Pushing the Boundaries of Elementary Social Studies Education: Teaching Young Children about Borders and Freedom

Greer Burroughs, Marissa Bellino, Morgan Johnston, Catarina Ribeira, Marci Chanin, Briana Cash, and Ellen Cahill 
The College of New Jersey, Ewing NJ
Bradford School, Montclair NJ
Edison Township School District, Edison NJ

The topic of immigration, who has a right to come to this country and who has a right to stay, has been at the heart of heated and emotional debates across the United States. In the summer of 2018 images and stories of children separated from their families at the southern border filled news and social media outlets. At the same time, the murder of a 20-year old woman in Iowa by an undocumented immigrant, led to calls for tighter border controls and for the governor of the state to proclaim that she was, “angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community,” (Klein & Smith, 2018). In recent years the nation has witnessed a series of executive orders to limit immigration from many majority Muslim nations, cuts to the numbers of refugees the U.S. will accept, a series of court challenges to these policies, increased arrests by ICE (Bialik, 2018) and outrage and protests from supporters on all sides of these issues. It is within this context that young children across the U.S. are developing a sense of what it means to be an “American”. A primary purpose of public education is to prepare individuals to be responsible citizens in this pluralistic, democratic nation, therefore schools should not shy away from addressing these issues.

Discussing controversial issues may seem daunting, or even out of place in elementary school. However, the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) theme of Power, Authority and Governance, calls on educators to teach children about the functions of government, legitimate use of political power, how individual rights are protected and the conflicts that may arise when advancing fundamental principles and values in a constitutional democracy. The standards state that “through the study of the dynamic relationships between individual rights and responsibilities, the needs of social groups, and concepts of a just society, learners become more effective problem-solvers and decision-makers when addressing the persistent issues and social problems encountered in public life” (National Council for the Social Studies, 2010). Despite this charge, many elementary school educators avoid topics that can be deemed too political or upsetting to younger audiences (Zimmerman & Robertson, 2017). This stance turns a blind eye to the reality that these events touch the lives of children in many ways. Some children have experienced separation from family members or have fears members of their family or community will face deportation. Many children are exposed to unsettling images in the media or hear discussions among adults that may be laced with anger and fear. Avoiding controversial societal issues is, in part, to deny children’s awareness of their surroundings and can limit opportunities to help children make sense of difficult topics (Passe, 2008). Addressing these topics can be a vehicle to teach valuable concepts and skills of democratic citizenship (Harwood & Hahn, 1990; Parker, 2006).

In this article, we share lessons designed and implemented by a team of educators to address forced migration, asylum seeking, national borders and concepts of power and freedom with children in grades 2-4. Through the collaborative work, members of the team experienced shifts in their understandings of what should and ultimately could be taught to young learners. This evolutionary process, the lessons and what was learned from teaching the lessons to young learners, will be shared.

Where We Started

The team is comprised of three practicing teachers, two preservice teachers, and two education professors. The impetus for the project was a service learning trip most members of the team took to Lesvos, Greece in the summer of 2017. The island has been at the center of a migration crisis with millions of people fleeing war, human rights violations and economic hardships in their homelands. During the height of the crisis in November 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Commission reported that 379,000 individuals had already arrived on the island and an estimated 3,300 more were arriving each day, (UNHRC, November 2015). Along with the human toll of accommodating a massive influx of people, huge amounts of debris in the form of rubber dinghies, wrecked boats, personal items, plastic bottles and an estimated 600,000 life jackets washed-up or were left on the shores of the island. Organizations and individuals around the world responded by providing aid.

The goals of the trip were to study the interconnection between the ecological and social crises, while working with nonprofit organizations and people directly impacted. This involved learning with locals about environmentally sustainable practices, cleaning the beaches and providing aid for refugees. An additional goal was to advance education for sustainability by creating lessons for elementary children to teach about the impact of humans on the environment in the midst of a human and global crisis. Supporting the students in shifting their orientation towards a more social and eco justice orientation was an important objective of the entire experience.

Initially, the preservice teachers focused on the environmental side of the crisis and discussed possible lessons dealing with the negative impact of plastic on marine life, or the benefits of upcycling. One afternoon the group sorted clothing donations and prepared backpacks for children who had just arrived by boat on the island. That night one student noted in her journal that, “Getting adequate basics, clothes that fit, clean drinking water and food, was a reality for the refugees”. The team also interacted daily with volunteers who had been on the front lines of the crisis and heard first-hand accounts from people forced to flee their homelands. From these experiences, the human dimension became real. One journal entry captured this shift in perspective when the preservice teacher wrote “What makes a refugee? These people were just born in the wrong place, [it’s] all about the luck of where you are born…I am redefining human rights”. With this new perspective, what to teach about the crisis also began to shift away from just the environmental issues to the human story.

