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Teach Your Children to Think “Geographically”

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“Teaching Geography” by Vicki Bentley (includes sidebar of online resources)

By Valerie Downey

When God created Adam from the dust of the ground, He also planted a garden and set Adam into it (Gen. 2:7–14). Four rivers in Eden are named, and two special trees are described there. God put Adam in charge of this “place.”

Geography is an easily overlooked subject. Let me encourage you to include it in your homeschool—not necessarily as a separate subject, though there are great materials for geography courses available . At our house, we incorporate geography learning as a natural part of our lifestyle—I call it “a sense of place.” We incorporate this sense of place into our homeschool by paying attention to geography at our home, while traveling, and by frequently using the tools of the trade.

Know Your Compass

Do you know which direction your house opens up to? When you step out your front door, does the morning sun meet you in the face, or is it glowing behind your house at that time? If it’s the former, then your home opens to the east. If the latter, your house faces west. It may open toward the north, south, north-north-east, east-south-east, or some other degree in between. If this is Greek to you, then you need to start at the beginning: you need to learn the cardinal directions.

So while you are reading this article, pull out a map or globe. If you don’t know which way your house is facing, the sun can tell you. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Face the sun in the morning … on your left is north, on your right, is south, and west is at your back. Now that you know which way your front door faces, stop and think about what direction you would go from the front door to reach your kitchen … laundry room … child’s bedroom, etc. Begin to refer to these directions when you send your child to a place in the house. “Johnny, you left your math book in the southeast corner of the living room, on the floor. Please put it back where it belongs.” “Kelly, I left my reading glasses on the end table at the north end of the couch—would you please bring them to me?”

If this exercise is too hard at first, then make yourself some simple signs for the living room, school room, or whatever large room you most often use as a family. Put up signs showing the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) in the room, or use masking tape to put arrows on the floor, pointing in those directions. When you and your children are accustomed to thinking in these directions inside the house, expand the game to your yard. Have a child walk to a special oak tree on the west end of your property, or talk about where the camellia bush is, in relationship to its nearest neighboring plant—the bush is southwest of the gum tree, for instance.

Take it on the Road

Once you feel confident that you know the four directions and can find them at your house, start to think in terms of those directions as you travel in your local area. Our home is located on North Boulevard, so named because it runs along the north edge of Walnut Hill. This little fact is important if you try to find your way around the neighborhood; if you hit my street, you know you’ve reached the northern boundary of Walnut Hill. There’s a South Boulevard, too, at the southern boundary.

Pay attention to the numbers of the routes you are traveling. Odd number routes (for example, Route 1, I-95, or I-85) run generally north-south, while even-numbered roads, such as 460 or 288, go east-west. (They do twist and turn, especially where they pass through cities, so you cannot assume you are always headed in a given direction just because you are on that route, however.) Talk about these directions as you take your kids to your co-op, or piano lessons, etc. Ask your child to describe each direction you are turning to as you drive to church, and again as you drive home. Once again, remember the sun; if the sun is burning your eyeballs in the late afternoon, you are headed due west. If it’s tanning your left arm in the morning, you are traveling toward the south.

The next part of geography that you should make your students aware of is terrain features. In other words, point out what kinds of land or water you are passing. If you live along or close to one of the major rivers or streams in the area, you may be able to point out the “fall line” of that waterway. The fall line is the point where water leaves the piedmont, or foothills, and falls to the coastal plain. You can see a clear example of this in the city of Richmond as you cross one of the large bridges into the city. As you travel north on the bridge, look to your left. You will see whitewater, tumbling over and around big rocks. On your right, the water is smooth and runs more deeply. Just a little way downstream from the city, the James River is deep enough to permit large cargo vessels to come to port. Teach these things to your children as you drive by, and coax them to remind you of what they learned about the river on your return trip over the bridge.

Naming Places

Whenever our family drives around this area, my husband likes to dramatically announce terrain features as we come to them: “Now crossing, the mighty Appomattox River! … Now passing the southern boundary of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed!” These serve to drill into the kids’ heads the realization that the way the land lies has an effect on the way people build, work, and live in that area.

