Social Studies Unit Plans

Social Studies Unit Plans

Incorporating climate change and environmental issues into social studies lessons can be a challenge. These SubjectToClimate unit plans were developed by our content developers to provide social studies teachers with free, detailed lesson plans that are packed with reliable resources, engaging activities, fun games, and more. The lesson plans are made by teachers, for teachers!

Each of the social studies unit plans includes five to six lessons, a unique set of printable vocabulary cards, beautifully designed teacher slideshows, links to resources, and detailed instructions for activities. The lessons are standards-aligned and include teaching tips and ideas for differentiation. Many of the lessons provide teachers with SubjectToClimate worksheets, graphic organizers, and data sheets that can be used digitally or printed. The social studies unit plans below feature high-interest topics that integrate social studies concepts with cross-curricular connections in several subjects. Teachers will find that the units require little to no preparation while offering many options for student choice and extension activities.

Green Spaces Unit

Grade: 3rd, 4th, 5th

Subjects: Social Studies, English Language Arts, Economics, Justice, Social-Emotional Learning, Climate Action, Civics, Geography, Art, Health

This social studies unit plan consists of six lessons on the importance of green spaces in communities.

Lesson 1 - What Is a Green Space?

The first lesson - What is a Green Space? - introduces students to the concept of community involvement as they listen to a picture book about community activism, explore maps of their communities, and design an ideal green space. 

Lesson 2 - Disappearing Green Spaces & Environmental Justice

In the second lesson - Disappearing Green Spaces - students learn that while green spaces provide goods and services to people and the environment, some communities are excluded from these benefits because of environmental injustice. Students will watch videos on the disappearance of green spaces around the world and environmental youth activism, use an American Forests Instagram post to evaluate maps of tree cover disparities, discuss environmental justice issues, and complete a reflection activity.

Lesson 3 - Indigenous Communities and the Environment

In the third lesson - Indigenous Communities and the Environment - students will learn about ecosystem services, read two articles on Indigenous Peoples and climate activism, complete a reflection activity, and watch a video on youth activism. 

Lesson 4 - With and Without Green Spaces

The fourth lesson - With and Without Green Spaces - gives students the chance to imagine their community without green spaces. Students will learn about urban farmer Ken Sparks, they will research the relationships between green spaces and mental health, physical health, ecosystem health, and climate change, and they will create a map of their community with added green spaces.

Lesson 5 - What Can We Do About Green Spaces?

In the fifth lesson -  What Can We Do About Green Spaces? - students learn how trees clean the air and discuss ways to put more trees in low-income communities. Students will complete an activity comparing two cities’ income levels, demographics, tree cover, and air pollution. They will then choose between learning about Greta Thunberg, creating a climate protest sign, and researching the 2019 Youth Climate Summit.

Lesson 6 - Transforming Knowledge Into Power

In the sixth lesson - Transforming Knowledge Into Power - students learn how to become climate activists by generating ideas about bringing green spaces into their community. Students will choose an idea to pursue, write to a government official, and take action to complete their project.

This unit will get students thinking about what green spaces mean to their community and other communities around the world. Students will learn valuable lessons on environmental injustice and feel empowered to take action in society. While the lessons focus on important social studies concepts (e.g., reading and interpreting maps, creating maps, and understanding demographic data) they are also filled with opportunities for cross-curricular connections. Teachers can use aspects of these lessons in science, art, or English language arts classes. Teachers can use the lessons in the Green Spaces unit as stand-alone lessons, or they may use all six lessons for an entire social studies unit plan. The final project is open to interpretation, so teachers can elaborate or simplify it as they would like.

Air Quality Unit Plans

Grade: 3rd, 4th, 5th

Subjects: Social Studies, English Language Arts, Social-Emotional Learning, Health, Math, Climate Action

This unique social studies unit combines various academic disciplines to teach students about the importance of air quality. 

Lesson 1 - Introduction to Air Quality

In the first lesson - Introduction to Air Quality - students will start by filling in a KWL chart to think about what they know and what they want to know about air quality. Students will learn about the Environmental Protection Agency, then they will read or listen to a digital book about asthma and air quality and reflect on the story.

Lesson 2 - How Can Air Pollution Affect Our Bodies?

The second lesson - How Can Air Pollution Affect Our Bodies? - starts with activity on character traits. Students will re-read the text from the first lesson, identify the characters’ traits, and complete a reflection activity on how air quality affects people with asthma. 