The Lessons

“Freedom is like a bird, a bird doesn’t get told what to do” 
- Second grader

In order to support the preservice teachers in the lesson plan part of the project, we invited in-service teachers as collaborators. In teams of two, lesson ideas were shared and refined. Drawing on their experience in Greece and the knowledge of the classroom teachers, the preservice teachers were able to work through some of their anxieties and conceptions of what young children could handle.  As one student expressed, “I don’t believe second graders can understand the concept of the refugee crisis.” The 2nd-grade teacher working with the student agreed and offered freedom as a concept that could be addressed and brought to the level of the children. From there the ideas came quickly and the two decided to begin the lesson with a children’s book. They choose the book Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs (2016). The book tells the story of a young girl and her family who are forced to leave their home due to civil war. The illustrations in the book show the family’s plight as they take only the belongings they can carry and flee on foot to find safety in Europe.

The second-grade team determined that once students understood the idea of being forced to leave one’s home, they wanted the children to relate borders and barriers to the concepts of freedom of movement.  They decided to use a simple simulation to help students connect to the idea. In both classes where this lesson was taught, the teachers divided the students into two groups and explained that the class was going to play a game. The in-service teacher brought her class outside and one group was told they could play on the playground for ten minutes, while the other would be required to stand in a small section of the blacktop. After ten minutes, the groups would switch. When the preservice teacher taught the lesson she began by asking the class to list classroom privileges they enjoyed and narrowed the list to two favorites; flexible seating choices and drawing on the whiteboard.  The preservice teacher then explained that one group could exercise these privileges for ten minutes while the other group needed to remain quietly in their seats.  In both classrooms, the idea that this was a game and that the groups would switch was repeatedly emphasized. After the lesson, the students were given opportunities to reflect on their experience and offer their own definitions of what freedom was.

During the activity, both teachers noted very strong reactions among the students. In a focus group, the second-grade teacher described her students as being, “distressed and outraged even though they knew they would get their turn [to play on the playground]”. In both classrooms students reflected on how they felt during the activity and the notion of fairness was applied to the experience by the students.  One child expressed dismay she had lost privileges even though she had been behaving well. This provided the teacher with the opportunity to explain that loss of freedom wasn’t related to one’s behavior and she reminded them how the family in the story didn’t do something bad to cause the loss of their home.

Another team designed a lesson involving a web-based, simulation activity in which students made choices for a woman escaping domestic violence in Nicaragua and seeking asylum in the United States. The simulation, The Walls We Don’t See (Public Radio International, 2017), follows multiple, true stories, of people leaving their homes as a result of violence, war, economic, or environmental degradation. Through the simulation, the students are asked to make decisions that impact the experience and ultimately granting or denial to the individual seeking asylum.

In preparation for the activity, students brainstormed a list of items they would take with them if they were forced to leave their homes. This prompted a discussion of how the children would feel if they were separated from their personal belongings, a favorite teddy bear or their favorite pair of shoes. In both a third and fourth grade class implementing this lesson, new vocabulary was introduced to students prior to the simulation. Students were encouraged to use the new vocabulary (ie. detention center, coyote, border control) in their discussions about the outcomes of the simulation. The students were highly engaged in the simulation activity and as a class, were very concerned with the outcomes of their choices for Maria (the woman in the simulation). After the simulation concluded, the children wrote letters to Maria sharing about a time when they also had to make a difficult decision.

What we learned

I think taking from the idea of freedom, that was so big and so complex, breaking it down and doing a simple activity where some kids were able to play and some didn’t,
Preservice teacher

Across all four classrooms, the children expressed common themes as a result of the lessons. Their ability to make connections between a global crisis and their lives was one big learning outcome. One child shared about his own family’s experience immigrating from Turkey and that he knew parts of his country were dangerous. Another boy shared about his father’s detainment when entering the U.S. from India. One fourth grader even informed the class that she knew many people were trying to gain entrance to the U.S. because she watched a TV show called, 90-Day Fiancé, where contestants seek to obtain visas by becoming engaged to a U.S. citizen.

In a fourth-grade classroom, the preservice teacher who went to Lesvos showed pictures of beach debris and refugee camps. When the image of a child’s shoe left behind on a beach came on the screen the students were stunned and asked, “This happened to children?” She described this as a moment when the student’s interest shifted and they could connect more to the stories. The in-service teachers were both able to make curricular connections to immigration, diversity, and culture and one had previously had a parent speak to the class about fleeing Cuba. This helped the children make connections between the woman’s story and the story of Maria from the simulation activity.

