Helping Your Child Learn Geography
SourceU.S. Department of Education
Place: Physical and Human Characteristics
Relationships Within Places: Humans and Environments
Movement: People Interacting On the Earth
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Remember thumbing through an atlas or encyclopedia as a child, imagining yourself as a world traveler on a safari in Africa, or boating up the Mississippi River, climbing the peaks of the Himalayas, visiting ancient cathedrals and castles of Europe, the Great Wall of China? We do. The world seemed full of faraway, exotic, and wonderful places that we wanted to know more about.
Today, we would like to believe that youngsters are growing up similarly inquisitive about the world. Perhaps they are, but recent studies and reports indicate that, if such imaginings are stirring in our youngsters, they're not being translated into knowledge. Not that there ever was a "golden age" when all our young and all our citizens were conversant about the peoples and places of the globe. Still, there is considerable evidence that such knowledge among young Americans has dipped to an alarming low.
Last year, a nine-nation survey found that one in five young Americans (18- to 24-year-olds) could not locate the United States on an outline map of the world. Young Americans knew measurably less geography than Americans 25 years of age and over. Only in the United States did 18- to 24-year-olds know less than people 55 years old and over; in all eight other nations, young adults knew more than the older ones.
No less disturbing was the fact that our young adults, when compared with young adults in other countries, came in last place in a 1980 Gallup Poll. Our 18- to 24-year-olds knew less about geography than their age-mates in every other participating nation. But it shouldn't surprise us. Youngsters in other countries study more geography. In England, Canada, and the Soviet Union, geography is considered one of the basic academic subjects and is required of most secondary students; in the United States, only one in seven students takes a high school geography course.
You'd think that our students learn at least some geography, though, in their world history classes. Those who take world history probably do. But that's only 44 percent of our high school graduates. More than half of our high school students are graduating without studying world history.
If youngsters are to acquire an appreciation of geography and ultimately learn to think geographically, parents and communities must insist that local schools restore it to prominence in the curriculum. They should insist that geography be studied and learned, in one form or another, through several years of the primary and secondary curriculum.
Learning should not be restricted to the classroom. Parents are a child's first teachers and can do much to advance a youngster's geographic knowledge. This booklet suggests some ways to do so.
It is based on a fundamental assumption: that children generally learn what adults around them value. The significance attached to geography at home or at school can be estimated in a glance at the walls and bookshelves.
Simply put, youngsters who grow up around maps and atlases are more likely to get the "map habit" than youngsters who do not. Where there are maps, atlases, and globes, discussions of world events (at whatever intellectual level) are more likely to include at least a passing glance at their physical location. Turning to maps and atlases frequently leads youngsters to fashion, over time, their own "mental maps" of the world--maps that serve not only to organize in their minds the peoples, places, and things they see and hear about in the news, but also to suggest why certain events unfold in particular places.
Helping every child develop his or her ability to use maps and to develop mental maps of the world ought to become a priority in our homes and schools. For, as we all know, our lives are becoming an ever tighter weave of interactions with people around the world. If our businesses are to fare well in tomorrow's world markets, if our national policies are to achieve our aims in the future, and if our relationships with other peoples are to grow resilient and mutually enriching, our children must grow to know what in the world is where.
This booklet is designed to help parents stir children's curiosity and steer that curiosity toward geographic questions and knowledge. It is organized around the five themes recently set forth by geographers and geography educators across the Nation--the physical location of a place, the character of a place, relationships between places, movement of people and things, and phenomena that cause us to group places into particular regions.
We encourage parents to get to the fun part--that is, the activities. The games, maps, and suggested activities that follow, while informal and easy to do, can help lay a solid foundation in experience for children's later, more academic forays into geography.
Bruno V. Manno
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 the 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:
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.Back to the Table of Contents
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 degrees 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 on the Mississippi River midway between Minneapolis-St. Paul and New Orleans where the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers meet. It developed as a trading center between east and west, north and south.Back to the Table of Contents
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.
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.
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?Back to the Table of Contents
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.
People shape the personality of their areas. The beliefs, languages, and customs distinguish one place from another.
Materials: wire hanger, small plastic container, aluminum foil, sand or dirt, tape or glue, scissors, and crayon.
(Reprinted from Sesame Street Magazine Parent's Guide, June 1986. Copyright Children's Television Workshop.)Back to the Table of Contents
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.Back to the Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.Back to the Table of Contents
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.
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.Back to the Table of Contents
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. (A glossary of basic geography terms appears below.)
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 booklet 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.Back to the Table of Contents
Altitude - Distance above sea level.
Atlas - A bound collection of maps.
Archipelago - A group of islands or a sea studded with islands.
Bay - A wide area of water extending into land from a sea or lake.
Boundaries - Lines indicating the limits of countries, States, or other political jurisdictions.
Canal - A man-made watercourse designed to carry goods or water.
Canyon - A large but narrow gorge with steep sides.
Cape (or point) - A piece of land extending into water.
Cartographer - A person who draws or makes maps or charts.
