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Strategies for Teaching Geography

© Beverley Paine, August 2007

[this article forms part of a series on Geography you can buy as a Practical Homeschooling booklet from Always Learning Books]

How you talk about and relate to the world is important to your children: more than anything else they pay attention and actually model themselves on you. If you don't believe me think about the number of times you've caught yourself talking or acting just like your mother or father!

I've collated together the following list of teaching strategies to help you encourage your child to think and act geographically. Often this is all we need to do, although doing specific geographical explorations and investigations can a lot of fun.

  • Use maps as often as possible. Make maps as often as possible. Use the various parts of a map and demonstrate how to use them: longitude and latitude, legend, scale, contour lines, north arrow, etc.
  • Keep a globe of the world and an atlas within reach of the television and radio. That way it's easy to look up a location when you hear or see a story about some place in the world.
  • Help your children build accurate mental images by using the right terms: say ''We're driving toward the setting sun, so that means we're travelling west." Or "Grandma lives twenty kilometres north of Adelaide," rather than "the other side of Adelaide." Geography has a vocabulary of its own. Use it as everyday language.
  • The easiest way to get children interested in different countries is to start stamp collecting. You may be able to find stamps from other countries where you work, or your children may get them from pen pals or homeschool post card clubs. Stamps tell many different kinds of things about a country, from its political leadership to native bird life.
  • Start a coin collection. Always look to see if you have a foreign coin in your change. Visit the Australian Mint next time you are in the national capital. Visit a coin museum - there is a great one at Kadina in South Australia and the Gold Museum at Ballarat is well worth a visit.
  • Borrow books from the library with lots of stunning photos about different places in the world, even if your children can't read yet. Stimulate their imagination, and don't forget to have that atlas handy...
  • History books are a great way to stimulate interest in world geography. The Horrible Histories series is popular with many homeschooling families, as is The Story of the World.
  • Start collecting a variety of maps you can use in your local area, or on holidays. Brochures for tourists usually have a good variety of map styles.
  • Read to and with your children, especially about other places and other people. Don't forget magazines and newspapers. Reading these to young children will help them to develop an interest in current affairs, not to mention building a habit for life.
  • Explore your environment. Begin with playing hide and seek in your garden. The game can get more complex as your children grow, with paper chases and treasure hunts. For the more experienced and adventous there is always GeoCaching - treasure hunting on a global scale!
  • Every so often move the furniture around. Why not try different layouts on paper or with models first? This is a complex map making exercise but well worth trying. Make it as easy or as detailed as you like, depending on the maths and drawing skills of your children.
  • Build miniature towns with toys such as LEGO and Matchbox cars, or doll's houses for dolls or teddies. It's not playing: it's learning the mapmaker's skill in representing the three-dimensional real world.
  • Help your children understand physical regions by examining areas in your home. How are the different rooms used? How many different 'regions' are their in your home. Children can build different regions in their toy towns and houses.
  • Holidays and outings are a great way to introduce children to map and street directories. Let the children chart your course! See if they can work out quicker or shorter routes.
  • Visit a museum that has historical displays of explorers and their maps and detailed journals and drawings. Once upon a time everyone knew how to draw well - this was before the age of cameras. How well do you draw? Spend time developing sketching skills with your children.
  • Encourage your children to make their own maps using legends with symbols. Most children do this naturally. If they are reading a book, perhaps they can draw a map of the places in the book. Or from a computer game or movie.
  • Help your children develop geographical skills by modelling them in every day life. Notice things, talk about things, wonder why, where and how,and don't forget 'what if'.
  • Ask, ask, ask... Questions about what you see, what shape, colour, texture. Ask why things are located where they are and what would happen if there were somewhere else. Ask what were things like a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, before people lived here? Ask a hundred questions a day, more if you can!
  • When shopping for groceries look to see where the food was produced and where the product was made. Talk about how food is grown and transported. Talk about how food is transported. What else is transported around the world. Examine the labels of the clothes you wear. Why are things made and transported from place to place, why aren't they made where we live? Was it always like this? Is life better now or then? Geography is all about asking questions!
  • Answer questions! If you don't know the answer, say you don't and then look up the answer or investigate some possible answers with your children.
  • Talk about the weather and how it changes what you wear and what you can do. Chart the weather. Watch the world weather on television. Start a weather scrapbook. Cloud watch. Collect weather predicting folk lore...
  • Save weather maps from the daily newspaper over a month or two, or download them onto a chart so you and the children can compare and track the weather as it changes over time or the different seasons.
  • Watch the weather at the end of the SBS news service - it has a great graphical presentation of the weather in the major capital cities around the world. We like finding the hottest and coldest places, as well as the place that has the weather most like our own capital city (Adelaide).
  • Make your own weather station. Do this two or three times as your children grow, beginning with simple weather devices and then making more complex and accurate ones as their skill and understanding deepen.
  • Pretend you are from another time or place. Celebrate the cultural heritage of others. If you can take your children to experience first-hand the culture of others, especially in indigenous settings.
  • Invite friends from different cultural backgrounds to stay over. If they travelled or lived abroad, invite them over for a slide show or chat with the whole family about their experiences. Cook up a feast together, celebrating the food from other countries. If they speak another language ask them to teach you all a simple song or poem, or a few phrases.
  • Visit the Market in the city, or other regions that celebrate migrant life and other cultures such as China Town. Drive around residential areas and notice any differences in architecture or gardening practices, how people live, and the different types of businesses and workplaces in these areas.
