DSSEP Home Page Using Children's Literature to Understand Civics Concepts


Anabelle Gervais O’Malley, NBCT
Brandywine School District
Mt. Pleasant Elementary School

            Young children enter school with many experiences.  They have heard the word “no” from the time they were infants but have rarely explored notions of authority and governance on a formal level.  Although rules and expectations surround their daily lives, young children have yet to examine how they fit into the democratic context.  I have always felt that my students needed to play a role in designing classroom rules.  This year, however, I knew that I wanted to incorporate an even deeper understanding about civics concepts into this process.  I decided to do so using children’s literature. 

            In developing the unit, I strove to lay the foundation for an understanding of how our political system works and how the legislature operates.  In order for young children to gain this understanding, they need to participate in activities that are meaningful to them.  I knew that creating our classroom rules was something that was of utmost importance during the first few days of school.  I wanted to develop the ideas of authority, rules, and justice. These ideas could then be built upon throughout the year as the children learned that they have a voice that could facilitate change in classroom issues.

            Laws and rules are needed to guide behavior and establish order in our country.  Students, like adults, must deal with rules and laws all of the time.  Understanding the purposes of rules and laws and how rules and laws serve similar purposes is fundamental for young citizens.  Children need to learn that there are several purposes for having rules and laws.  Firstly, rules and laws describe acceptable and unacceptable behavior for citizens.  Secondly, they provide order, predictability, and security.  Thirdly, they assign burdens and responsibilities.  Lastly, they limit the power of the people in authority. Once students have gained this understanding they can begin to see that our government can be described as the people and groups who have the authority to make, carry out and enforce laws, and manage disputes.

            I helped my students grasp these complex concepts by turning to literature.  Children can relate to characters in books, and I wanted to be able to help them construct their understanding of civics concepts through discussions of the characters’ thoughts and actions.  We started out by reading the book Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes (1996).  In this story, Lilly brings a special purse to class and has it taken away by the teacher.  We discussed the classroom rules in the story and their purposes.  During our discussion the children were able to look at both Lilly’s and the teacher’s points of view and surmise why each acted as she did.  We discussed the fact that a rule is a “guideline for behavior.”  Next, the children brainstormed a list of rules that they follow at home and talked about why rules are important and need to be followed.  Finally, we looked at guidelines for good rules and compared their home rules to this chart.  Are the rules clear, easy to understand, enforceable and fair?  Are the rules explained to everyone who needs to follow them?

            This activity proved to be important as the children began to see rules in a new light.  They started to see that rules are meant to be helpful, even though they may not always like them.  The children easily put themselves in Lilly’s place, but could also understand the consequences of her actions.

            The next book we looked at was Better Not Get Wet, Jesse Bear (Carlstrom, 1988). In this story, Jesse bear does a variety of things on a hot summer day and is repeatedly told by his parents that he “better not get wet.”  Things change at the end when he puts on his bathing suit to go swimming and is told that he “better get wet.”  My goal in using this book was to help the children understand the purposes for rules as well as their application to particular settings and situations.  As we read through the story, I paused several times to ask the students if “don’t get wet” was a good rule in the particular situation.  Of course, when Jesse bear is washing dishes and watering the garden, the children could see that the rule certainly was applicable.  Finally, the students were able to see that the rule about not getting wet didn’t make much sense when Jesse Bear went swimming.  We began to think about other rules and when they may or may not be applicable.  The children worked in small groups and were given the task of deciding when a certain rule would and wouldn’t apply.  Some of the rules included, “No talking in class,” “No tattling,” and “Stay in your seat.”  After identifying situations in which the rules would or would not apply, the children were asked to rewrite the rules so that they would meet our “Guidelines for Good Rules.” “No talking in class” became “Talk softly in class when you are working.  Listen when someone else is talking.”  “No tattling” became “Solve little problems by yourself.”  “Stay in your seat” became “Get your materials and get right to work.”  The beauty of this activity was that it helped the children understand that there must be some room for discretion in the enforcement of rules and laws. They also began to see that it is rarely easy to create a rule that fits every situation.  Issues of fairness and safety were raised as the children formed and supported their opinions about the rules.  At appropriate and relevant levels, my students were developing an understanding of the roles of legislators and judges.

