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Social studies is defined as the “part of a school curriculum concerned with the study of social relationships and the functioning of society” (Merriam-Webster). The knowledge and skills learned through social studies prepare children to become informed and engaged citizens of their country and the world. Including social studies in the educational curriculum of the early childhood years provides an opportunity for adults to support children as they are developing a sense of self and an awareness of their family and community. While preschool programs may not have a formal social studies curriculum, many everyday preschool experiences provide a foundation for social studies skills.

Initially, young children’s focus is on themselves and their family. As they enter preschool, their world widens to include the school or caregiving environment. And as children grow and develop during the preschool years, they begin to understand that though they are individuals, they exist not only within a family and school but also within other larger contexts, such as their neighborhood and community. They begin to see that they have a role to play within each of these contexts: They are a son or daughter, a sister or brother, a student or friend, a neighbor or community member. Young children learn how to act as a member of these wider communities, being loving, helpful, respectful, and contributing to the greater good.

At the same time, they are becoming aware that there are other members of these communities who make contributions to their own well-being and that of the other community members. They are fascinated by police officers and firefighters. They imitate doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, and teachers. Preschool teachers can lead them in studies of topics within their community, including businesses, community services, and the jobs and responsibilities of adults. These studies enable children to develop the intellectual habits of investigation and inquiry as they learn how to transform their curiosity into questions and then represent what they have learned using developing skills in language, fine arts, and play.

As children learn about broader communities and their members, their sense of geography expands. They become aware that there are other neighborhoods, other cities, and a larger country. They begin to see how these spaces and locations can be described and studied using maps, pictures, and diagrams. As they enter the primary years, their world will widen even more, and they will begin to understand that other communities exist in other environments. Their investigations in these early years enable children to have confidence and enthusiasm for finding answers to the compelling questions of the social sciences as they continue in their schooling.

By incorporating social studies in the early years, teachers are establishing the foundation for a democracy. They help preschool children to develop group participation skills, such as social negotiation and problem solving, communicating about one’s needs, and making decisions as a group. Experiences in social studies provide a foundation for the skills needed to become an active and productive citizen.

Miss Trina and Mrs. Yolanda work as a teaching team at a large, urban child care program. Their 3- and 4-year-olds come and go throughout the day depending on their family members’ work schedules. Trina and Yolanda provide many opportunities for the children to get engaged in productive, interesting play with the teachers facilitating—sometimes playing right alongside the children, engaging them in conversations, asking questions, or sometimes sitting quietly and observing. During a team meeting, Trina and Yolanda discussed how much the children enjoy dramatic play and get involved in the roles they act out. They realized that this is really a form of social studies for preschoolers. The children are attempting to understand adult roles, whether they be mommies and daddies or workers of some sort. Recently, a group of children were enacting what happens at the grocery store. Trina and Yolanda posted a sign on their Family Bulletin Board asking for empty food boxes, clean cans, and paper shopping bags to enhance the children’s play. They pulled out a toy cash register from their storage area and worked with the children to set up the grocery store. The group decided on a name for the store, “The Food Place,” and some children volunteered to make a sign. Others made play money for the cash register. The teachers led the children in discussions about different roles to play in the store: cashier, bagger, shelf stocker, and customer. As children joined in the play, they determined who would play what role and how they would do their job. Of course, cashier was the most popular! One day, Trina commented to Yolanda, “Look at the Food Place, today. We have 10 ‘customers’ waiting patiently in line to check out.” It was true. The children were acting out the role of “waiting customer” with no problems whatsoever. Yolanda and Trina were truly amazed that in dramatic play, the children could practice what it means to be a good citizen and member of the classroom community!

Example Performance Descriptors can be found on the List of goals, standards, and benchmarks page.

Learning Standard 14.A: Understand what it means to be a member of a group and community.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 14.A.ECa: Recognize the reasons for rules in the home and early childhood environment and for laws in the community.
  • 14.A.ECb: Contribute to the well‐being of one’s early childhood environment, school, and community.

Learning Standard 14.B: Understand the structures and functions of the political systems of Illinois, the United States, and other nations.

Learning Standard 14.C: Understand ways groups make choices and decisions.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 14.C.ECa: Participate in voting as a way of making choices.

