The U.S. Constitution established a government built on the principle of separation of powers between three branches of government: the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Introducing this concept to kids involves simplifying complicated concepts and making antiquated language understandable. Luckily, government has many applications that are immediately accessible to young students. Teachers can teach students the branches of government by making them relatable to students' own lives.
Upper-level elementary students -- those in fourth and fifth grades -- should be able to read the Constitution and decipher its meaning. Let students read the Constitution and encourage them to focus specifically on sections and clauses that apply to the executive branch. These are the various clauses in Article II, Sections 1 through 4. Guide students through questions about the executive office: who leads it; how he is elected; when he is elected; what his constitutional duties and obligations are. This exercise will help students understand both the presidency and the executive branch, while allowing them to improve their reading comprehension.
Congress and the Legislative Branch
Young students in early elementary school can learn about Congress' lawmaking process by voting on issues as a class. Give groups of four or five students a pair of dice, and tell the students to decide on a game to play. Giving no other guidance than this, leave students alone for five minutes to create or choose their game. Afterward, ask members of the various groups how they decided on their game -- or if they decided at all. If some groups failed to choose a game, the teacher can suggest voting, and introduce the idea of lawmaking to students. Each group of students can serve as their own "Congress," and make laws that regulate how to use the dice appropriately.
Judiciary and the Courts
To teach students about the judiciary and the role of the courts, give them copies of the Bill of Rights. Younger students can have those rights written in contemporary language, so that they can more easily comprehend them. Next, give students a series of "laws" that might apply to the classroom, and let groups of students vote on whether the law agrees or disagrees with the various rights in the Bill of Rights. Let nuances of the laws vary by age. Examples for a younger class might include a law establishing a class religion to illustrate the First Amendment, while older students can look at more nuanced issues of constitutionality, such as a law that allows a teacher to check students' pockets upon entering the classroom, which relates to the Fourth Amendment.
Separation of Powers
Teachers can illustrate the separation of powers concept by informing students about the structure of their school. For example, show students how different types of school staffers fulfill different tasks, but together keep the school operating. The principal and assistant principal create the laws and curriculum for the school, while teachers supervise students and teach lessons. Custodial staffers clean the school, while cafeteria workers serve food. All of these different "branches" of the school together keep the school functioning, but also "check" each other branch's power. The principal can discipline teachers who perform poorly, while teachers assist cafeteria and custodial staffers by supervising children in the hallways and at lunch.
- University of Utah: S.J. Quinney College of Law: Kid's Court
- University of Virginia Center for Politics: Youth Leadership Initiative: Understanding the Constitution: Three Branches of Government
- California Courts: Balancing Act: The Three Branches
- U.S. House of Representatives: Office of the Clerk: Kids in the House: "From a Bill to a Law"
- National Constitution Center: Separation of Powers
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