Teaching The Importance of Government to Third Grade Students

Leigh Anne Ashton

This article details my first effort, as a student teacher, to use experimental instructional strategies and local resources to teach social studies content and skills. I aimed to create an experience for students that would set the stage for the beginning of a six-lesson social studies unit on the importance of government. Government is usually thought to be an abstract concept for third grader students, who have little personal experience with the concept. Finding activities that enabled students to relate important ideas about government in their own lives was my task. Students frequently ask, “Why do we have to do this?” “Why do I have to follow the rules?” Being able to explain why we have rules and laws was the essence of our introductory study of government.

The goals of the unit of study were for students to be able to:

• identify the importance of government and the effect it has on their everyday lives;

• identify laws and leaders as two things needed for a government to run smoothly;

• state the importance of laws and explain what would happen if there weren’t any laws;

• explain the role of taxes for government;

• identify the specific obligations of local governments; and

• explain the importance of hearing both sides of an issue.


Free for All

A unit of study should begin with personal explorations that activate and illustrate students’ prior knowledge of the subject. For the first lesson, I gave students a board game to play, but I did not provide any rules. I simply told students that everyone had to participate in playing the game. I divided students into small groups, four students per group. I gave each group the game that I had assembled, which consisted of a laminated, open file folder with random spaces and stickers on it, dice, and some plastic game pieces from various board games. Not surprisingly, what resulted after fifteen minutes was chaos, with lots of bickering, confusion, arguing, and accusations.

Initially, the students seemed to really enjoy the idea of a game. When they heard “no rules,” the students’ eyes seemed to light up. But it didn’t take long for them to find out that the idea wasn’t as good as it first sounded! Even though the dynamics of each group were different, the ending results were the same.

“No, it’s my turn!” “You just went. It’s my turn!” “We don’t have to take turns because there aren’t any rules!” —were phrases that sounded throughout the groups. Also, there was the ever-popular dialog, “You can’t do that!” “Yes I can!” Some groups made up their own rules, and one group even voted on how to play! Looking around the room, it was evident that some students were really enjoying the opportunity to jump five spaces, or even to declare themselves the winner, because there weren’t any rules. Yet in that same room, there were students who were pouting and arguing. Before time was called, these students were muttering, “This isn’t fair! This game needs rules!”

I invited students to return to their seats and discuss the game. We talked about the strategies that each group came up with in trying to play the game and how they dealt with problems that arose. Then we applied the game experience to real life and asked, “If it is so important to have rules in a silly game, then doesn’t it make sense to have rules for a town? For a state? For a country? For the world?” Students nodded their heads in wholehearted agreement. Firsthand experience with what it is like NOT to have rules set the stage by reinforcing the importance and need for rules.


Some Beethoven

Lesson two utilized guided imagery to help the students further explore the reasons for having rules. Students closed their eyes and listened to a recording of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” for a few minutes. Then I read a script that, like the music, began happily and was relatively calming. The text was about a fictional class trip to an amusement park. At the end of the day, the students in the story were tired from the roller coaster rides. “Stay close together because now we have to walk back to our hotel!” announces the teacher. “This is a town without laws!”

I timed my reading of the story so that the music becomes faster and somewhat scarier at this point in my narration. In the story, cars are screeching down the street, racing each other and even flying up on the sidewalk! “Look out for that car! Whew, that was a close one!” I say. Students squealed and their faces revealed that they were responding to the scenes being described. Finally, the journey ends at the hotel and the teacher says, “Everyone brush your teeth and go to bed!” After a passage of soothing music, I told the students to open their eyes and write about how it would feel to visit this town, addressing four specific questions:

• How did you feel at the beginning of the story?

• How did you feel in the middle of the story?

• If this town were real, would you feel safe walking around its streets?

• How is the fictional town different from our town of Suncrest?

Every student reported that they would NOT feel safe in the fictional town.


Laws and Leaders

In lesson three, students recalled their feelings from the game without any rules and the city without laws, and concluded that communities also need rules. As a class, students brainstormed about what keeps a community running smoothly and came up with two main categories: laws and leaders. It was at this point that I introduced some vocabulary words, such as mayor, law, government, tax, vote, and elect. We read a section from the social studies textbook that discussed these terms. Finally, I asked students to imagine a town without any laws or leaders and asked them to write their own story about that town and what it would be like to visit there. In reading these stories aloud, a common theme emerged: After visiting a town without rules or laws, students would never return!


