Social Sundays: Outfitting your classroom for Hands-on Activities

I like to get my students engaged in active learning, and often that means activity stations (and yes, I use them even with high schoolers!)  Sometimes, though, just the material demands feel overwhelming.  Finding all the materials can take more work than the actual lesson.  Certainly, a lecture would be easier and of course, less effective.  (You can read my views on lectures here.)  

I'd like to say that I'm that super-organized educator who knows all the materials I need for the year or semester or even month, but I am not. Usually, I know what I need for a unit.  When I first started teaching, I would spend hours gathering and preparing materials for each unit.  It was exhausting.  Eventually, I figured out that there are just some materials that provide the basis for all the hands-on learning we do.  I found that outfitting my classroom for these hands-on activities from the start reduced the amount of time I spent gathering materials for individual lessons.  It's like stocking your pantry. You want some basics on hand, and then you add the special ingredients as needed.

Here's what I use to outfit my classroom.

  • The 4Bs - Bins, Bags, Boxes and Buckets: if you can secure different sizes of the 4 Bs you can easily organize any materials you might need. I love to use small buckets for pencils and pens as well as scissors and glue sticks. Boxes are great for large items such as paper towel rolls and shoe boxes. Bags are great for corks and puff balls. I like small closed bins for things that spill easily such as beads or sequins, and for fluffy things like feathers. Open baskets are great for collecting paper scraps of all shapes, sizes and textures.
  • Essentials: crayons, colored pencils, paper, scissors, and glue sticks.  You can do most projects with just these basics.
  • Building Materials: corks, paper towel rolls, cardboard boxes, yarn, fabric, shoe boxes, tacky or white glue, flat cardboard, straws, masking tape, and toothpicks.  These materials with the essentials provide tools for more 3 dimensional work such as domes and catapults.
  • Decorative: feathers, sequins, pompoms, beads, fancy papers, and glitter (note: messy!).  Decorative materials help students to make their work "pop" in activities such as mask making or 3d maps.
  • Bonus: sculpting clay such as Sculpey, self-drying clay (I like Crayola's), glue gun, and gum drops (great for joints when building with toothpicks).  These are a bonus if it is in your budget or you can find someone to donate.  Clay is fantastic for all kinds of projects such as creating cliff dwellings when studying Native Americans or mosaics when exploring the Renaissance or Byzantine eras.  If you can get your hands on it, great!
You don't have to start the year with all these things ,and you can have a running list going for the community of your needs and wants. Befriend the art teacher and have a bin in his/her room for her "throw aways".  Ask your student parents or even local craft stores to donate. You can download this list (free).

Social Sundays is a weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message on Facebook or at the store in the question and answer section.



  1. I've started a Pinterest board for Elementary Social Studies:


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