Lesson 3 - The Air Quality Index and Particle Pollution

In the third lesson - Air Quality Index and Particle Pollution - students will watch a video on air pollution in Los Angeles, play a fun game that shows how cilia protect our lungs from particle pollution, and use a real-time EPA air quality map to find the current air quality index in their community. 

Lesson 4 - Air Quality and Environmental Justice

The fourth lesson - Air Quality and Environmental Justice - begins with a journal-sharing activity that gives students a chance to review what they learned in the first three lessons. Students will complete a Venn diagram with the concepts of “Environment” and “Justice”, watch a video about environmental justice,  explore the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, and choose a journal reflection to complete.

Lesson 5 - The No Idling Campaign

The fifth and final lesson - The No Idling Campaign - begins by having students define the term “idling” and then watch a video about the air pollution it causes. Students will collect data on idling cars, graph the data, and interpret it. Students finish the lesson by either creating a public service announcement that explains why idling cars are bad for air quality or starting a No Idling Campaign at the school. 

Teachers will appreciate that each of the five lessons in the Air Quality unit uses the Inquire, Investigate, Inspire framework to keep students engaged. Students will have the opportunity to think critically about what they know and don’t know about each topic before beginning their investigation. Once they have a firm understanding of the topic, students will have the opportunity to use their knowledge to engage in meaningful discussions, educate others, or make changes in their community.

While this unit covers many social studies standards, some of the lessons can be used for other academic subject blocks. The first and second lessons are perfect for English language arts, while the third could be used as a science lesson. Teachers could also use components of certain lessons for different subjects. While the fifth lesson focuses on the social studies concept of community involvement, the Investigate section includes data collection and interpretation that students could complete during a science or math block.

Renewable Energy Unit Plans

Grade: 3rd, 4th, 5th

Subjects: Social Studies, Science, Economics, Geography, Math, Civics, English Language Arts, Climate Action

This detailed social studies unit prompts students to consider the importance of renewable energy.

Lesson 1 - Introduction to Renewable Energy

In lesson one - Introduction to Renewable Energy - students reflect on how they use energy in their daily lives. Students will learn the difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy resources, watch videos on green energy and fossil fuels, complete an energy sort activity, explore energy source consumption data, and begin working on an energy audit worksheet. 

Lesson 2 - How Can We Conserve Energy

In lesson two - How Can We Conserve Energy? - students use their energy audits to make a bar graph of the class’s energy footprint. In small groups, students will their bar graph and brainstorm ways that the class can conserve energy. At the end of the lesson, students will create a conservation poster to share their ideas with the community.

Lesson 3 - What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Energy Resources?

The third lesson - What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Energy Resources? - gives students a chance to learn about different types of renewable and nonrenewable energy sources. Students start the lesson with a mindful breathing exercise to practice turning the power in their bodies on and off. After the exercise, students work in groups to learn more about different energy types in a mock town hall debate. Each group of students will work for a particular energy company and read a text about the type of energy their company produces (e.g., geothermal energy or solar energy ). Each group will write a pitch about why their company should receive the town’s energy contract. In the town hall meeting, the groups will present their pitches and the class will vote on the company that will receive the contract.

Lesson 4 - How Does Renewable Energy Work?

In the fourth lesson -  How Does Renewable Energy Work? - students will learn about William Kamkwamba, an inventor who built a windmill to bring electricity to his village in Malawi when he was fourteen years old. Students will build their own renewable energy projects, such as solar ovens or wind generators. After finishing their projects, students will write about what they created and display their work.

Lesson 5 - Renewable Energy Around the World

In the fifth lesson - Renewable Energy Around the World   - students will start thinking globally as they peruse the Google Maps Energy Map to see which countries use renewable energy. Then students will work as data scientists to analyze renewable energy usage using one of several well-designed data analysis worksheets. Finally, students will watch a video about renewable energy in Iceland and discuss their thoughts on daily life in a country that has so many renewable energy resources.

Lesson 6 - How Can We Encourage Our Community to Use More Renewables?

In the sixth and final lesson - How Can We Encourage Our Community to Use More Renewables? - students will learn about a group of young activists in Santa Monica, California who worked to eliminate plastic pollution in their community. Afterward, students will learn what it means to be a climate activist, select a way to advocate for renewable energy, and put their plans into action!

