Time and again, we read that American kids are behind when it comes to geography knowledge. Too often, it’s only taught to give context to another class, such as history. So it follows that, while our children may have some geographical knowledge of a specific historical area (say, Civil War battle sites or Ancient Egyptian waterways), they don’t have a global geographical context that links that history to our modern-day world.
The more that children are aware of the world, the more empathy they will have for events that shape that world. Not only are students losing out, but so are we as parents as we try to raise responsible global citizens.
And now for the good news!
With some simple and inexpensive tools, you can give your child a great base in geography that will serve her not only through her school years, but expand her horizons for life.
- Wall maps. Invest in a high-quality, foam-backed wall map (or have your kid help you mount it with foam board and spray glue) and display it in a public space in your home. Use colored-coded pushpins or flag-topped pins to make it interactive for your kid. For instance, you could map out places that your extended family has traveled to, cities that have hosted the Olympics, or plot out a dream vacation for each member of the family.
- Map out your world. Geography educators agree that the best way to learn about geography is to explore the immediate area. Start by having your child draw a map of her room and her classroom. Then take a walk down the street and map it out together when you get home. At school, ask her to pay special attention to the school playground so you can draw it out together at home.
- Eat a new culture. Most urban areas in the U.S. are lucky to have immigrants from all over the world and the authentic cuisine that comes with them. On your next family night out, pick a cuisine you haven’t tasted before and make it a night of culinary discovery. And don’t worry if you have a picky eater. Talk to the waiter about your preferences and he’ll help find a dish for everyone.
- Go Geocaching. Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the Geocache (container) hidden at that location. The only necessities are a GPS device or a GPS-enabled mobile phone so that you can navigate to the cache, and a Geocaching.com membership. Basic membership is free. It’s a great way to spend family outdoor time, get to know your local parks and learn a little something about navigation.
- Accessorize. From shower curtains to beach towels, to placemats and inflatable globe beach balls, map-themed accessories look great in any decor and will draw kids into learning in a fun way.
- Make a game of it. Two excellent games for children ages 7 and up are Professor Noggin’s Countries of the World card game and the board game Around the World, which won a Dr. Toy Award for Best Children’s Product. Map puzzles are also a great way to get the whole family engaged in geography, and you can get progressively harder ones as your child grows up.
- The book of knowledge. Invest in a nice, new atlas. Not only are they beautiful, you can whip one out to put things into context, like finding the modern-day countries from the ancient civilizations your kid learned about at school, or locating a city you hear about on the news.
- TV. There’s a reason The Amazing Race has won thirteen Emmy awards. It’s a fantastic family show that follows contestants as they take on challenges on a race around the world. It’s appropriate for all ages. Every year in May, catch the broadcast of the National Geographic Bee. Hosted by Alex Trebek, it has been an annual event since 1978. Just beware: The difficulty of some of the questions makes the National Spelling Bee look like a walk in the park!
- On the web. The National Geographic website is an excellent resource for geography education that features 10 unique trivia questions every day. National Geographic also offers the GeoBee app for smartphones and tablets at a modest $1.99. There are also a number of excellent travel blogs written by world adventurers far and near. Follow them and you’ll be able to follow the joys and challenges of global travel without even renewing your passport!
- Join or start a club. Find out if your child’s school has a geography club. If not, talk to the PTA about starting one! Also, if the school hosts a multicultural night, be sure to bring the family.
It’s not hard to incorporate geography into your child’s life when you help make connections to other interests she may have. And who knows, maybe someday she’ll be the one standing in front of Alex Trebek, spouting out the capital of Kazakhstan with confidence.