  • Learn simple words in different languages: learn how to count to ten in ten languages! You can also learn simple words like "hello," "goodbye," and "thank you." Look at the different alphabets or script from various regions. The internet is an amazing library of free resources you can use.
  • Celebrate your own cultural heritage.
  • Look up 'holidays' on the internet and devise a calendar of special days that celebrate holidays from other countries. Holidays provide an opportunity to learn about the customs of people around the world.
  • There are many festivals that celebrate culture and art from around the world. These are usually well advertised. Go to plays, movies, puppet shows, concerts, visual art displays, comedy shows, festivals and special events. Try to get to three or four each year if you can.
  • Talk about the different work that people do. Encourage role playing (dress ups).
  • Grandparents and older friends are a great source of primary information about how society and the environment change over time. Questions about transportation, heating and refrigeration, foods, clothes, schools, etc will be met with enthusiastic and often very detailed responses. Back this up with pictorial history books. Perhaps your family came from another country... time to get out the atlas...
  • Wherever you go talk about the historical, recreational, or natural points of interest you can see. Ask interesting and open ended questions. Collect information (read it aloud in the car on the way home or to the next place on your itinerary). Make a note to come back and explore in more detail next time, if the children show interest. Notice the architecture, the types of trees and plants, local weather conditions, what the locals are doing - how is it different from where you live?
  • By now you will have realised that most learning in the homeschool happens conversationally.
  • Get into the habit of talking about where products you use every day come from. If you don't know, find out. Find out how different things are made, what resources are used, where those resources come from, who are the people that make things and why... Do this as you cook, clean, write, build, mend, garden, play, travel...
  • Make a point of travelling somewhere in a different mode of transport or along a different route every so often.
  • Use descriptive words to help children learn and recognise location: the color and style of the building in which they live, the name of their town, their street address, where the shop and post office is and what they look like. Use positional words too, like 'above' and 'below', 'left' and 'right'. Geography begins in the room you're in: putting away clothes or the shopping and finding misplaced toys...
  • Play games that reinforce learning about north, south, east and west. Treasure hunts or Simon Says are two - I'm sure you can think of others.
  • In the car, play the license plate game. Count trucks. Where are they going and what are they carrying? How many caravans have you passed. Where do you think they are going or have been? Imagine going on holiday. Where would you go?
  • Watch travel programs on the television.
  • Go on a walk and collect natural materials - my son loved collecting different leaves and then pressing them in his scrap book. Later, make a map together of your 'nature walk'. You might like to paste or draw what was found at different point on the walk on the map.
  • Look for your city or town on a map or on Google Earth. Find your street or your house. Find where your friends or family live. Work out how far it is 'as the crow flies'.
  • Talk about major geographical features on maps and how they effect the climate and how people and animals live in different regions. Look for oceans, mountain ranges, lakes, deserts, mega-cities, gulfs, equator, polar regions, rivers and river deltas.
  • On a town map find all the local services your family uses. You could make a poster for your wall, with the names of those services and their telephone numbers as a handy reference.
  • Visit the areas set aside for recreation in your town, and in other towns in different regions. How is leisure catered for in different regions - country versus city, industrialised area versus leafy green suburbs?
  • We all learn via our senses: objects that children can touch, see, smell, taste, and hear help them understand the link between a model and the real thing. Play games that use all the senses. Jigsaw puzzles, Chess, Battleship, and other games that encourage children to think geographically are fun and what's more, your children won't realise they are actually learning while playing!
  • Making models of landscapes or buildings, or making props and costumes, are an integral part of studying geography. Your children will learn skills from many other disciplines too. Geography can be exciting and fun - it's not all reading maps and weather charts!
  • Use popular board games like "Trip Around the World" to teach your children about location, commerce, transportation, and the relationships among different countries and areas of the world. Look out for these games during toy sales and especially at garage sales.
  • Sing songs that name and talk about places. Collect and learn Australian folk songs that teach history at the same time as geography AND music! Three curriculum subjects in one! Popular songs like "Guantanamara," and children's songs such as "London Bridge" will get your children asking questions about other cultures, times and places.
  • Gardening is a great way to teach about the weather, as is bush walking. Anything that gets you and your children outside. Gardening is especially good as you need to work in with the seasons and weather for planting and harvesting. Use a diary to record your observations. Gardening also uses many of the same skills cartographers need.
  • Is Hollywood real? What about Bollywood? Watch movies made in other countries. How are they different? Where do the television shows you watch originate? What about radio shows?
  • Don't mow the grass for a few weeks. Let the rubbish pile up. Don't prune. What would happen if you don't water the plants? Imagine what the local community would look like if there were no gardeners or tidy green spaces. How important is nature to how people feel? Join KESAB or a Landcare group.
  • Visit community gardens. Watch out for special gardens, such as bonsai or tropical gardens. Talk about the architecture of gardens from around the world.
  • Visit a farm. If you can organise a homeschool camp on a Farm Stay property.
  • Go camping. The opportunities for honing geographical skills abound on a camping trip.
  • If you go to a park or a zoo, try to attend the nature shows that many parks provide. Learn about the local plants and wildlife and how the natural features have changed over time.

This is a just a few of the ideas I've amassed or we've used over the years as homeschooling parents, or one's I remember from my own childhood. A list such as this can go on forever, can't it?

Good luck and I hope you enjoy studying geography at home with your children.

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