Social Studies on the Road
The License Plate Game
Watching for interesting license plates is a great way to keep kids entertained during road trips – with so many people traveling, the highways are filled with out-of-staters whose plates provide a great distraction from backseat boredom. Simply teaching kids to search for letters of the alphabet, colors, or specific digits can be enough to add some excitement to a somewhat monotonous drive, but expanding plate-searching games to become a family hobby can turn summer fun into full-time learning!
License plates reflect something unique about their state’s culture, landscape, or history – each state’s design says something about the place, whether it’s subtly hinted at through color and design or highlighted with colorful images. Arizona’s standard plate has a backdrop of a beautiful desert scene, while Ohio’s new license plates feature rolling hills, farms, and a small city. Some plates remind us of our state’s claims to fame, like Georgia’s peach plate, Maine’s specialty lobster and moose plates, and the Wyoming cowboy plate. Even the somewhat plain Massachusetts red, white, and blue plate represents the state’s place in American history.
By examining license plates, kids can learn a lot about the 50 states! Discussing with kids the reasons behind each state’s design can help them learn about geography, economics, and social studies, and can help them to develop their mental image of the differences in landscape around the country. They’ll learn to think critically about geographic locations by wondering why New England doesn’t produce citrus like the south does, and why the northwest coast of the country isn’t known for it’s lobster like the northeast coast is.
One great way to encourage your family to begin paying closer attention to license plates is by playing a plate-tracking game throughout the summer. Keep a piece of paper and pen easily accessible in your car, and whenever you see a new state, write it down! Hopefully, by the end of tourist season, you’ll have seen all 50 states, and perhaps most of the Canadian provinces (though Hawaii is tricky – and spotting it can prompt a discussion about how a car from Hawaii could ever end up in New England!). As your family becomes more plate-savvy, lots of interesting discussions and observations will likely take place, and there are lots of useful resources available for further learning.
Wikipedia offers an incredibly thorough article on current and former US license plates,. If you’re having trouble identifying a plate, check out a full list of plate images offered by the US 50 – a print-out of the page could even be used for reference in the car!
Kids who develop a particular interest in license plate studies can even find useful books on the topic, and license plates old and new can be found at yard sales, flea markets, and antiques stores all over western Massachusetts.
Useful titles include:
- Nifty Plates from the Fifty States: Take a Ride Across Our Great Nation. Learn About the States from Their License Plates! by Paul Beatrice
- The Official License Plate Book by Thomas Murray
- License Plates of the United States: A Pictorial History, 1903 to the Present by James Fox (for older students)
[Photo credit: (ccl) Josh Kellogg]
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