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:
Where are things located?
What makes a place special?
What are the relationships among people and places?
What are the patterns of movement of people, products, and information?
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.
Children need to understand positional words. Teach children words like "above" and "below" in a natural way when you talk with them or give them directions. When picking up toys to put away, say, "Please put your toy into the basket on the right" or, "Put the green washcloth into the drawer." Right and left are as much directional terms as north, south, east, and west. Other words that describe such features as color, size, and shape are also important.
Show your children north, south, east, and west by using your home as a reference point. Perhaps you can see the sun rising in the morning through a bedroom window that faces east and setting at night through the westerly kitchen window:
Reinforce their knowledge by playing games. Once children have their directional bearings, you can hide an object, for example, then give them directions to its location: "two steps to the north, three steps west ...."
Use pictures from books and magazines to help your children associate words with visual images. A picture of a desert can stimulate conversation about the features of a desert--arid and barren. Work with your children to develop more complex descriptions of different natural and cultural features.
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.
Go on a walk and collect natural materials such as acorns and leaves to use for an art project. Map the location where you found those items.
Create a treasure map for children to find hidden treats in the back yard or inside your home. Treasure maps work especially well for birthday parties.
Look for your city or town on a map. If you live in a large city or town, you may even be able to find your street. Point out where your relatives or your children's best friends live.
Find the nearest park, lake, mountain, or other cultural or physical feature on a map. Then, talk about how these features affect your child's life. Living near the ocean may make your climate moderate, prairies may provide an open path for high winds, and mountains may block some weather fronts.
By looking at a map, your children may learn why they go to a particular school. Perhaps the next nearest school is on the other side of a park, a busy street, or a large hill. Maps teach us about our surroundings by portraying them in relation to other places.
Before taking a trip, show your children a map of where you are going and how you plan to get there. Look for other ways you could go, and talk about why you decided to use a particular route. Maybe they can suggest other routes.
Encourage your children to make their own maps using legends with symbols. Older children can draw a layout of their street, or they can illustrate places or journeys they have read about. Some books, like Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wizard of Oz, contain fanciful maps. These can be models for children to create and plot their own stories.
Keep a globe and a map of the United States near the television and use them to locate places talked about on television programs, or to follow the travels of your favorite sports team.
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.
Put together puzzles of the United States or the world. Through the placement of the puzzle pieces, children gain a tactile and visual sense of where one place is located in relation to others.
Make a three-dimensional map of your home or neighborhood using milk cartons for buildings. Draw a map of the block on a piece of cardboard, then cut up the cartons (or any other three-dimensional item) and use them to represent buildings. Use bottle tops or smaller boxes to add interest to the map, but try to keep the scale relationships correct.
Use popular board games like "Game of the States" or "Trip Around the World" to teach your children about location, commerce, transportation, and the relationships, among different countries and areas of the world. Some of these games are available at public libraries.
Make paper-mache using strips of old newspaper and a paste made from flour and water. If children form balls by wrapping the strips of paper-mache around a balloon, they will develop a realistic understanding of the difficulties in making accurate globes. They can also use paper-mache to make models of hills and valleys.
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
Walk around your neighborhood and look at what makes it unique. Point out differences from and similarities to other places. Can your children distinguish various types of homes and shops? Look at the buildings and talk about their uses. Are there features built to conform with the weather or topography? Do the shapes of some buildings indicate how they were used in the past or how they're used now? These observations help children understand the character of a place.
Show your children the historical, recreational, or natural points of interest in your town. What animals and plants live in your neighborhood? If you live near a harbor, pay it a visit, and tour a docked boat. You can even look up the shipping schedule in your local newspaper. If you live near a national park, a lake, a river, or a stream, take your children there and spend time talking about its uses.
Use songs to teach geography. "Home on the Range," "Red River Valley," and "This Land Is Your Land" conjure up images of place. Children enjoy folk songs of different countries like "Sur La Pont D'Avignon, .... Guantanamara," and "London Bridge." When your children sing these songs, talk with them about the places they celebrate, locate them on the map, and discuss how the places are described.
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.
Watch the weather forecast on television or read the weather map in the newspaper. Save the maps for a month or more. You can see changes over time, and compare conditions over several weeks and seasons. Reading the weather map helps children observe changes in the local climate.
Use a weather map to look up the temperatures of cities around the world and discover how hot each gets in the summer and how cold each gets in the winter. Ask your children if they can think of reasons why different locations have different temperatures. Compare these figures with your town. Some children enjoy finding the place that is the hottest or the coldest.
Make simple weather-related devices such as barometers, pinwheels, weather vanes, and wind chimes. Watch cloud formations and make weather forecasts. Talk about how these describe the weather in your town.
Learn About Other Cultures
People shape the personality of their areas. The beliefs, languages, and customs distinguish one place from another.
Make different ethnic foods, take your children to an ethnic restaurant, or treat them to ethnic snacks at a folk festival. Such an experience is an opportunity to talk about why people eat different foods. What ingredients in ethnic dishes are unique to a particular area? For example, why do the Japanese eat so much seafood? (If your children look for Japan on a map they will realize it is a country of many islands.)
