Written by Jane Rutstein Shay

Above: Map of the “Arcan” Civilization as designed by my 5th-grade class. The map’s legend is written in our invented language, which is written from top to bottom instead of left to right.

We are about to land on a new planet, Nearth. We are here to settle and live. (Colonize – seems a loaded term to avoid here). Our spaceship descends, and we look out at the lands and waters around us… How will we live? What will our society look like? 

In 5th grade at my school, our Social Studies curriculum centers around the origins and growth of ancient civilizations. After a cursory study of several ancient river cultures, students are tasked with creating a civilization of their own making. This is a catalyst for many philosophical questions and discussions as the unit progresses. In the following, I will highlight one of the philosophical threads that precipitated during our unit this year: Are there rights that our society should guarantee its inhabitants regardless of their contribution to our civilization?

While the above is the direction this particular cohort focused on, previous classes have concentrated on whether their society needs money or if their culture can exist without eating animals. Within the development of a child-created civilization, discussions abound. Some other examples are: What kind of language should we have, pictorial or phonological languages? What age should people start to work? Does everyone get access to the same education? Such questions pop up with genuine curiosity. 

To make this simulation contextualized, the teachers devised a strange fantastical situation (or thought experiment). We have traveled to another planet (no reason provided). This planet is identical to the real planet Earth in every way excluding the existence of human beings. We are about to change that. Students are reminded not to question the absurd science and problematic circumstances themselves and instead focus on the task: Create a civilization or culture as a class that would develop based on the geographical characteristics of the region on Nearth (New Earth) upon which we happened to descend. Climactic and topographical conditions are determined through the roll of the dice, literally, as we describe the location to our students.  

This year we arrive in a valley between mountains where a long straight river flows; our climate is hot and dry and the main resource available to us is stone.  With those minimal guidelines, we are ready to assemble a way of life.

A chaotic excitement typically ensues as students are buzzing with ideas and questions about what our civilization should be. Students are brought back to the elements of cultures as we saw them in the ancient societies we previously explored. However, the structure of how this new civilization will live is yet to be determined. 

5th-graders, upper elementary grades, and early middle school students have an uncanny ability to “play” in the ambiguous area between imagination and reality. I have had students ask, “Are we really going to a new planet?” Some students question this plan with authentic wonder, just as they might still deliberate in the tooth fairy, even though they kind of know it isn’t real. In this way, the simulation model can be even more powerful for students than adults presented with a thought experiment. 

As we embark on setting up a new world, students are faced with the timeless dilemmas of living together. Students must struggle through the Big questions of ethics and social organization by necessity. As students begin to share ideas, it becomes obvious we will also need a way to decide what we want in our civilization.  Who should decide? The loudest voices? Those ideas with the most support?  Do we vote or work to consensus? Children are quick to point out that coming to a consensus in a group of 17 is difficult if not impossible. Students decide to fall back on the most used strategy as they have experienced it: voting. They vote for their student council representative and on other decisions that come before the class. It is a familiar heads-down/secret ballot process. I point out to students that there are many decisions that they don’t make at all since they are determined by the teacher.  However, autocracy doesn’t seem fair now that they have been given the reigns over a whole new society.  So, we vote.  We share; we debate; we vote.

Soon, our civilization takes form.  One of the interesting things about handing the power to students, particularly 5th-grade students, is that they value fairness… a lot.  When presented with two opposing views, they seek justice. Unlike the adult mind, I have found students to possess the ability to allow two (seemingly opposing) values to hold simultaneously.  This year, my class determined one of our values to be “individual choice and freedom” and another value to be “community sustainability and doing what’s best for the whole community”. There are myriad examples of how these distinct values could create a confusing system. One question that came up was: Should people be able to do whatever job they want if we already have enough people doing that job? What if we need more farmers but no one wants to farm?

There is great value in the authenticity this creates experientially.  Questions like, “Should everyone be guaranteed food and shelter?” lead to robust discussions. In this case, another student wondered, “Why should someone get food if they don’t work?” At this point, we took a minute to look at what this could mean for our society as a whole. 

Another student adds, “Yea, if everyone gets food, why would anyone do work?”

“Maybe people can all get some food, but the best food goes to people who work hard,” a third student suggests. 

The conversation continues until I remind students to look at the values we had previously determined. If we value “doing what is best for the whole community.”  How might this guide us in figuring out how to proceed? In order to preserve fairness, as it is interpreted by the students, everyone should be given enough food, but those with money from jobs will be able to purchase extra or particular ingredients by taste. 


While this experiential learning is particular to our 5th-grade curriculum and social studies standards, the essential activity might take different expressions in other grade levels and ages. The key piece to the project, the one that makes these questions feel real, is the authenticity of the questions. By centering students inside the thought experiment, the activity of creation and problem-solving are concrete and meaningful. 

In a kindergarten or early elementary school classroom, this activity might take the form of designing the class community and its essential goals and values:

  • How do we create a community at school that is safe and fun for everyone?
  • Who should get to make what decisions in our classroom?
  • What do we need from each other to learn?
  • How can we make sure our classroom is a fair place?

A middle school or high school classroom might delve further into ideas of social contract theory.  They might use mock trials or a constitutional convention to ground the questions in an experiential simulation.  

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