Lesson 3

Connected and Free: Our 50 States 


Lesson Overview:

This lesson focuses on the 50 states. In Part 1, the students will compare and contrast the 13 colonies and make a whirligig toy. In Part 2, they'll recognize the similarities and differences between the federal, state and local governments and play a version of the card game War. In Part 3, they'll review little-known facts about the 50 states and challenge each other's knowledge by playing various games.


Content Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards


Learning Objectives:

The children will:

  • Compare and contrast the 13 colonies.
  • Define federation.
  • Distinguish between the powers of federal and state governments.
  • Identify the five types of local governments.
  • Tell what services local governments provide.
  • Review state trivia.

Part 1: The States Were Colonies

Before America declared its independence from Britain, the states were British crown colonies. As they discuss the following information, the students will fill in "The 13 Colonies" section of the reproducible page with the names of the groups, the states included in the groups and what was produced in those areas. The words in boldface indicate suggested answers.
The New England colonies had good harbors and large forests. Many colonists lived in villages and towns around the harbors, where they fished, built ships and traded furs. Farming was difficult because of the shorter growing season and rocky soil. The Middle colonies had excellent farmland.  The colonists grew rye, wheat, corn, barley and fruit, and raised livestock. They made tools and other items from iron they mined and exported (shipped) large amounts of it to Britain. The Southern colonists were chiefly farmers. They grew and exported tobacco, rice, cotton and indigo, a blue dye made from native plants.
Pass out pennies. Ask the children to study them carefully and complete the blank spaces on the front and reverse sides of the pennies on the reproducible. They'll notice E Pluribus Unum (pronounced ē ploor' i bus yoo' num) on the penny's reverse side. Ask someone to read the phrase aloud - what language is it? E pluribus Unum is Latin for "Out of many, one." They will write the definition in the space provided on the reproducible. This phrase means the United States is a country made of many states.
Point out United States of America, also on the reverse side. Ask them what the word united means. The Declaration of Independence referred to the 13 colonies as "united colonies."

The chart about the 13 colonies may be copied and distributed to the children for additional information. Each colony became a state when it approved the Constitution.


Discussion Question:

  • If you were a new colonist, in which colony would you settle - New England, Middle, Southern -- and why?


MP3: This Nation Born of Colonies

The lyrics may be reproduced.  The students can sing or follow along. After listening, discuss the song using the discussion questions:

  • "May its flag wave forevermore": Why is a flag so important to a country's citizens? (Possible answer: A flag represents the country to its citizens. When they see it flying high and proud, it reminds them of the love they have for their country.)
  • "To 50 states self-governed at our nation's heart": How do we know the states are self-governed? (States have their own governments, their own legislative, executive and judicial branches.) Can the states do whatever they want? (No. All state laws must follow the U.S. Constitution.)


Activity: Colonial Toys and Games

Colonial children lived hundreds of years ago, but they were similar to today's. They liked playing outside when the weather cooperated and enjoyed blind man's bluff, leapfrog, London Bridge, rounders and hopscotch. The children may enjoy finding out more about colonial games. Each can research a game and then teach the others how to play. See the Level 2 Resources.

Rounders, also called Townball, resembled baseball and is still played today. The ball is pitched underhanded by the feeder (pitcher) wherever the striker (batter) wants. He or she gets unlimited chances to hit the ball. When the ball is hit, the striker runs the sanctuaries (bases) clockwise. If the hit is caught in the air or on one bounce, or if the striker is plugged (hit with the ball) when not on a sanctuary, he or she is out and remains out until the entire side is retired. Then the teams change sides.

A hopscotch grid may be painted on the surface of a nearby playground, or may be easily drawn with a piece of chalk. Each player needs a stone or other marker. Taking turns, they toss their markers into the squares in numerical order. If the marker doesn't land in the desired square, or if it lands on a line, the player's turn ends and s/he must toss the marker there on the next turn. If the marker does land in the desired square, the player hops on one foot into each of the squares in order and back to start again. If the squares are side by side, they are straddled. If the player successfully hops through the squares and back to start, he or she immediately tosses the marker to the next square and repeats the process. The first player to successfully toss the marker into all the squares in order and hop through the course after each toss wins.


Reproducible: Make a Colonial Whirligig

Colonial toys were items readily available or easily made. Hoops, kites, jumping ropes, tops and whirligigs were all favorites. A whirligig is a spinning toy on a string. It's very easy to make one.

In addition to the "Make a Colonial Whirligig" reproducible, they'll need:

  • Scissors.
  • 2-1/2 foot lengths of string per child.
  • Markers.
  • Hole punch.
  • Glue.
  • Very stiff cardboard.

Part 2: The States Have Power

Reproducible: Our Federalist Government

While the students discuss the following information, they will complete the reproducible, using the boldface words.