Read stories from or about other countries, and books that describe journeys. Many children's books provide colorful images of different places and a sense of what it would be like to live in them. Drawings or photographs of distant places or situations can arouse interest in other lands. The Little House in the Big Woods, Holiday Tales of Sholem Aleichem, and The Polar Express are examples of books with descriptions of place that have transported the imaginations of many young readers.
Materials: wire hanger, small plastic container, aluminum foil, sand or dirt, tape or glue, scissors, crayon.
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.
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.
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.
Try different furniture arrangements with your children. If moving real furniture is too strenuous, try working with doll house furniture or paper cutouts. By cutting out paper to represent different pieces of furniture, children can begin to learn the mapmaker's skill in representing the three-dimensional real world.
Ask your children to consider what the yard might look like if you did not try to change it by mowing grass, raking leaves or planting shrubs or trees. You might add a window box if you don't have a yard. What would happen if you didn't water the plants?
Walk your children around your neighborhood or a park area and have them clean up litter. How to dispose of waste is a problem with a geographic dimension.
Take your children to see some examples of how people have shaped their environment: bonsai gardens, reservoirs, terracing, or houses built into hills. Be sure to talk with them about how and why these phenomena came to be.
If you don't live on a farm, try to visit one. Many cities and States maintain farm parks for just this purpose. Call the division of parks in your area to find out where there is one near you. Farmers use soil, water, and sun to grow crops. They use ponds or streams for water, and build fences to keep animals from running away.
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.
Go camping. It is easy to understand why we wear long pants and shoes when there are rocks and brambles on the ground, and to realize the importance to early settlers of being near water when you no longer have the convenience of a faucet.
If you go to a park, try to attend the nature shows that many parks provide. You and your children may learn about the local plants and wildlife and how the natural features have changed over time.
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
Give your children opportunities to travel by car, bus, bicycle, or on foot. Where you can, take other forms of transportation such as airplanes, trains, subways, ferries, barges, and horses and carriages.
Use a map to look at various routes you can take when you try different methods of transportation.
Watch travel programs on television.
Follow the Movement of People and Things
Play the license plate game. How many different States' plates can you identify, and what, if anything, does the license plate tell you about each State? You don't have to be in a car to play. You can look at the license plates of parked cars, or those traveling by when you are walking. Children can keep a record of the States whose plates they have seen. They can color in those States on a map and illustrate them with characteristics described on the license plates. Some States have county names on their plates. If you live in one of these States, keeping track of the counties could be another interesting variation.
Go around your house and look at where everything comes from. Examine the labels of the clothes you wear and think of where your food comes from. Why do bananas come from Central America? Why does the milk come from the local dairy? Perhaps your climate is too cold for bananas, and the milk is too perishable to travel far. How did the food get to your house?
Tell your children where your ancestors came from. Find your family's countries of origin, and chart the birthplaces of relatives on a map. You can plot the routes they followed before they arrived at their present location. Why did they leave their previous home? Where do all your relatives live now?
Have your children ask older relatives what their world was like when they were young. They can ask questions about transportation, heating and refrigeration, the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and the schools they attended. Look at old pictures. How have things changed since Grandma was a child? Grandparents and great aunts and uncles are usually delighted to share their memories with the younger generation, and they can pass on a wealth of information.
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.
By watching television and listening to the radio, your children will receive ideas from the outside world. Where do the television shows they watch originate? What about radio shows?
Ask your children how they would communicate with other people. Would they use the phone or write a letter? Encourage them to write letters to relatives and friends. They may be able to get pen pals through school or a pen pal association.
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
Help your children understand physical regions by examining areas in your home. Is there an upstairs and a downstairs? Is there an eating area and a sleeping area? Are there other "regions" in your home that can be described?
Look at the physical regions in your community. Some neighborhoods grew up around hills, others developed on waterfronts or around parks. What physical regions exist in your hometown?
Examine Cultural Regions
Take your children to visit the different political, residential, recreational, ethnic, and commercial regions of your city.
Go to plays, movies, and puppet shows about people from different countries. These are often presented at libraries and museums.
Give children geography lessons by tying in with ethnic holiday themes. Provide children with regional or ethnic clothes to wear. Some museums and libraries provide clothes children can borrow. Holidays provide an opportunity to learn about the customs of people around the world. You can use the library to discover how other people celebrate special days.
Compare coins and stamps from other lands. They often contain information about the country. You may be able to find stamps from other countries where you work, or your children may get them from pen pals. Stamps tell many different kinds of things about a country, from its political leadership to native bird life.
Learn simple words in different languages. Teach your children to count to 10 in other languages. They can also learn simple words like "hello, .... goodbye," and "thank you." Look at the different alphabets or script from various regions. All these activities expose children to the abundance of the Earth's cultural treasures. Many libraries have language tapes and books, some especially for children.
If you have friends who are from different countries or have either travelled or lived abroad, invite them over to talk with your children. If they have pictures, so much the better. What languages do they speak? How are their customs or dress similar to or different from yours?
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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