This unit offers teachers tons of options to choose different activities, resources, and discussion questions that will work for their students.  A great example of the built-in differentiation options is the Investigate section in the fourth lesson. Teachers can choose from several data analysis worksheets, including adaptive versions of the worksheets for students who need additional support. The lessons in this cohesive unit can be used in succession or spread out over the course of a term. Each of the lessons has built-in opportunities for review and student reflection so that students can get a firm grasp on the material. 

Art for the Earth Unit Plans

Grade: 3rd, 4th, 5th

Subjects: Social Studies, Art, Civics, Science, English Language Arts, Social-Emotional Learning, Climate Action, Math

This innovative unit incorporates art into every lesson.

Lesson 1 - Renewable and Nonrenewable Energy

In lesson one - Renewable and Nonrenewable Energy - students will view artwork from scientist and artist Jill Pelto and discuss how the artwork makes them feel. Students will then listen to a read-aloud of a picture book on clean energy, read two news articles on energy,  revisit two pieces of Jill Pelto’s artwork, and complete one of two reflection activities.

Lesson 2 - Deforestation and Habitat Destruction

Lesson two - Deforestation and Habitat Destruction - starts with a video on deforestation. Students will then look at two pieces of artwork that feature habitat destruction and discuss their thoughts and emotions surrounding the pieces. Afterward, students will watch a video about a boy in Germany who started a tree planting project called Plant for the Planet and can choose to learn about climate activist Wangari Maathai or to design a climate action plan to combat deforestation. 

Lesson 3 - Plastic World

Lesson three - Plastic World - begins with a social-emotional learning activity. Students will use their facial expressions to show their partners how photographs of plastic waste around the world make them feel. Afterward, students will watch a video on plastic pollution and discuss plastic waste in their community. Students will use artwork critiquing cards to discuss three pieces of art that depict plastic pollution. They will choose the artwork that inspired them the most and use the artwork critique star to explain why.

Lesson 4 - What Can YOUth Do?

In lesson four - What Can YOUth Do? - students begin by discussing and journaling about their environmental concerns. In the Investigate section, teachers may choose between two options - a youth activist research activity or a picture book read aloud and discussion. Finally, students will develop a plan to address a local environmental issue, design a data collection sheet, and collect data to support their campaign.

Lesson 5 - Data Review and Action Plan

Lesson five - Data Review and Action Plan - picks up where lesson four left off. Students will analyze the data they collected and turn it into a line graph that they will use to create a piece of artwork in the style of Jill Pelto. Students will research their topic and plan how they will use their line graph in their artistic piece.

Lesson 6 - Create and Evaluate

In lesson six - Create and Evaluate - students will learn how color can invoke emotion, practice watercolor techniques, and analyze how Jill Pelto uses watercolor in her artwork. Students will plan their art pieces by thinking about their target audience, deciding where they will display their artwork, and creating a rubric for the audience to evaluate their piece. The lesson culminates with students producing their own artwork using the line graph from lesson five, displaying their artwork, and using the rubric to score themselves.

This unit will appeal to creative thinkers and artistic students who will be delighted to put their often overlooked skills to work! All of the lessons in this unit are aligned to Australian and United States learning standards. Many of the lessons have optional extension activities that teachers can use to lengthen the unit or assign for independent work or homework. Unlike some of the social studies unit plans, the lessons in the Art for the Earth unit are designed to be completed in order. The activities in lessons fourfive, and six build on one another, giving students the chance to produce a final art project that showcases their personal reflection, research, analysis, and painting techniques.

These social studies unit plans will challenge students to think about climate change as a topic that fits into all academic subjects and all facets of modern life. Teachers will find that the unit plans address difficult issues, like environmental justice, mental and physical health, artistic activism, and the need for more renewable energy, in approachable and meaningful ways. Through these social studies unit plans, students will have the opportunity to evaluate local environmental problems, educate the people around them, and understand the power they have to take individual and collective action and make changes in their communities.

About the Author

Emily has a bachelor’s degree in English and French and a master’s degree in library and information science. She spent seven years teaching information evaluation and research skills as a school librarian in K-8 public schools. As a lifelong resident of Southern Louisiana, Emily has a particular interest in how climate change affects coastal regions. She hopes to connect educators with resources that will help them to teach their students about the disproportionately adverse effects of climate change on historically marginalized communities.