24 Engaging Activity Ideas to Teach Students About the 20th Century

By Kirsten Hammond

One of my favorite social studies topics to teach to upper elementary students is about all of the events that happened during the 20th century. It’s packed with cultural shifts, technology leaps, and political changes that are just fascinating!

Teaching my fifth graders about US history was a blast for me, but finding the right resources was tough. I needed something that wasn’t too complicated but still covered the important stuff.

That’s why I created a curriculum unit specifically for the 20th and 21st centuries!

This four-week unit covers significant events and cultural shifts, allowing students to explore the era’s rich tapestry. Here’s a sneak peek at the 12 out of 15 lessons included in the unit that relate specifically to the 20th century:

  1. Introducing the 20th Century
  2. The 1900s and 1910s
  3. World War I
  4. The Roaring Twenties
  5. The Great Depression
  6. World War II
  7. The Cold War
  8. The Civil Rights Movement
  9. The 1960s
  10. The 1970s
  11. The 1980s
  12. The 1990s

Now, I know there’s so much more we could cover, like the 1940s or the 1950s, but I wanted to keep it focused. Still, this unit gives you plenty to work with!

Here are some engaging lessons and activities designed to help your upper elementary students explore the major themes, events, and advancements that shaped the modern world from the 20th century.

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Lesson 1: Introduction to the 20th Century

In this lesson, students will get an overview of the significant changes that occurred during the 20th century. From rapid technological advancements to globalization and political shifts, there’s a lot to cover!

Activity Ideas

  1. Timeline Creation: Students work in groups to create timelines highlighting key events from both centuries.
  2. Multimedia Presentations: Assign students or groups to research specific decades and create multimedia presentations highlighting major events and cultural shifts.

Lesson 2: The 1900s and 1910s

This lesson explores the early years of the 20th century, examining the political, social, and economic landscape leading up to World War I.

Activity Ideas

  1. Primary Source Analysis: Students analyze primary sources from the early 1900s to understand people’s experiences during this time.
  2. Research Project: Assign students specific events or figures from the early 1900s to research and present to the class.

Lesson 3: World War I

Students dive into the causes, events, and consequences of World War I, exploring its global impact.

Activity Ideas

  1. Trench Warfare Simulation: Create a mock trench system to simulate the conditions of trench warfare.
  2. Document-Based Question Analysis: Students analyze primary source documents related to World War I to deepen their understanding.

Lesson 4: The Roaring Twenties

This lesson delves into the cultural, social, and economic transformations of the 1920s.

Activity Ideas

  1. Jazz Age Playlist: Introduce students to jazz music from the era and discuss its cultural significance.
  2. Flapper Fashion Show: Host a fashion show where students dress up in 1920s attire and discuss the era’s fashion trends.

Lesson 5: The Great Depression

Students explore the causes, impacts, and responses to the Great Depression.

Activity Ideas

  1. Stock Market Simulation: Simulate the stock market to illustrate the economic challenges of the Great Depression.
  2. Dust Bowl Documentary Viewing: Show documentaries on the Dust Bowl and discuss its impact on American society.

Lesson 6: World War II

This lesson examines the causes, events, and outcomes of World War II.

Activity Ideas

  1. WWII Artifact Gallery Walk: Set up a gallery walk with artifacts from World War II for students to explore.
  2. Propaganda Analysis: Analyze wartime propaganda to understand its influence on public opinion.

Lesson 7: The Cold War

Students explore the geopolitical tensions and ideological conflicts of the Cold War era.

Activity Ideas

  1. Cuban Missile Crisis Role-Play: Simulate the tense negotiations of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  2. Cold War Artifact Analysis: Analyze Cold War artifacts to understand the era’s fears and tensions.

Lesson 8: The Civil Rights Movement

This lesson examines the struggle for civil rights in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

Activity Ideas

  1. Civil Rights Timeline: Create a timeline of key events in the Civil Rights Movement.
  2. Civil Rights Music Analysis: Analyze protest songs from the era to understand their impact on activism.

Lesson 9: The 1960s

Students explore the social upheaval and cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Activity Ideas

  1. Protest Poster Design: Design protest posters advocating for social change.
  2. Vietnam War Debate: Debate the causes and consequences of the Vietnam War.

Lesson 10: The 1970s

This lesson examines the cultural and political developments of the 1970s.

Activity Ideas

  1. Energy Crisis Simulation: Simulate the energy crisis to understand its economic impact.
  2. Disco Dance Party: Host a disco-themed dance party to explore 1970s culture.
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Lesson 11: The 1980s

Students explore the cultural and technological developments of the 1980s.

Activity Ideas

  1. Reaganomics Debate: Debate the economic policies of the Reagan era.
  2. MTV Music Video Analysis: Analyze music videos from the 1980s to understand their cultural impact.

Lesson 12: The 1990s

This lesson explores the cultural and technological transformations of the 1990s.

Activity Ideas

  1. Internet Revolution Timeline: Create a timeline of internet milestones. And while you’re at it, check out the very first website!
  2. Globalization Debate: Debate the impact of globalization on society and culture.

Check out the 20th Century and 21st Century Social Studies Unit

Unit 10 of the Smart and Simple Social Studies 5th grade curriculum goes beyond just the 20th century, covering recent decades and even events up to the 2020s. It’s aligned with fifth-grade Texas standards, so you know it’s solid. Click here to learn more about this fun unit!

But wait, there’s more! I also share additional lesson ideas (already laid out for you) that you can incorporate into your teaching. It’s all about making history come alive for your students.

kirsten hammond

Kirsten is a former 3rd and 5th grade teacher who loves helping upper elementary teachers by creating resources and sharing ideas that are engaging, research-based, and TEKS-aligned. She is a work-from-home mama of 3 rambunctious little ones and loves running, true crime, and lots of coffee.

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