The students also made emotional connections with the refugees. One second grade student exclaimed “I felt like I was invisible, I kept thinking they couldn’t even see me!” Similarly, another child stated, “I felt like I wasn’t a part of the class anymore.” Making these connections helped the children develop empathy. One teacher asked the students based on what they experienced, would they do anything differently if the game was played again. Some of the students suggested they could help others who were denied freedom (i.e., couldn’t exercise class privileges), not feel so excluded by sitting next to them while drawing. In another instance, when a young boy learned that many of the refugees sought to build new lives in Germany, he explained that his mother often traveled there for work and asked if she could volunteer to help the refugees. Several third-grade students were so moved by the online simulation that during their recess they conceived of a plan for a hotel to house and aid refugees. After recess, they presented their teacher with a slide show outlining features the hotel would offer such as service in an individual’s home language to help them in their transition. These examples also demonstrate an emerging sense of civic responsibility, which is a primary goal of social studies education.

Teacher Reflections

I underestimated their intelligence and their ability to do something like this. I was nervous that they weren’t going to make connections to the story…. they took it much further than I anticipated. Preservice teacher

“If you’re telling the truth, not putting a spin on it, you’re okay. This is reality, I’m not telling them anything that isn’t true.” 2nd Grade Teacher

All of the teachers, both in-service and preservice, learned something from creating and teaching the lessons. One of the largest “ah-ha” moments for the preservice teachers was a better understanding of the capacity young learners have for engaging in a social justice-oriented dialogue. The preservice teachers struggled with trusting that young people would be able to actively participate and make connections to topics about freedom and immigration. By working alongside more veteran teachers, they recognized how significant these kinds of lessons are for children, and that to be a social justice educator, truth and discomfort may go hand in hand.

It also became clearer to all participants, how infrequently these kinds of dialogues occur in elementary classrooms. When discussing why this is the case, the reflections ranged from doubting the developmental capacity children have to engage in difficult discussions, to the time and curricular demands of teaching in the current high stakes, standardized testing school culture. Fear of reprisals by administrators and parents was also a common reason shared for why these topics aren’t taught more often. The veteran teachers were able to offer the preservice and novice teacher with models of teaching for social justice and inspiration. The idea that truth should always be taught became a significant theme for all of the teachers.

A final, more practical point was that opportunities to link global issues with an elementary school social studies curriculum do exist. Immigration is a common topic covered, as are colonization and civil rights. The veteran teachers described connections they helped the children make between the refugees fleeing the middle east and the Native Americans who were displaced by European colonists. By incorporating concepts of justice and human rights, the teachers are helping the children critically assess past and current policies and to begin to form their own beliefs on the kind of society they want to live in.


Teaching about issues of immigration and freedom are not topics that should remain invisible in our classrooms. The comments made by the children clearly illustrate that they have background knowledge of these issues, even negative aspects such as detainment and that not everyone who desires to come to the U.S. can. The children were also able to feel empathy for those who were denied freedom or faced difficult struggles. In the current political context, developing both the critical thinking skills to question the diverse contexts with which people migrate, as well as the empathy to connect to the experience of others, are valuable pursuits for teachers. Children can understand the ideas of justice and are capable of making personal connections to these topics. Concepts of freedom, security in one’s family, home and favorite belongings, are accessible to young audiences. The teachers experiences demonstrate there are opportunities in elementary social studies to push the boundaries of traditional topics and teach lessons that deal with important global and social issues.


Bialik, Kristen (2018) ICE arrests went up in 2017, with biggest increases in Florida, northern Texas, Oklahoma. FactTank. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/02/08/ice-arrests-went-up-in-2017-with-biggest-increases-in-florida-northern-texas-oklahoma/

Harwood, A. M., & Hahn, C. L. (1990). Controversial Issues in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.

Klein, Ann & Smith, Mitch (Aug. 22, 2018) Killing of Mollie Tibbetts in Iowa Inflames Immigration Debate, The New York Times, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/us/mollie-tibbetts-cristhian-rivera.html

National Council for the Social Studies. (2010). National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A Framework For Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

Parker, W. C. (2006). Talk Isn’t Cheap: Practicing Deliberation in School. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 19(1), 12-15.

Passe, J. (2008). A Counter-Intuitive Strategy: Reduce Student Stress by Teaching Current Events. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 20(3), 27-31.

Ruurs, M., Badr, N. A., Raheem, F. (2016). Stepping stones: a refugee family’s journey. Victoria, British Columbia: Orca Book Publishers.

Ser, K. K. K. (n.d.). The walls we don’t see. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from https://interactive.pri.org/2018/02/walls-we-dont-see/index.html

United Nations Human Rights Commission (November, 2015) Lesvos Island, Greece Factsheet,
retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/protection/operations/5645ddbc6/greece-factsheet-lesvos-island.html

Zimmerman, J., & Robertson, E. (2017). The controversy over controversial issues. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(4), 8–14.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s