One of my favorite memories from when I was a fourth-grade student was the day our teacher put us into groups and let us play in the sand. Well, she did not exactly let us play in a sandbox. There was a purpose.
We were to work together as early settlers to create a civilization. We had to use various items to create our brave new world, and we had to use critical thinking to place buildings, roads, and public services in places that made sense—not just wherever we thought they would look good. Later that year, we probably took some tests on Scantrons and most likely a state-sponsored standardized test. I don’t remember. However, I do remember working in groups to create a simulation of pioneers building a new life together.
What Do Simulations Look Like in the Classroom?
Role-play and simulations are engaging and fun methods that encourage students to be creative, think critically, and explore their world. There are many comprehensive and research-proven lessons that captivate students and build easier into your curriculum. You can find packaged ones online or make one yourself. Some of my favorite ones are created by the students themselves.
Role-play and simulations place the learner into an experience where they exhibit some autonomy in their learning within parameters set by the instructor. Students construct much of their own learning. Younger students might find value in games or acting out roles. Older students can work with case studies or conduct interviews.
When creating simulations, remember to be sensitive to historical and cultural situations and events. The idea is to create a safe learning space for students who can use their talents to learn a skill or process. Some topics are just not good for students to role-play. However, there are important issues that can be discussed through simulation and allowing students to do some role-playing can also work for social-emotional learning.
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Simulation-Based Activity Examples
One of my favorite simulations is to have students create movie trailers for a historical event, person, or issue. Students work in groups to create the script and video the scenes. An alternate version has them creating multimedia forms of advertisement for the event or about the person in a format similar to creating a movie poster. This allows for creativity as well as critical thinking. I also enjoy having students create a public relations campaign for an issue or event and even take that further with a debate or case study.
For many years, online simulations such as those for The Oregon Trail or The Stock Market Game have been popular. I like to find online versions such as historysimulation.com. They have a variety for different needs in social studies, but they do come at a cost. Some, however, are free. Believe it or not, Oregon Trail is still available for those who want their students to experience an updated version of the classic pioneer game. Mission US has five versions covering different time periods in US history, from the Revolutionary War to the Great Depression. Race to Rectify is a great game for civics students to learn about the ratification process. Death in Rome is a fun interactive mystery set in ancient Rome with clues and eyewitness accounts. The Washington State Social Studies Council also has a plethora of ideas in its online database.
My other favorite activity is to have students recreate an event. For example, each year my students “pick” sides in World War I. We move the desks to the edges of the room, and students create trenches out of cardboard and poster board. They litter no-man’s-land and hunker down in their trenches. Students write letters home, talk about the harsh conditions, and share newspapers from home describing the modern war. We reenact the Christmas truce and share photos and letters from the actual war. As we talk about parts of the war, students move the trenches slightly, and the Russian front completely disappears. It is a great visual to truly understand the problems in fighting a two-front war. The fresh Americans come running in, and the war eventually ends. Students are then interviewed by the press back home about the war, why it is the “war to end all wars,” and if they think that will be true. My principal fell in love with this activity after he figured out we definitely were not going to be throwing things at one another. Students look forward to this activity each year and mention it years later. They never mention that Scantron test we took.
Making learning more engaging will increase real-world relevancy, critical thinking, and problem-solving. If we want students to truly master a standard, we need to embed them in that standard and let their minds open up to a new experience.
Tama Nunnelley taught geography and history in Guntersville, Alabama, for twenty-six years, where she encouraged her students to be lifelong explorers and to push past fear to reach their goals. She empowered her students to find their voice and tell their story. Tama is a trainer for the National Geographic Educator Certification Program, a 2015 National Council for Geographic Education distinguished teacher, past president of the Alabama Social Studies Council, and co-coordinator of the Alabama Geographic Alliance. Currently she teaches online for the state ACCESS program, serves as an adjunct in the Department of Geography for the University of North Alabama, and is creating a seventh-grade online geography course for ACCESS.