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Teaching Geography

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“As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

—Psalm 103:12 (NKJV)

By Vicki Bentley
HSLDA Toddlers to Tweens consultant

If you know me or have read much of my material, you know I am extremely geographically challenged. I’m not sure why—my father was a navigator. He even taught me celestial navigation, which I in turn taught to the eighth grade science classes in my junior high school (does this give meaning to the term “space cadet”?). But as a result of my iffy spatial skills, I have been known to get lost to the point of tears in a parking garage. I even got lost for more than 20 minutes, less than a mile from home (and we’d lived there for six years). The only way I function in a car nowadays is by GPS.

So it was really important to me that my children learn to think geographically, in spite of their mom. I purposed to expose them to geographical terminology, various cultures, political structures, map skills, and atlases.

We bought a large world map and a large U.S. map (poster size, from the poster section of Wal-Mart). I put the world map on top of the U.S. map on the dining room table and covered the entire table with a clear plastic tablecloth, then gave the children blank maps of one continent at a time, with a list of cities and features to label. This was very low-key; I allocated about an hour a week to this and they often did it as a group activity, with maps and colored pencils in hand at the table. I figured that if they went through a continent a month, they’d know more in a year than their mom did. And we repeated it each year, alternating U.S. and world maps.

Far Afield

Since my husband was in the Army, our children had lived in various regions of the United States so were familiar with the Indian tribes of Oklahoma, and the cultures of Louisiana, as well as the beaches, mountains, and fields of the East Coast. And global seeds had been planted earlier in their lives as they anticipated missions work in India, Jamaica, Venezuela, Mexico, and Romania, then researched, saved, and set out on their travels.

When we read books set in different areas of the world, we’d look the areas up—The Story about Ping is set in China; Strawberry Girl led to a study of Florida. We showed the children how to use a compass. How to read the key of a map. Cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). Geographic terminology. And we gave them opportunities to travel, even if just from our living room: while it wasn’t until they had graduated that we could afford for them to actually see the Grand Canyon, Four Corners, Hoover Dam, the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, or the Rocky Mountains, the library had good videos to whet their appetites before they could go “in real life.”

It paid off. At one Day at the Capitol event, my teenage daughter got involved in a discussion with our state’s lieutenant governor (was there a question about socialization?). He commented that homeschooled students did so well, he was sure she even knew the capital of Ethiopia—to which my least-academically-inclined student casually replied, “Addis Ababa.” If my kids could learn geography in spite of my shortcomings, just think what yours can do!

Tips from a Geographic Ace

My friend Valerie, one of our support group moms, was an ace at geography. Her kids seemed to effortlessly compete at the state level in the geography bee year after year. I asked her to write an article for our support group on how she taught her kids to think geographically. You can read the article in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

  • Incorporate geography learning as a natural part of your lifestyle—Valerie calls it “a sense of place.” You can incorporate this sense of place into your homeschool by paying attention to geography at home, while traveling, and by frequently using the tools of the trade.
  • Incorporate cardinal directions—north, south, east, west—into everyday living. (For suggestions, see Valerie’s article).
  • Pay attention to the numbers of the routes you are traveling. Odd-numbered 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.
  • Make your students aware of terrain features such as fall lines, piedmont, and more.
  • Point out historical locations along the way, even ones that you’ve discussed over and over. 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.
  • Get out your maps and look up locations as you read in your schoolwork; 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.
  • 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 the 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 how to use the map grid to find a friend’s house. Start teaching your children this skill, and they may even be able to serve as navigators while you drive!
  • 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.
  • 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.

Valerie reminded me, “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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