Do you remember your first experience with learning geography? Was it positive? Was it memorable? It might have been an inspiring teacher who made it come alive, a family vacation that ignited excitement to travel or explore map skills, or a television show on world travel. Or, like many of us homeschool moms, it may have been as you taught your kids!
While preparing to write this, I was reminded of what I believe to be one of the only actual classes on geography I ever took. It was in Seventh grade with Mr. Grist.
Mr. Grist, a retired, silver-haired, ex-military colonel who took up teaching as a second career, was from Alaska and had lived there for many years. Having traveled extensively, he always had fascinating stories to share about different places. He brought pictures and objects to class (mostly from Alaska), but also from other places. He must have worn his parka to class often because in my memory of Mr. Grist, he has that coat on.
I believe he not only passed on to me a love for travel and a desire to see the places we learned about, but specifically a love for Alaska. I even remember the Bering Strait as the location where the easternmost point of Asia and westernmost point of North America meet and where the Arctic and Pacific connect. I remember the temperature, varying length of daylight throughout the year, terrain type, animals, and that Denali is the highest peak in North America.
You can imagine my thrill in 2018 when I had the opportunity to work with GeoMatters at the homeschool conventions in Alaska!
As an adult looking back on that geography class I can tell you those stories, pictures and objects all helped me remember. It stuck for me. Beyond just learning, I was inspired to learn more!
Being able to visualize and relate to Alaska through the storytelling of my teacher and the relevant objects and pictures he brought, gave me context and made the location come to life! Many of us understand learning is most successful when connections are made and subjects relate to one another flowing naturally together. It stands to reason then, that studying geography in connection to other subjects will help the content stick.
If you wanted to learn about Mexico, you could read a book and use a map worksheet to label a few key landmarks. Or, you could do some research and a report on the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza with pictures and drawings of the ruins in the Mayan art style. This would include language, writing and research skills with and an art lesson.
What about the studying several active volcanoes in Mexico and finding out how they’ve affected the population when an eruption took place? Subjects covered include: language, research skills, science and history.
For the creative “foodie” who loves experimenting in the kitchen, what better way to learn about Mexico than to prepare a Mexican meal and play Mariachi music while eating it? Bonus points for learning and sharing a few Spanish words while enjoying the meal. Who can forget Mexico after a connection like this?
(Ideas taken from Trail Guide to World Geography.)
Beyond remembering the facts of the ancient ruins, volcanoes, or the food and music of Mexico, imprinted on your young learner’s mind will be the fun they had. Fun motivates and inspires the desire for more learning. Win!
As a new homeschooler many years ago, learning meant sitting down with a pencil and paper and some instructional manual or workbook. I knew that kids liked to have fun but, to me, that was for after school was finished. I’m not faulting or condemning myself or anyone who has this view of learning. But I will say that my view has significantly shifted over the years. My youngest child of four is much more the benefactor of a mom who believes in learning as fun.
For me, the transition was gradual. It took some time to embrace the extra effort of corralling supplies, cleaning up occasional messes or spending a bit more time preparing for a lesson. It also took some learning on my behalf, from others with educational experience and expertise, to understand the importance of having fun when learning.
As I write this, I am adding a few items on my grocery list because my youngest child always chooses to cook when given the opportunity to learn about a new place. I’ll be honest and say that in the past I tried to dissuade my oldest child, who shared the same eagerness.
Tomorrow night will be lamb stew and Irish Soda bread as we learn about Ireland. I am more than happy to oblige by grocery shopping and cleaning up the dishes to experience his joy and partake in an Irish meal.
Another of the many ways to engage in fun with geography is by making a salt dough map. Have you ever tried this? The part of me that doesn’t like messes hesitated a bit the first time I saw the lesson. My initial experience with a salt dough map was when my oldest children were doing Paths of Settlement, the second in the Trail Guide to Learning series. Over the course of the Nation Building Unit, we constructed a 3D salt dough map of North America. I never could have anticipated how much my children and I would learn as we constructed this map!
First, it required lessons in character building for us to attempt something unfamiliar, patiently following directions and giving plenty of space for mistakes. Working with salt dough and making a topographical map can be tricky. But, if you and your child can keep in mind that it’s not meant to be a science but an art, you can have a lot of fun.
Not only is it fun, but constructing the map engages thinking skills and the artistic, right-side of the brain, in a way I had not imagined. Naturally, you’re asking all kinds of questions and interacting with information that you otherwise would not. I loved that part!
Asking questions leads to new questions, discoveries and “Aha” moments such as “how big the land acquired by the Louisiana purchase really was compared to the rest of the United States.” And, “how much higher the land elevation is on the western side of the United States than the eastern side.”
I am now a big proponent of salt dough maps and any activity like it that engages learning so naturally. I encourage you to try one or all of these options to help make geography memorable. If you are like me and sometimes just need to have a list of what to do, then start with the hands-on aspect. Geography Matters offers cookbooks based on US and world geography, sticker books, an international art book, maps, atlases, globes and so much more to assist to you in bringing geography to life. It will stick for your children!