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Build Your Community! A Third Grade Social Studies Unit on Communities

By Margo Dill

We all live in communities and depend on community members for many reasons! But how can we teach our students about the importance of community? What types are there? What do they have in common? Find out in this unit of study, where students use their creativity and knowledge to explore concepts.

Three Types of Communities

In K-2, children learn about the communities they live in. They may visit the fire and police station, draw pictures of their town or city, and learn about some community helpers like the mayor, a teacher, a nurse, and a police officer. In third grade, all of these past experiences are brought together and the community idea is expanded.

In most third grade curricula, students learn the characteristics of three types of communities: urban (city), rural (town/village), and suburban (suburb). They compare and contrast these communities and spend some time learning what is in each and what makes each unique. They also learn about how to find a community on a map and begin using latitude and longitude to discuss location. After this unit, students usually study government (three different levels) and one of these is local. So, you can tie your community unit with your government unit by starting with the local sector. The following are some ideas that you can use in your communities unit for the third grade class.

Build Communities

Once you have taught students the differences and similarities between a city, town, and suburb, students can work in groups to build models of these communities in your classroom. There are several different books and stories that you can share with students to show them the difference between these communities, and students can also create Venn diagrams to compare them. With all this background information shared, students are ready to begin their activity.

First, divide students into three groups: one group is rural, one is urban, and the last is suburban. (If you have a large class, you can divide students into six groups and assign two groups the same community.) They should create a list of buildings that will be in their community. For example, the city group would have skyscrapers, garages, apartment buildings, large hospitals, etc. The rural group would have a small store, a gas station, a family restaurant, a church, and so on. Students can put whatever they want on their list as long as it fits with their group.

Next, they build their community. They can use boxes, poster board, card stock, clay, models--anything they choose as long as they make a true representation of their assigned community. Group members must also write a description to go with their model. If you don't have much class time for this project, you can give students a couple of class periods for planning, and then they can create their buildings at home.

The final step is to have the groups talk about their community and view the other finished projects. Students should be allowed to ask each other questions about the displays and even about their assigned community.

Finding Communities on a Map

The best way for students to remember latitude and longitude lines is to practice with them. Give your third graders plenty of opportunity to find the longitude and latitude of different cities and towns during your communities unit. To make these numbers more meaningful, ask students to plan a short (or long for extra credit) trip of at least three cities. Students must start at your city or town and find the latitude and longitude. Then they travel anywhere else in the world they want to go; they just have to be able to find the latitude and longitude. They also must label whether it's in an urban, suburban, or rural area.

For example, let's say Student A lives in the village of LeRoy, which is in a rural community in Illinois. She would label it rural and find the latitude and longitude. Next, let's say she wants to go to Chicago, IL. She would find the latitude and longitude, and then she would label it urban (and so on). You can tell students to look for patterns in their location points--when you go north, what happens to the longitude numbers?

This activity will combine map skills with reviewing the different types of communities, so students are building on their knowledge and making connections. To extend the activity, you can limit students to traveling in the United States and have them draw the route they would travel on a map.

Local Government Activity

The final piece of the puzzle in this communities unit for the third grade class is when students begin to study the three levels and branches of government. Government is often hard for third graders to understand because they have limited personal experience with it. They may have seen the president of the United States on television or written a letter to the mayor about recycling in the community, but that's their limited knowledge. So, instead of introducing all three levels of government together, introduce local government while studying the three types of communities. Explain how towns, suburbs, and cities can have a mayor, city council, and judges. Plan a trip to your city hall and ask city councilmen or even the mayor to come speak to you. Can your students visit a courtroom and talk with a real judge? These experiences will help them understand the three branches of government at the local level, especially when you tie it to your communities study. Then when you are ready to teach state and federal government, students will already have a foundation at the local level.

After students visit different places in your local government or listen to a guest speaker, ask them to write about their experiences in a journal. This way, they are processing some of the information they learned, and you can read these entries to see what they understood out of the experience.

Learning about communities is one of the biggest units in third grade social studies. It is important to build a foundation for students to start with and then add different skills that fit in the unit. When students can make connections to already learned material, they retain the information better.