June 19, 2013

Painless Geography Lessons: Part 1



Geography is one of my passions.  I majored in it in college and I loved every minute of my classes.  As I began to homeschool, I was excited to teach geography to my kids and help them become fascinated with the world around them.  I tried to find some workbooks and lesson plans to help me, but I was a bit disappointed by the way they tended to make a truly engrossing subject terribly dry.  I’ve found that when it comes to geography, many of the most effective teaching methods have been simple and unstructured and easy to incorporate informally into our homeschool. 

Perhaps some of you, when I mention geography, are thinking “Nooooo!  I can barely keep my head above water with math and language and history and science!  Don’t make me have to think about one more subject!”  Well, I wouldn’t bring it up if I didn’t truly think it was extremely important.  But I also think you can teach it without a lot of extra work or stress.  Let me explain how. 

In order to teach your kids geography, there is one key question you need to ask and explore together: 

Why is What Where? 

Did you get that?  Read it again slowly.  Think about it.  This is not just a question, but a mindset that will open up a world of discovery.  Geography is supposed to be exciting and interesting.  Geography intertwines with every other subject you teach.  If you can get your kids to think about this question often as they learn about history and science and politics and everything else, you will have kids that can think outside the box. 

Talk about this with your kids.  Start with where you are.  Where is a very important word, and it has a huge impact on who we are and what we think and how we act.  So, where are you? 

What is there with you?  What kinds of foods do you eat?  What kinds of jobs do the people around you do?  What do they do for fun?  What kind of houses do they live in?  What churches do they go to?   How do people dress?  There are so many things to notice. 

Now add the why.  Why do you live/eat/work/play the way you do?  There are natural factors involved such as climate, weather, landforms, soil, natural resources, animals and insects.  There are also human components such as governments and ethnic groups and industries. 

You don’t need to sit your kids down and have a big long lecture on this.  This is an ongoing conversation to have with them in bits and pieces here and there.  I think the best place to talk about geography is in the car.  As you drive around town, point things out.  Why is that there?  What does it tell you about the place you live? 

The point is that you want them to understand that the whats where you live have a why behind them and that means that other wheres have different whats and whys.  And that makes the world incredibly interesting. 

Many of you will be traveling this summer, even if it’s just to the next town over.  Anytime you go anywhere you can point this stuff out and talk about it.  What is different in this place than at home?  How is the natural landscape different?  How are the buildings different?  What are the regional specialties and icons?  What is the same?  And then the all-important question: why? 

We are having a lot of fun with this lately as we have recently moved.  The climate, vegetation, and land forms are very different here than where we came from.  The economy is structured around different industry.  We are noticing and discussing all kinds of small differences, such as the influence of the ethnic groups that settled in the area.  We’re buying butter in short, fat cubes instead of longer, skinnier ones, and the mayonnaise jar says “Best Foods” instead of “Hellman’s,” even though it’s made by the same company.  Little things like that are the perfect things to ask why about. 

If you’re not going anywhere, you can still do this at home with every book you read and every movie you watch.  We have had interesting discussions lately about the Swiss Alps as we have read Heidi together and I have also fielded a lot of questions about Australia and the Great Barrier Reef because the kids’ current favorite movie is Finding Nemo.  You probably do a lot of this anyway… all you have to do is be aware that this is very important teaching and perhaps take the discussion a little further and—Presto!—you’re giving them some of the most important components of a geographic education. 

Start simple with young children.  If they seem bored, don’t push it too far.  You just want them to be aware.  But if you keep at it, your children in time will catch the vision and develop an interest in the spatial component of our earthly experience.  That’s when you can really have them get into the why and do their own research.  This will open many doors in their minds.  They will enjoy the world around them more.  They will be more comfortable with new places, people, and ideas.  They will be more compassionate and understanding of other people.  And that is far more than you will get from a workbook. 


Sarah (Birrd) and her husband (Badger) and their six beautiful children are enjoying exploring their new home in a small town in the mountains of the western United States.  She is loving the cooler weather, the abundance of wildlife, and the scent of Russian Olive trees.  She is looking forward to attending her first rodeo this summer, and she’ll post all about it on her personal blog, The Birrd’s Nest.

4 comments - Add a comment below -:

Daphne said...

So what do you use to teach geography? I have only seen a few programs and I hate them. They are boring to me, than I know my kids won't do them.

Lisa said...

I've really enjoyed teaching geography to my kids. I think our approach mirrors a lot of what you shared. When my son was 9, we spent some time studying shelters. We basically looked at the question of how people in different parts of the world built shelters to reflect the climate and resources of the areas where they lived--African mud huts, southwestern US Native American adobe houses, igloos in the arctic, stilt houses in tropical areas, grass wickiups by the Goshute Indians in our part of Utah, etc. Then I had him choose his favorite kind of shelter and build a model. He chose a log cabin. It was really fun. This past year at age 9, we started with local geography, beginning with our neighborhood and town, then our valley, our state, etc. Our main focus was how the people who have lived here throughout the ages used the land's natural resources. We made a papier mache relief map of our valley. We learned so much and took many field trips. Later in the year we started on North American/U.S. geography and took the same approach, also adding cooking, regional music and regional stories, etc. My son loved it! I also require my kids to hand-draw the maps of each area we study. I think it's good for them, and my son actually really loved and excelled at this. I agree, geography is fun! There is a wonderful series for people in the U.S. called Stories from Where We Live, edited by Sara St. Antoine. There is a book for many regions in the United States, full of stories of all sorts that take place in those regions, as well as detailed descriptions of the plants and animals of each region.

Birrd said...

Daphne, I have looked at a lot of different curricula and I haven't liked most of what I've seen. The only one I've used is the Trail Guide to World Geography. It's probably about as good as it gets as far as curricula go, though I would still like to see a program that really makes geography come alive. I may write one myself someday, once I have some more experience. :)

Lisa, what you're doing is awesome! I love hearing about it! And I'll have to check out that book... I haven't seen it before.

Anonymous said...

One thing we have done is join postcrossing.com. This allows us to send and receive postcards from all over the world. We usually take some time to find the country on the map and occasionally we will take some time to learn about the country.