The United States has a federalist system of government, which means the power is divided between the central (federal) and state governments. The Constitution gives the states all rights not belonging to the federal government.

State powers. The states have three branches and their own constitutions, just like the federal government. The state legislatures make laws, which must agree with the Constitution, since it's the "supreme Law of the Land." No state law can overrule federal laws. The states have limited power in some areas. For instance, they cannot declare war against another country.

State laws. Each state must honor the laws and contracts of other states. Citizens have the right to travel freely between states, but states can't protect a criminal who flees from another state. They may not charge special taxes on items they sell to citizens from other states.

State officials. Each state's citizens elect a governor and lieutenant governor. Governors meet regularly to talk about issues like schools, health care and the environment. State officials in the same region may meet to discuss common interests, problems or current concerns, like a drought or flu epidemic.

Local governments. Each state has hundreds of local governments, which have different responsibilities, depending on their location. They charge local taxes and fees to citizens in order to:

  • Keep citizen records.
  • Maintain local roads and streets.
  • Run local elections.
  • Provide police and fire protection.
  • Provide electricity and natural gas.
  • Collect garbage and recycle.
  • Provide local transportation.
  • Build new buildings. 
Federal government​ State governments​
Collects and raises taxes (House only). Collects and raises state taxes.
Makes federal laws.​ Makes state laws (must agree with federal laws).​
Borrows money.​ Borrows money.
Declares war.​ Can't declare war.​
Oversees commerce between states and between the U.S. and other nations.​ Oversees commerce within state.
Coins money.​ Can't coin money.​
Makes policies with other nations.​ Can't make agreements with other nations or other states.
Manages armed forces; can call up state militia for federal missions. Manages state militia (now the Army National Guard).
Can't change state boundaries or create a new state out of an existing state.​
Can't separate from United States.​
Does educational research, awards financial aid, guards against discrimination.​ Establishes and supervises all state schools.
Passes laws regarding voting and elections. Conducts national and state elections.
Plans roads, improves safety. Maintains most roads, highways.
Proposes and passes amendments to the constitution.​ Approves amendments to the Constitution.​
Makes sure water is safe to drink, sets standards for drinking water. Helps communities by providing money for water lines and water to the state.


Reproducible: Who's Got the Power? Card Game

Who's Got the Power? is based on the popular War card game and is a good review of the powers of federal, state and local governments.


1. Have the students cut apart the cards.

2. Divide the students into pairs.

3. One student from each pair shuffles and deals all the cards.

4. The pair decides which of them will represent the federal government and which will represent the state/local governments.

5. The cards are turned over, one at a time, from each player's stack.

6. If the power shown on the card belongs to the player's type of government, the player keeps the card and places it at the bottom of his deck face-down. (Example: "Declares War" represents the federal government, but not the state/local governments.)

7. If it doesn't, the other player "wins" the card.

8. Declaring war:

  • If neither card is won (if neither card "fits"), war is declared.
  • Both cards are kept on the table.
  • The players turn over the next cards in their decks.
  • If one player's card fits, he or she takes all four cards and adds them to the bottom of his/her deck.
  • If both players' cards fit, they take their own cards back and add them to the bottom of their decks, face-down.
  • If neither player's card fits, they turn over another card from their decks.
  • The war continues until one or both of the players' cards fit.

9. The player that eventually has all the cards is the winner.


Part 3: The States Are Unique 

Reproducible: States Trivia Chart

Copy the States Trivia Chart. It can be used to play 20 Questions and Around the World.

20 Questions:

One student secretly selects a state. The object of the game is for the other players to try to guess the state by asking 20 or fewer questions only answered with yes or no. Examples of questions:

    • Was this state admitted to the Union before 1900?
    • Does this state's name come from an American Indian word?
    • Was a president born in this state?

Around the World:

One student stands behind the chair of another and the leader asks a question from the chart, for instance: "What is the largest state?" The first to give the correct answer moves on. The other stays put. After playing for a period of time, the person who has competed against the most students and won is the winner.


Other Activities:

State Research

States have state birds, trees, flowers and songs, even dinosaurs and dances. Assign states and ask the student to find out some more unusual facts. (For example, Colorado's state colors are blue and white.) This information can be displayed on a U.S. map for all to learn. Or invite each student to make a poster or banner about the state.

State Quarters

Beginning in January 1999, the U.S. Mint released a new state quarter every 10 weeks in the order the states were admitted to the Union. Assign each child one or more states. They can collect the actual quarters or print the images off the U.S. Mint's website.

State Flags

What symbols, words or colors are on the state flag? What do they mean? Have the children research the answers on the 50 States Flag website or read Sue R. Brandt's book State Flags (see Level 2 Resources section).