Civics Education Resource Site

Curriculum Design Toolkit: Simulations of Democratic Processes

Simulations of democratic processes allow students to "do civics" in a safe environment to learn and practice knowledge skills and dispositions. Simulations should be used wisely. We recommend simulations that have students take on roles of civic actors in mock trials, legislative hearings, or town halls, not personas or perspectives that could cause trauma or harm to others.

Simulations vary in time, preparation, and scope. Some simulations require background information, other simulations build background information as they progress. Many online games from providers like iCivics, provide structured simulations that can be used in traditional, remote, or hybrid classrooms.

Watch this one hour webinar for an overview of this proven practice of civic education.

Strategies to Create a Climate for Simulations of Democratic Processes

IllinoisCivics.org has curated resources to Create a Safe and Reflective Classroom for teaching civics. Resources include strategies for engaging student voice in creating and maintaining norms.

Preparing Students for Simulations of Democratic Processes

The Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools published by The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of School outlines six proven practices of civic education, including simulations of democratic processes.

Teachers can prepare for success in simulation by creating learning experiences that help students:

  • Understand the essential and supporting questions related to the simulation.
  • Identify the learning standards (disciplinary content and/or skill) to be employed in the simulation.
  • Analyze appropriate materials to acquire the background information necessary to fulfill role expectations.
  • Pinpoint the pertinent civic dispositions and processes inherent in the simulation.

Providing Background for Simulations of Democratic Processes

Elections and Voting

Visit the Elections and Voting Toolkit for resources to ground electoral simulations.

The Legislative Branch

The Executive Branch

The Judicial Branch

State and Local Government

Budgets and Government Spending

Student Participation in Simulations of Democratic Processes

Simulations should not be relegated to “dessert” at the end of a unit. At their best, simulations are the “meat and potatoes” of a rich learning experience in which students “do civics” in a safe environment. Student participation in simulations helps our youngest community members gain a deeper understanding of the roles, responsibilities, and institutions that gird our constitutional republic.

Successful simulations have students:

  • Discern the multiple roles, motivations, and perspectives of others in the simulation and identify appropriate allies to build coalitions necessary in simulation.
  • Anticipate challenges and employ systemic supports within the simulation.
  • Employ appropriate norms of participation throughout the simulation consistent with their tasks.
  • Identify and use appropriate means of communication consistent with the simulation (oral, digital, written, visual, other).

Picking the Right Simulation

Choosing the Right Simulation from the Constitutional Rights Foundation-Chicago gives a thumbnail description of the various simulations of democratic processes to consider.

Simulations of Democratic Processes for Classrooms

Elections and Voting

  • 270 to Win allows students to choose states on an interactive map to create their own election forecast. There are also maps related to congressional and state legislative elections.
  • The iCivics online game Cast Your Vote has students discover what it takes to become an informed voter — from knowing where you stand on important issues to uncovering what you need to know about candidates.
  • There are Iowa Caucus classroom simulations from the Iowa Secretary of State, one for Democrats and another for Republicans.
  • iCivics has created a three day Mock Election simulation. Students explain the steps taken from party formation to national election and act out the campaigning and voting process by simulating a real election in their own classroom.
  • The iCivics online game Win The White House challenges students to build a presidential campaign by building arguments to support timely issues, strategically raising funds to support your campaign, keeping campaign momentum through targeted media campaigns and personal appearances, and polling local voters to see what issues resonate.

Legislative Branch

iCivics online games that simulate legislative processes.

  • In Branches of Power, students learn how all three branches of government are involved in public policy.
  • In LawCraft, students select a district to represent in the House of Representatives. They then review letters from constituents, dig into survey data, and select an issue that's important to the people that live in the district.

Executive Branch

  • In the iCivics Executive Command online game, students can be President for four years and try to accomplish their agenda while facing the challenges and responsibilities that crop up along the way.
  • Scholastic has an “If You Were President…” Simulation from grades 3-5.
  • The National Museum of American Diplomacy Foreign Policy Simulations connects high school students with the world of American diplomacy, increasing their understanding of diplomacy and inspiring them to be involved in foreign affairs.
  • The Robert H. Jackson Center has a Presidential Cabinet Simulation that reacts to events involving ISIS.

Judicial Branch

iCivics online games that simulate elements of judicial review

  • Do I Have a Right? is available in English and Spanish. It also includes optional voice overs to support gameplay. Participants run a law firm who specialize in constitutional law. Decide if potential clients have a right, match them with the best lawyer, and win their case.
  • Arguments Wars is available to play in English and Spanish. Participants try out persuasive abilities by arguing a real Supreme Court case.
  • Court Quest Explores state and federal courts as players help passengers navigate their path through the American judicial system. Resources are available to support ELL learners.

State and Local Governments

  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation Civic Action Project has several simulations where students emulate local governments.
  • Town Hall meetings are a great simulation to engage students in deliberation on local topics. Both Facing History and Ourselves and Read-Write-Think have clear instructions to facilitate this process.
  • The Foundation for Teaching Economics has several simulations that marry financial literacy with public policy. Linked is a simulation of a local land-use hearing. Every 10 years, state legislatures play an important role in redistricting.
  • Need a low tech, 15-minute redistricting simulation? This Gerrymandering Exercise from Peter Pappas fits the bill.
  • iCivics has a Media Moment Mini-lesson, students have the opportunity to try their hand at a simplified districting exercise and learn about the common gerrymandering practices of packing and cracking districts. Students then explore the media’s traditional roles as gatekeeper, agenda setter, and watchdog.
  • iCivics has an online game that simulates How Counties Work

Budgets and Government Spending

  • The JFK Library has a Federal Budget Simulation
  • The Fiscal Ship from the Brookings Institute challenges students to put the federal budget on a sustainable course.
  • PBS Learning Media has a Participatory Budgeting simulation that allows students to develop an Action Plan and Budget proposal that will address an issue in their community. Students will summarize and present their proposals to students and school administration in the form of an Elevator Pitch.

Tools for Reflection on Simulations of Democratic Processes

It is important that students engage in reflective practices throughout the learning process to evaluate how thinking has evolved or clarified, assess the effectiveness of participation and opportunities for growth.

IllinoisCivics.org has resources to Create Safe and Reflective Classrooms.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT RESOURCES FROM ILLINOIS CIVICS