Helping Your Child Learn Geography


Children are playing in the sand. They make roads for cars. One builds a castle where a doll can live. Another scoops out a hole, uses the dirt to make a hill, and pours some water in the hole to make a lake. Sticks become bridges and trees. The children name the streets, and may even use a watering can to make rain.

Although they don't know it, these children are learning the principles of geography. They are locating things, seeing how people interact with he Earth, manipulating the environment, learning how weather changes the character of a place, and looking at how places relate to each other through the movement of things from one place to another.

With this book, we hope you, as parents, will get ideas for activities that will use your children's play to informally help them learn more geography--the study of the Earth.

Most of the suggestions in this book are geared to children under 10 years of age. The activities and games are organized around five specific themes that help focus our thinking. These themes were developed by the Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the National Council for Geographic Education and the American Association of Geographers and are now being used in many schools. They are:

  1. Where are things located?

  2. What makes a place special?

  3. What are the relationships among people and places?

  4. What are the patterns of movement of people, products, and information?

  5. How can the Earth be divided into regions for study?

These themes have been adopted by many schools in the last few years and may be new to many parents. To help focus your awareness of the issues, we will begin each chapter with a brief description of the theme. This description includes examples of questions geographers use as they strive to understand and define the Earth, for geography provides us with a system for asking questions about the Earth.

Location: Position on the Earth's Surface

Look at a map. Where are places located? To determine location, geographers use a set of imaginary lines that crisscross the surface of the globe. Lines designating "latitude" tell us how far north or south of the equator a place is. Lines designating "longitude" measure distance east and west of the prime meridian--an imaginary line running between the North Pole and the South Pole through Greenwich, England. You can use latitude and longitude as you would a simple grid system on a state highway map. The point where the lines intersect is the "location"--or global address. For example, St. Louis, Missouri, is roughly at 39° (degrees) north latitude and 90° west longitude.

Why are things located in particular places and how do those places influence our lives? Location further describes how one place relates to another. St. Louis is where the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers meet about midway between Minneapolis-St. Paul and New Orleans. It developed as a trading center between east and west, north and south.


To help young children learn location, make sure they know the color and style of the building in which they live, the name of their town, and their street address. Then, when you talk about other places, they have something of their own with which to compare.


Put your child's natural curiosity to work. Even small children can learn to read simple maps of their school, neighborhood, and community. Here are some simple map activities you can do with your children.

Additional Activities

Children use all of their senses to learn about the world. Objects that they can touch, see, smell, taste, and hear help them understand the link between a model and the real thing.

Place: Physical and Human Characteristics

Every place has a personality. What makes a place special? What are the physical and cultural characteristics of your hometown? Is the soil sandy or rocky? Is the temperature warm or is it cold? If it has many characteristics, which are the most distinct?

How do these characteristics affect the people living there? People change the character of a place. They speak a particular language, have styles of government and architecture, and form patterns of business. How have people shaped the landscapes?

Investigate Your Neighborhood

Study the Weather

Weather has important geographic implications that affect the character of a place. The amount of sun or rain, heat or cold, the direction and strength of the wind, all determine such things as how people dress, how well crops grow, and the extent to which people will want to live in a particular spot.

Learn About Other Cultures

People shape the personality of their areas. The beliefs, languages, and customs distinguish one place from another.

Weather Vane

Materials: wire hanger, small plastic container, aluminum foil, sand or dirt, tape or glue, scissors, crayon.


  1. Straighten out the hanger's hook and cover half of the triangle part of the hanger with foil. Fold the edges, and tape or glue in place.

  2. Fill the container with sand or loose dirt, put on the lid, and mark it N, S, E, and W. Poke the hanger through the center of the lid. The hanger should touch the bottom of the container and turn freely in the hole.

  3. Put the container outside with the N facing north. When the wind blows, take a look at your weather vane. The open half of the vane shows the direction from which the wind is coming.

Reprinted from Sesame Street Magazine Parent's Guide, June 1986. Copyright Children's Television Workshop.

Relationships Within Places: Humans and Environments

How do people adjust to their environment? What are the relationships among people and places? How do they change it to better suit their needs? Geographers examine where people live, why they settled there, and how they use natural resources. For example, Hudson Bay, the site of the first European settlement in Canada, is an area rich in wildlife and has sustained a trading and fur trapping industry for hundreds of years. Yet the climate there was described by early settlers as "nine months of ice followed by three months of mosquitoes." People can and do adapt to their natural surroundings.

Notice How You Control Your Surroundings

Everyone controls his or her surroundings. Look at the way you arrange furniture in your home. You place the tables and chairs in places that suit the shape of the room and the position of the windows and doors. You also arrange the room according to how people will use it.

Notice How You Adapt to Your Surroundings

People don't always change their environment. Sometimes they are shaped by it. Often people must build roads around mountains. They must build bridges over rivers. They construct storm walls to keep the ocean from sweeping over beaches. In some countries, people near coasts build their houses on stilts to protect them from storm tides or periodic floods.

Movement: People Interacting on the Earth

People are scattered unevenly over the Earth. How do they get from one place to another? What are the patterns of movement of people, products, and information ? Regardless of where we live, we rely upon each other for goods, services, and information. In fact, most people interact with other places almost every day. We depend on other places for the food, clothes, and even items like the pencil and paper our children use in school. We also share information with each other using telephones, newspapers, radio, and television to bridge the distances.

Travel in Different Ways

Follow the Movement of People and Things

Follow the Movement of Ideas and Information

Ideas come from beyond our immediate surroundings. How do they get to us? Consider communication by telephone and mail, television, radio, telegrams, telefax, and even graffiti, posters, bumper stickers, and promotional buttons. They all convey information from one person or place to another.

Regions: How They Form and Change

How can places be described or compared? How can the Earth be divided into regions for study? Geographers categorize regions in two basic ways--physical and cultural. Physical regions are defined by landform (continents and mountain ranges), climate, soil, and natural vegetation. Cultural regions are distinguished by political, economic, religious, linguistic, agricultural, and industrial characteristics.

Examine Physical Regions

Examine Cultural Regions


Geography is a way of thinking, of asking questions, of observing and appreciating the world around us. You can help your children learn by providing interesting activities for them, and by prompting them to ask questions about their surroundings.

Set a good example, and help your children build precise mental images, by always using correct terms. Say, "We are going north to New York to visit Grandma, or west to Dallas to see Uncle John," rather than "up to New York" or "down to Dallas." Use words such as highway, desert, river, climate, and glacier; and explain concepts like city, State, and continent.

Many of the words used in geography are everyday words. But, like any other field of learning, geography has a language of its own.

Expose children to lots of maps and let them see you using them. Get a good atlas as well as a dictionary. Atlases help us ask, and answer, questions about places and their relationships with other areas. Many States have atlases that are generally available through an agency of the state government.

The activities suggested in this article are only a few examples of the many ways that children learn geography. These activities are designed to help parents find ways to include geographic thinking in their children's early experiences. We hope they will stimulate your thinking and that you will develop many more activities on your own.

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