Grade Levels: 3-5, 6-8, 9-12

In this lesson plan which is adaptable for grades 5-12, students use BrainPOP resources (including a free online social studies game, Branches of Power) to learn about checks and balances and the branches of government.

Students will:

  1. Explore the checks and balances system through interactive game play.
  2. Explain how a law is passed.
  3. Understand the role of each branch of government.



congress; representative; senator; bill; policy; cabinet; checks and balances; veto; impeach


This lesson plan features a free interactive game from iCivics. You can reference the teacher’s guide, an iCivics lesson plan, and curriculum resources on the iCivics site.

The basic goal of the game is for the players to put issues and ideas into law by interacting as all three branches of government. Students get to select characters and values and change branches throughout the game. You will need to allow at least 30 minutes for students to win the game, as they might need to try multiple times. You can spread the game play out across several lessons or class periods. The game does provide support when students get stuck, as they can pause the game to get reminders about their values via the legislative values legend that appears. They can also turn the help box off and on at any time. Keep in mind that you can pause the game by pressing P on your keyboard, and the music will pause, as well.

Before beginning this lesson, be sure that students have sufficient background information on the branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) as well as the checks and balances system. You may also want to familiarize students with the core values presented in the game (liberty, equality, competition, cooperation, cost savings, and generosity.)

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Build anticipation for the lesson by bringing up some issues the kids care about, such as wearing school uniforms, off-campus lunch policies, soda/junk food machines at school, the legal driving age, etc. Ask students if they have any idea how "big decisions" are made and how these regulations and laws are changed.
  2. Explain that if students wish they could run things differently, they'll have their chance during today's activity. Tell the class they'll be playing an interactive, online game called Branches of Power which will allow them to do something that no one else can: control all three branches of government! They'll have the power to write any laws they want about issues they choose.
  3. Inform the class that they'll need to be cautious and alert during the game, because there's a lot to juggle when you're playing all three branches. For that reason, you're going to help them gain the background knowledge necessary to be successful.
  4. Hand out a blank printed copy of the Graphic Organizer, and also project it for the class to see. Use this organizer as a whole class brainstorming tool to find out what student already know about the three branches of government.
  5. Watch the Branches of Government movie in groups or as a whole class. Pause the movie as needed and allow students to add details from the movie to their graphic organizer. After the movie is over, the whole class can take turns sharing additional details to add to the whole class graphic organizer. Keep the class organizer displayed for student reference during the remaining activities.
  6. Students can take the Quiz individually or as a class to assess learning before moving on to the game. Clear up any student misconceptions as needed.
  7. Explain that students will have a chance to play an online interactive game to practice what they've learned about the branches of government. Go over the Branches of Power game instructions and then play the tutorial demo as a class.
  8. Make sure students understand that the basic goal is for players to put issues and ideas into law by interacting as all three branches of government. They get to select characters and values and change branches throughout the game. They can switch power to different branches, but need to watch what all branches are doing at all times. Inform students that they might need to replay the game multiple times in order to win, and that they will have more opportunities to play during other class periods. Also tell students that they can pause the game as needed to get reminders about their values via the legislative values legend that appears, and inform students that they can turn the help feature on or off at any time.
  9. Have students play the game in groups, collaborating on each decision point and taking turns being the controller. As they pass laws, students should print up the certificates and passed laws to keep track of points earned.
  10. Students that finish early can complete the Webquest on branches of government.
  11. After each group successfully wins the game by passing the necessary amount of laws, the teacher can facilitate a class discussion with questions about the iCivics game: What did you learn about how the government works? How would you summarize what you learned about how the branches interact with one another? Can you summarize in just one word? Who really had the power in the game? Explain. Which role did you like playing the best? Why? If you could change something about how laws are made, what would it be?

Extension Activities:

As a class, watch the How a Bill Becomes a Law movie, pausing at key points to discuss. Afterward, replay the movie section that features Moby’s letter to the senator and discuss. Have students reflect on what they learned from both BrainPOP and the iCivics game, and jot down ideas or issues that they believe should be made into laws. Students may want to write about things that affect their school, local community, or laws that they feel would help society in general. Have students select one idea that they feel passionate about, and compose a letter to their local representative or senator, explaining why their idea should become a law. Consult local government websites to obtain representative or senator contact information, and review each student's final copy. Mail off the letters and track students' next steps over the course of the school year.

You may also want to utilize the other Social Studies Games featured in GameUp, many of which focus on civics and government.