macaulay’s line art drawings are excellent and the story is intriguing. Books like The Magic Schoolbus at the Waterworks (Cole, 1991) also are useful to explain how present and past technologies influence our everyday lives. This particular book also leads students to understand how technology is used to protect people and the environment.
Several books may also be used to provide complementary insights into the technology of daily living like those seen in The Visual Dictionary of Ships and Sailing (1991) and Stephen Biesty’s Cross Sections: Man-of-War (Platt, 1993). In the Platt book, there is even a stowaway aboard ship which students can search for as they learn how sailors lived and worked on the seas.
Students can also see the development of civilization and technology in Cities Through The Ages, a series of selected architectural sites around the world. One example Umm El Madayan: An Islamic City Through the Ages (Ayoub, Binous, Gragueb, Mtimet, & Slim, 1993) utilizes line art drawings to reveal the way a city developed in the North African region. These books illustrate how place and technology can alter a location to meet human needs. Fictional Mediterranean, Northern European, and Central American cities are also represented in this series. Student interest in unique structures can be tapped through a book like The X-ray Picture Book of Big Buildings of the Ancient World (Jessop, 1993), which demonstrates how selected man-made creations influenced the lives of either their builders or residents.

Technology, Needs and Invention

Helping young citizens to see how people use technological inventions to address the problems of everyday life is an important part of social education. Tomorrow’s Technology (Math, 1992) builds on the assumption that the technological wonders of the future will emerge from the scientific speculation and tinkering of today. The author examines what new directions robotics, magnetic propulsion, and solar power might take in the years to come and how these inventions will change the ways in which people live.
Quality biographies of inventors can also introduce this valuable lesson to children. Freedman’s (1991) The Wright Brothers vividly recounts the story of the Wrights through words and photographs which illustrate the story. Outward Dreams (Haskins, 1991) profiles the Black inventors whose work has transformed American life, yet whose accomplishments are often absent from our history books. In this collection of biographies, upper elementary readers can “meet” the man who built the first model steam engine and the first woman to become a self-made millionaire through invention.
In addition to quality biographies of inventors, books which explore the connections between human needs and the invention process are also essential. Aaseng’s (1989) The Problem Solvers: People Who Turned Problems Into Products explores the invention process across several industries ranging from farm equipment to Astroturf. Children might also enjoy and profit from knowing stories behind the major technological influences of our lives. Eureka! It’s Television (Bendick & Bendick, 1993) tells the history of the development of television over the electronic era. This book is part of an entire series which illuminates the process of building ideas and inventions upon those of the past.


Children’s literature can lay a foundation for student explorations of technology and its impact on people’s lives. Whether it is building upon a child’s interest in machinery or exploring the impact of technology over time, picture and storybooks can add to students’ understanding of the social context in which technology operates.

Although these books have been categorized, it is important to remember that books may be useful at several levels. Designations are provided for readers’ convenience.
P = Primary (grades 1, 2, 3)
I = Intermediate (grades 4, 5, 6)
A = Advanced (grades 7, 8, 9)

Aaseng, N. (1989). The problem solvers: People who turned problems into products. Minneapolis: Lerner. I
Ayoub, A., Binous, J., Gragueb, A., Mtimet, A., & Slim, H. (1993). Umm El Madayan: An Islamic city through the ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. All
Bender, L. (1991). Invention. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. All
Bendick, J., & Bendick, R. (1993). Eureka! It’s television. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook. I
Bendick, J., & Bendick, R. (1992). Eureka! Its an airplane. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook. I
Burton, V. L. (1939). Mike Mulligan and his steamshovel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. All
Cole, J. (1986). The magic school bus at the waterworks. New York: Scholastic. I
Freedman, R. (1991). The Wright brothers: How they invented the airplane. New York: Holiday. I-A
Haskins, J. (1991). Outward dreams: Black inventors and their inventions. New York: Walker. All
Hernández, X., Comes, P., & Ballonga, J. (1990). Barmi: A Mediterranean city through the ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. All
Hernández, X., Ballonga, J., & Cornii, F. (1991). Lebek: A city of northern Europe through the ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. All
Hernández, X., Ballonga, J., & Escofet, J. (1992). San Rafael:
A central American city through the ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. All
Jessop, J., & Salariya, D. (1994). The x-ray picture book of big buildings of the ancient world. New York: Franklin Watts. I
Macaulay, D. (1983). Mill. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. I-A
Macaulay, D. (1988). The way things work: From levers to lasers, cars to computers – A visual guide to the world of machines. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. All
Math, I. (1992). Tomorrow’s technology: Experiments with the
science of the future. New York: Scribner’s Sons. I
Platt, R. (1993). Stephen Biesty’s cross sections: Man-of-war. London: Dorling Kindersley. All
Platt, R. (1991). The visual dictionary of ships and sailing. London: Dorling Kindersley. All
Wilkins, M. J. (1991). Everyday things and how they work.
New York: Warwick. I
About the Authors
Robert H. Lombard, Associate Professor at Western Illinois University, teaches courses in
elementary social studies and
global education.

Tom McGowan is Associate Professor at Arizona State University. He teaches courses
in elementary social studies and
literature-based instruction.

Meredith J. McGowan is a librarian and consultant in Tempe, AZ.