When it comes to hands-on learning, we tend to think of more tactile disciplines like art, shop, or STEM fields that incorporate labs into teaching. But teachers in the social sciences can use hands-on activities to help students become more confident, engage in deeper thinking, and improve literacy skills at the same time.

Here are five hands-on activities to jumpstart learning in social studies:

Contextualizing Photographs

Have students analyze a visual primary source, like a photograph or video clip, and encourage them to play analytical detective. For example, who are the people in the photograph, and what is the setting? What are they up to? Have students infer meaning, using what they see as evidence for the conclusions they draw.

The Observant Bystander

Helping students see the world from alternative perspectives lets them practice thinking outside the box and overcoming bias. Have them explore a significant historical event from a perspective that they haven’t considered before. How would a housekeeper sweeping the floors while the Declaration of Independence is being drafted a few feet away feel about such a momentous event, for example?

Found Poem Workshop

Have students isolate specific words, phrases, or quotes from a text and rearrange them in a ‘found poem’ with a unified theme. For example, poems created from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches might focus on the importance of inclusion. The process of reviewing language and rearranging according to theme helps students practice synthesizing ideas.

Visual Essays

Help students create simple visual essays on subjects, using images to convey key points about their topic while the rest of the class plays an improvised game of Pictionary. The emphasis on arranging chronological and spatial details helps students retain information, while exploration of the image allows the class to flex their analytical muscles.

Political Cartoons

First provide students with a political cartoon from an earlier historical period and ask them to freely interpret what they think the cartoon is trying to say. Build in historical context gradually, allowing students to incorporate their growing body of knowledge into a developing understanding of the cartoon itself.