Continent - One of the large, continuous areas of the Earth into which the land surface is divided.
Degree - A unit of angular measure. A circle is divided into 360 degrees, represented by the symbol o. Degrees, when applied to the roughly spherical shape of the Earth for geographic and cartographic purposes, are each divided into 60 minutes, represented by the symbol.
Delta - The fan-shaped area at the mouth, or lower end, of a river, formed by eroded material that has been carried downstream and dropped in quantities larger than can be carried off by tides or currents.
Desert - A land area so dry that little or no plant life can survive.
Elevation - The altitude of an object, such as a celestial body, above the horizon; or the raising of a portion of the Earth's crust relative to its surroundings, as in a mountain range.
Equator - An imaginary circle around the Earth halfway between the North Pole and the South Pole; the largest circumference of the Earth.
Glacier - A large body of ice that moves slowly down a mountainside from highlands toward sea level.
Gulf - A large arm of an ocean or sea extending into a land mass.
Hemisphere - Half of the Earth, usually conceived as resulting from the division of the globe into two equal parts, north and south or east and west.
Ice Shelf - A thick mass of ice extending from a polar shore. The seaward edge is afloat and sometimes extends hundreds of miles out to sea.
International Date Line - An imaginary line of longitude generally 180o east or west of the prime meridian. The date becomes one day earlier to the east of the line.
Island - An area of land, smaller than a continent, completely surrounded by water.
Isthmus - A narrow strip of land located between two bodies of water, connecting two larger land areas.
Lagoon - A shallow area of water separated from the ocean by a sandbank or by a strip of low land.
Lake - A body of fresh or salt water entirely surrounded by land.
Latitude - The angular distance north or south of the equator, measured in degrees.
Legend - A listing which contains symbols and other information about a map.
Longitude - The angular distance east or west of the prime meridian, measured in degrees.
Mountain - A high point of land rising steeply above its surroundings.
Oasis - A spot in a desert made fertile by water.
Ocean - The salt water surrounding the great land masses, and divided by the land masses into several distinct portions, each of which is called an ocean.
Peak - The highest point of a mountain.
Peninsula - A piece of land extending into the sea almost surrounded by water.
Plain - A large area of land, either level or gently rolling, usually at low elevation.
Plateau (or tableland) - An elevated area of mostly level land, sometimes containing deep canyons.
Physical Feature - A land shape formed by nature.
Population - The number of people inhabiting a place.
Prime Meridian - An imaginary line running from north to south through Greenwich, England, used as the reference point for longitude.
Range (or mountain range) - A group or chain of high elevations.
Reef - A chain of rocks, often coral, lying near the water surface.
Reservoir - A man-made lake where water is kept for future use.
River - A stream, larger than a creek, generally flowing to another stream, a lake, or to the ocean.
Scale - The relationship of the length between two points as shown on a map and the distance between the same two points on the Earth.
Sea level - The ocean surface; the mean level between high and low tides.
Strait - A narrow body of water connecting two larger bodies of water.
Swamp - A tract of permanently saturated low land, usually overgrown with vegetation. (A marsh is temporarily or periodically saturated.)
Topography - The physical features of a place; or the study and depiction of physical features, including terrain relief.
Valley - A relatively long, narrow land area lying between two areas of higher elevation, often containing a stream.
Volcano - A vent in the Earth's crust caused by molten rock coming to the surface and being ejected, sometimes violently.
Waterfall - A sudden drop of a stream from a high level to a much lower level.
Glossary, in part, courtesy of Hammond, IncorporatedBack to the Table of Contents
The following places often provide free maps, although you will probably have to go in person or send a self- addressed stamped envelope in order to receive one:
Look for these magazines in your school or library:
League of Friendship
Books to Read Aloud or for Better Readers:
Atlases and other reference guides for young people:
This project could not have been completed if it were not for the help of many dedicated people. Thanks to those who shared their ideas and materials on geography and early childhood--Mark Bockenhauer of the National Geographic Society, teachers Ann Hoehn, Judy Ludovise, and Ruth Anne Wilson-Jones, and Salvatore Natoli of the National Council for the Social Studies. Thanks to the same group for reviewing the final document and to Pat Bonner of the Consumer Information Center, Robert Burch and technical staff of Hammond, Incorporated, and George Zech of the Duncan Oklahoma Schools.
Thanks to Nancy Faries, David Terrell and the staff of the United States Geological Survey for becoming involved in the development of this document and for making it available to a broader audience. In addition, thanks to Ann Chaparos for the cover design and help on the layout.
Last, but not least, thanks to the staff of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement for helping make the draft into a booklet--Cynthia Dorfman, Kate Dorrell, Lance Ferderer, Mark Travaglini, Tim Burr, and Phil Carr.
City maps, time zone map, and mileage chart courtesy of Hammond Incorporated, Maplewood, N.J.Back to the Table of Contents
Office of Educational Research and Improvement
Carol Sue Fromboluti
Published in cooperation with the Department of Interior U.S. Geological SurveyBack to top