Learning Standard 14.D: Understand the role that individuals can play in a group or community.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 14.D.ECa: Develop an awareness of what it means to be a leader.
  • 14.D.ECb: Participate in a variety of roles in the early childhood environment.

Learning Standard 14.E: Understand United States foreign policy as it relates to other nations and international issues.

Learning Standard 14.F: Understand the development of United States’ political ideas and traditions.

Goal 15: Explore economic systems and human interdependence.

Learning Standard 15.A: Explore roles in the economic system and workforce.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 15.A.ECa: Describe some common jobs and what is needed to perform those jobs.
  • 15.A.ECb: Discuss why people work.

Learning Standard 15.B: Explore issues of limited resources in the early childhood environment and world.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 15.B.ECa: Understand that some resources and money are limited.

Learning Standard 15.C: Understand that scarcity necessitates choices by producers

Learning Standard 15.D: Explore concepts about trade as an exchange of goods or services.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 15.D.ECa: Begin to understand the use of trade or money to obtain goods and services.

Learning Standard 15.E: Understand the impact of government policies and decisions on production and consumption in the economy.

Goal 16: Develop an awareness of the self and his or her uniqueness and individuality.

Learning Standard 16.A: Explore his or her self and personal history.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 16.A.ECa: Recall information about the immediate past.
  • 16.A.ECb: Develop a basic awareness of self as an individual.

Learning Standard 16.B: Understand the development of significant political events.

Learning Standard 16.C: Understand the development of economic systems.

Learning Standard 16.D: Understand Illinois, United States, and world social history.

Learning Standard 16.E: Understand Illinois, United States, and world environmental history.

Goal 17: Explore geography, the child’s environment, and where people live, work, and play.

Learning Standard 17.A: Explore environments and where people live.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 17.A.ECa: Locate objects and places in familiar environments.
  • 17.A.ECb: Express beginning geographic thinking.

Learning Standard 17.B: Analyze and explain characteristics and interactions of the Earth’s physical systems.

Learning Standard 17.C: Understand relationships between geographic factors and society.

Learning Standard 17.D: Understand the historical significance of geography.

Goal 18: Explore people and families

Learning Standard 18.A: Explore people, their similarities, and their differences.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 18.A.ECa: Recognize similarities and differences in people.

Learning Standard 18.B: Develop an awareness of self within the context of family.

Preschool Benchmarks

  • 18.B.ECa: Understand that each of us belongs to a family and recognize that families vary.

Learning Standard 18.C: Understand how social systems form and develop over time.


  • Goal 14: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Goal 14 reads, “Understand political systems, with an emphasis on the United States.”
  • Standard 14.A: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 14.A reads, “Understand and explain basic principles of the United States government.”
  • Standard 14.C: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 14.C reads, “Understand election processes and responsibilities of citizens.”
  • Standard 14.D: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 14.D reads, “Understand the roles and influences of individuals and interest groups in the political systems of Illinois, the United States and other nations.”
  • Goal 15: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Goal 15 reads, “Understand economic systems, with an emphasis on the United States.”
  • Standard 15.A: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 15.A reads, “Understand how different economic systems operate in the exchange, production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.”
  • Standard 15.B: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 15.B reads, “Understand that scarcity necessitates choices by consumers.”
  • Standard 15.C: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 15.C reads, “Understand that scarcity necessitates choices by producers.”
  • Standard 15.D: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 15.D reads, “Understand trade as an exchange of goods or services.”
  • Goal 16: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Goal 16 reads, “Understand events, trends, individuals and movements shaping the history of Illinois, the United States and other nations.”
  • Standard 16.A: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 16.A reads, “Apply the skills of historical analysis and interpretation.”
  • Goal 17: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Goal 17 reads, “Understand world geography and the effects of geography on society, with an emphasis on the United States.”
  • Standard 17.A: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 17.A reads, “Locate, describe and explain places, regions and features on the Earth.”
  • Goal 18: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Goal 18 reads, “Understand social systems, with an emphasis on the United States.”
  • Standard 18.A: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 18.A reads, “Compare characteristics of culture as reflected in language, literature, the arts, traditions and institutions.”
  • Standard 18.B: In the K–12 Illinois Learning Standards, Standard 18.B reads, “Understand the roles and interactions of individuals and groups in society.”
Reviewed: 2013