Social Studies Warmups: Exercises to Get Students Thinking

Asian student thinking about something
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Social studies involves the study of human beings as they relate to each other and their environments. This interaction can include current events, politics, social issues—such as gender equality or the impact of wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—medical issues, local, and global architecture and its effect on people, political issues, energy production, and even international issues.

Any topic that affects how people relate to each other, locally, nationally, or globally, is fair game for social studies discussion. If you need a warmup activity for your social studies class, the difficulty is not in finding a suitable subject but choosing which one best fits your overall lesson plan for the day. Below are some of the best warmups to get students thinking. 

Travel Back in Time

This warmup is simple because students will only need a sheet of paper and a pencil. Ask students: "If you could travel back in time—to the time of your choosing—and could change one thing, what would it be?" You may need to prompt students with a couple of examples. For example, author Stephen King wrote a book titled, "11-22-63," about an individual who was able to travel back to a time shortly before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. He did so and was able to prevent the assassination—to tragic results. The world did change, according to King's alternative history, but not for the better. 

Have each student write two paragraphs if they are freshmen, three paragraphs if they are sophomores, four paragraphs if they are juniors, and five paragraphs if they are seniors. (These "essay" lengths generally correspond well with students' abilities in their respective grades.) Give students 10 or 15 minutes, depending on how long you want the warmup to be, then ask for volunteers to read their papers.

Give extra credit if students are shy about reading aloud, or offer to read students' papers for them. Even one brief essay can lead to a rich discussion that can last for five to 10 minutes, depending on how long you want the warmup to take. Alternatively, if you are studying a particular issue, such as the civil rights movement, assign a specific time and place in history for students to "visit," as King did in his novel.

Who Is Your Hero?

Every student has a hero: It might be her father or uncle, a favorite coach, a favorite former teacher (or maybe you), current sports or political figure, historical character, scientist, or leader in the civil rights or women's movement. It doesn't really matter. The key point here is that students are writing about a person they know—no research needed. Make the warmup essays the same length as those discussed in the previous section. Give students 10 to 15 minutes to complete the exercise. Then, ask a few students to read their essays and discuss as a class.

Alternatively, have students write three goals they want to accomplish in your class. Ideally, do this at the beginning of the year. But, you can actually do this warmup at any time of the year. Indeed, you can use this warmup three times during the semester or year—once at the beginning, once at the midpoint and once at the end.

For the second attempt, ask students how they feel they are doing in moving toward meeting their goals. For the final essay, have students explain whether they met these goals and explain why or why not. Self-reflection is a key part of social studies or, indeed, for any class. Tip: Keep the first essays the students write in a file. If they forget their goals, just hand them their papers to review.

Small-Group Discussion

Break students into groups of four or five. Feel free to have students move desks and chairs to gather into groups—this helps them expend some energy and tap into their kinesthetic intelligence. Too much sitting during lectures can lead to student boredom. Getting up and gathering into groups allows them to interact with each other, and people interacting with other people is at the heart of social studies. Have each group choose a leader who will move the discussion along, a recorder who will take notes on the discussion, and a reporter who will present the group's findings to the class.

Assign a social studies topic for each group to discuss. The list of possible topics is endless. You can have each group discuss the same topic or different topics. Some suggested ideas include:

  • Is the media biased? Why or why not. 
  • Is the Electoral College fair? Why or why not?
  • What's the best political party in the U.S. Why?
  • Is democracy the best form of government?
  • Will racism ever die?
  • Is the U.S. immigration policy fair? Why or why not?
  • Does the country treat its military veterans well? How could the country improve their treatment?

Make Posters

Hang large pieces of butcher paper on the walls at various spots around the room. Label the posters "Group 1," "Group 2," and "Group 3." Break students into their assigned groups and give them each a few colored markers. A good way to break students into groups is simply by numbering them— that is, go around the room to each student and give him a number, such as: "You are No. 1, you're No. 2, you're No. 3, etc." Do this until all students have a number ranging from one to five.

Have the students go to their assigned groups. This forces students who may not be friends—or may not even know each other—to work together, another key component in social studies. As in the previous discussion, have each group choose a leader, recorder, and reporter. You may be surprised how artistic and clever the students are in creating original posters. The topics can include any of the issues you are studying currently in class or topics related to issues you plan to cover in the near future.