My husband also likes to point out historical locations along the way, even ones that we’ve discussed over and over. The whole Southside area of Richmond has a wealth of big and little historical treasures. If you’ve never suddenly hit the brakes and pulled over to read an historical marker, it means you’ve lived here all your life and know what it says—or your husband isn’t a history buff like mine. Those roadside markers can help put a face on the place—at Graham Road and South Crater Road, a marker tells about the old men and the boys of Petersburg who marched out to defend the city just before it was besieged. Each of the hills in this area can tell a tale of battle, bravery, and sorrow. Take the time to attach the human stories to the places, and both the story and the place will stick in your child’s memory.

Once you have stirred an interest in “places” in your child’s mind, you can begin to tell him or her to use the tools of the trade. A globe is a great investment because you can visualize the world locations from afar. Or start with maps, preferably one good world map with physical features (mountains, rivers) on one side and political features ( cities, national boundaries) on the other. Add to this your local road maps, a state map, and maps of any countries or locations that you are studying in literature or history. My husband and I like to read to our children each evening. Stories by G.A. Henty, Rosemary Sutcliffe, and Mark Twain will include references to real places in history. Get out your maps and look up these locations as you read; the story and the places come to life. If you are able to incorporate these map studies into everyday life, your students will likely want to look at maps again.

Keep it Simple

You will want to include simple map work with other subjects. If you have a set of the old Golden Book encyclopedias, you will notice in them various maps of states with little symbols. Cows may represent dairy farms, wheat sheaves would represent that grain, etc. These kinds of basic maps really help a child grasp symbols of any kind on a map, and help you introduce the key, or legend, of maps. Just as a graph or chart has some sort of key that tells you what certain symbols, numbers, or groups of numbers on the chart mean, a map contains a key that will tell you the meaning of the map's colors, lines, and other symbols.

You can make up your own map practice work by printing one of the blackline master maps from National Geographic or from one of the map sources listed in Vicki’s sidebar. Decide what you want your student to show about the state of Virginia, for instance: Have her show mountains with a little upside down V symbol, draw rivers in blue pencil, and shade the coastal plain with a light green color, then make a box in the corner of the map page with those symbols and their explanations in the box. This is the key of the map; it unlocks the meaning of the symbols.

Show your children the keys on roadmaps. If you own any of the book maps with detailed grids of streets, roads, churches, and post offices, see if your child can identify your church, your local shopping center, etc. Show them how to use the grid to find a friend’s house. Look up their street name in the index and note the page number of the map it is on, and the grid letter and number. Turn to that page and follow the letter and number from side and top until they meet in a square on the page. This map skill alone can save you hours of time if you are willing to look up a location and study the route to and from it before you leave your house. It can also keep you from becoming hopelessly lost when you hit an unexpected detour from a familiar route. Start teaching your children this skill, and they may even be able to serve as navigators while you drive!

Top Tips

Here are a few more pointers on teaching geography in your own home:

Subscribe to a magazine like National Geographic. (If you object to their evolutionary doctrine, you can still use those articles to prepare your children for what their peers may think.) National Geographic includes at least a half-dozen folded maps with each year’s magazines; I laminate those maps and let my kids sprawl on the floor, poring over them for hours if they wish. The maps alone are worth the full subscription price, so if the magazine offends you too much, just save only the articles you think are worthwhile and keep the maps.

A cheaper alternative: watch for church garage sales—they nearly always include back issues of National Geographic, or Travel and Leisure, or other magazines with geography information. I once bought a lunch sack full of old NG maps—of Vietnam during the war, ocean maps, old political maps of the U.S.S.R., etc. You may find similar treasures if you hunt for them.

If it is at all possible, within your budget, take your family on a road trip beyond the borders of the state. Make sure your children are spending at least part of the time looking out the windows (no DVDs, please) and ask them about what they see … Mountains? Farmland? Industrial areas? Camp in a state park somewhere or stay with a friend or relative who can spare the room. Show your students the road map, recording your trip and observations as you go. This is probably the most significant way to get your students interested in maps or geography.

My parents were able to take our family on a tour of western states when I was only six. I can still recall the desolation and the prairie dogs of the Badlands, the grizzly bear that walked by our car in Yellowstone, and the awesome silence of the Grand Canyon. That may be more than you can afford, but your children should not grow up in Virginia and never see the ocean, or a mountain, or cross the Bay-Bridge Tunnel to the Eastern Shore. One road trip can produce enough wanderlust to help your children seek out travel stories instead of comic books in the library.

When Jesus spoke to his disciples during the Last Supper, he comforted them with these words: “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1–4). Place is important to God, so even though this world is not really our home, it is the place God has given us to study, enjoy, and minister in until He calls us to the perfect Place.


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