            The next book we explored was Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto (1993).  In this story a little girl wears her mother’s diamond ring without permission and loses it as she makes tamales for a family celebration.  Needless to say, she and her siblings end up eating more than their share of tamales as they look for the ring. This book helps to introduce the terms authority and power to the students.  We discussed who made the rule and what the rule meant in terms of wearing the ring.  I then introduced the term governance and pointed out that Maria’s mother made the rule to govern the family so as to protect her children from making mistakes and to safeguard their property. My students saw that the mother had the right to make the rule, and we discussed why.  We then began to think of other people who have the right to make rules for them or tell them what to do.  They came up with people such as the principal, a bus driver, and the teacher.  Next we talked about people who do not have the right to dictate their behavior.  They had many responses and stories to tell at this point.  After they told their stories, we created a chart.  One side was labeled authority and the other side power.    We talked about how we respect and support people who hold authority.  Conversely, we examined the need to use good judgment in not allowing others to use their power to control us in inappropriate ways.  All too often, young children who lack assertiveness are bullied by others who abuse their power.  One of the skills that I hoped to instill was for children to be able to recognize the difference between authority and power and to respond appropriately.  Finally, we talked about how parents, teachers, and legislators are just some examples of the people who possess authority. 

            The next book that I used in our unit was Applemando’s Dreams by Patricia Pollaco (1991).  In this story Applemando lives in an ordinary village but he has extraordinary dreams that his true friends are able to see.  When it rains his vivid dreams stick to surfaces and brighten up the drab village. I used this book as a springboard for helping the children think about their hopes and dreams for the coming school year.  After writing and illustrating their ideas, the children shared their work with the group.  I elicited the idea that rules can serve as tools in our attempt to fulfill our hopes and dreams.  Children worked in small groups to list as many rules as they could that would be important to help our class run fairly, peacefully, and orderly.  All of the ideas were listed on a chart and the children saw that there were far too many rules to remember.  We next grouped the rules into categories and named the categories (i.e., Rules About Classroom Materials, Rules About Being in Charge of Yourself, etc).  Finally, the children were able to come up with four general rules that encompassed all of the other rules.  These four rules were (1) Be in control of yourself (2) Show respect to others

(3) Show respect to others’ things (4) Try to have fun.  The last rule caused a great debate. Originally it was “Have fun” but some students objected saying that you can’t possibly have fun doing everything in school, but you could try.  Once the rules had been written, we took a vote to see who could abide by these rules.  All of the children agreed that they were fair, helpful, and met the criteria we had established for good rules.  I explained to the children that this was our Class Constitution, and we all signed it.  The Constitution now hangs in a prominent place and is the focus of many class meetings.

            The final lesson of our civics unit involved understanding the consequences of breaking rules and understanding what makes these consequences fair.  This is the foundation of justice and lays the groundwork for later investigations into the judicial system.  We read the book Arnie and the Stolen Markers (Carlson, 1987).  In the book, Arnie spends all of his money only to realize that he still wants a set of markers.  When a shopkeeper’s back is turned, Arnie steals the markers and races home. Unfortunately (for him), Arnie’s mother discovers his deed.  At this point I paused to engage the students in a reading prediction, asking the children what should and would happen to Arnie.  We read to the end of the book and found out that Arnie had to work at the shop until he had paid off the markers.  I asked them if they thought Arnie’s punishment was a fair one and why. I introduced the term logical consequence. The children saw that Arnie had to do something to “fix” the situation.   We talked about laws for stealing and other laws that they knew.  I reminded them that there are people with authority called judges whose job it is to deal with these matters.  We then discussed what happens when “big” rules are broken in school.  (The teacher or principal sends the student to the interventionist, students are sent home, etc.)  I reminded them that “little” hurts happen, too. For example, feelings may get hurt if someone is not allowed to play at recess.  Would the same punishments be just or appropriate in those situations?  The students and I discussed why. Next, we brainstormed some of the “little” hurts that happen when rules are broken in the classroom.  The children were arranged in small groups, and each group was given one of those situations in which “little” hurts occurred; they had to decide on three fair consequences for the infractions.  Then they had to come to a consensus about which consequences would be best.  We listed thse consequences and used them when minor infractions occurred.

            All of the literary selections examined in this article allowed me to take abstract concepts such as rules, laws, governance, authority and justice, and make them accessible to young children.  While they will need many more experiences with these concepts in order to understand their deeper meanings and relationship to our form of government, the children were able to grasp the understanding that they had a voice and were part of a democracy in their classroom community.


Carlson, N. (1987).  Arnie and the Stolen Markers.  New York: Viking.

Carlstrom, M. (1988).  Better Not Get Wet, Jesse Bear.  New York: McMillan.

Henkes, K. (1996).  Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.  New York: Greenwillow.

Larkin, M. (1998).  Law in Your Life: A Publication of Street Law. Cincinnati: West

    Educational Publishing.

Pollaco, P. (1991).  Applemando’s Dreams.  New York: Philomel.

Singleton, L. (1997).  C is for Citizenship: Children’s Literature and Civic

    Understanding.  Boulder: Social Science Consortium.

Soto, G. (1993).  Too Many Tamales.  New York: Putnam.

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