Today’s Mayor

Lesson four moved on to explore related questions, “What is needed to keep a city running? Who pays the leaders? Where does the money come from for salaries and services?” I listed important community services and discussed where tax dollars come from. Then I announced: “You have all just been elected mayor of your own town!” Students’ stares changed to smiles as I explained the assignment, “As mayor of a town you will make decisions about how to spend tax money.” I handed out the written scenario: “Your town needs to save money by shutting down one of its services. Which one would you shut down and why? What adjustments will the community have to make without the local government providing that service?” For assistance, students were told to consult the “Taxes and Services” diagram found in their social studies textbook, showing that everyone who owns property pays a tax, that the taxes go to the Town Hall, and then that the local government uses this money to provide services. The diagram listed various services such as road repair, libraries, schools and education, fire and rescue squad, parks and recreation, police service and traffic control, etc. Students struggled with this assignment and complained, “But they are all important!” Many students complained and said that these decisions were too difficult to make. The teacher said, “This is what mayors have to do every day! As mayor, you have to make the decision!” In the end, many students chose to shut down the park and rationalized it by saying the park was the least important and that people would have to play in their own yards or go to a different park in another town.


Scavenger Hunt

In order to get a better look at leaders and laws, and to become acquainted with the decisions of our local mayor, students visited our city’s web page and completed an “Internet Scavenger Hunt” in lesson five. Through this activity, students became acquainted with the local community while practicing their computer navigation skills. Before going to the computer lab, we discussed proper use of the Internet. Additional teachers were present in the lab at the time to monitor and assist students. At our town’s website, students clicked on the appropriate links and found the answers to questions such as, What is the population of Morgantown? Who is the mayor of Morgantown? Morgantown is home to what University? Suncrest Primary is located in the seventh ward. Who is our city council member? What three awards did Morgantown win?”

The last part of the scavenger hunt led students to the city guest book, where each signed in using only their first name and wrote a message. Students wrote that they were in third grade, had been studying about the importance of government, and stated something that they liked about the site.


Both Sides

For the final activity, the importance of hearing both sides of an issue was explained. Using puppets, the teacher presented two shows in lesson six. One was the traditional version of “Little Red Riding Hood” told from Little Red Riding Hood’s point of view, and the other was a story entitled “The Maligned Wolf,” which was told from the Wolf’s point of view. After the shows, students were questioned about how they felt about each of the characters. Responding to the original version, students called the wolf the “bad guy.” After hearing “The Maligned Wolf,” the students labeled Little Red Riding Hood the “bad guy.” I then asked the students, “How could this be? Does your experience of hearing these stories tell you anything about how important it is for a mayor or a leader to listen to both sides of an issue?”

I reminded students of how they felt at the beginning of the unit when they played the game without any rules. When students were arguing, each had a different view of how the board game could best be played. We then talked about how government leaders have to look at both sides in order to be fair, and that laws and rules have to be fair as well. Finally, students wrote their own “fractured fairy tale,” utilizing the concept of varying points of view. They chose a familiar story and wrote it from an unusual point of view. One student chose to write a parody of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” in which she had the bears break into Goldilocks’ home! I read many of their creative fairy tales aloud. I also asked students to think of examples in their own lives where they felt like someone didn’t listen to their viewpoint, and to identify and explain their own viewpoint as well as the viewpoint of the other person.



Overall, I think this unit was successful because it took a difficult topic for third grade students and made it interesting and relevant. I was pleased with the level of student involvement and enthusiasm, which helped to produce high quality work related to tasks of government and the leadership qualities needed by officials and the responsibilities and benefits citizens receive from government. Students came away from this unit with new respect for rules and why rules and laws are important. These experiences and attitudes provide students with an important knowledge base on which to build future learning of government.



1. The author wishes to thank host teachers Clorinda Ammons and Joyce Lang of Suncrest Primary in Morgantown, West Virginia, for their expertise and guidance, as well as Dr. Mary Haas at West Virginia University.

Leigh Anne Ashton graduated in May 2002 with a BA and an MA in Elementary Education from West Virginia University. She plans to begin her career as a kindergarten teacher at Dominion Trail Elementary in Ashburn, Virginia.