Abstract 2, Volume 8, Number 3, Winter 2013

Social Studies Beginnings: Investigating Very Young Children’s Prior Knowledge of a Disaster

Cynthia Szymanski Sunal

Julianne M. Coleman

The University of Alabama


An investigation of very young children’s perceptions of a natural disaster, a tornado, used a stratified random sample of 40 children, aged 4-5 years, from a population of 108 in ten classes. The study also investigated a research protocol for ascertaining prior knowledge through children’s responses: physical representation, drawing responses, and retelling of personal stories through dictating captions for drawings.  Two data sets were taken soon after the tornado.  The children physically represented what happens in a tornado and how one takes shelter.  Drawings increased in complexity by the second data set.  Children’s stories included personal experiences: houses lost or damaged, being scared, friends missing, and wanting a significant other.   Researchers can use a variety of methods to investigate very young children’s prior knowledge.  An implication is that disaster education has a role in early social studies education promoting meaningful understanding by children of dangers posed, protecting oneself, and coping with the aftermath.  Such a role is increasingly important as recent major U.S. disasters have impacted large numbers of citizens including our very young students.  Further research especially with very young children in the area of disaster and hazards education is warranted in the field of social studies education. 

Download article as PDF