Maps are the critical geography resources to have in your home. In my post, Teach Geography Without Curriculum, I explained a few ways you can introduce young children to the world around them and create habits of discovery that last a lifetime. The key resources you need on hand are maps. A good atlas is the single most important geography resource to have on hand. Even with an atlas on the shelf, you may want to add maps students can write on and color or hands-on geography drills. Consistency is key. Consistently use maps and atlases, in as many creative ways as you can think of, and your children will have an excellent grasp of world geography.
The elementary years are the time to learn about the whole world and to learn to read a map. Now kids can memorize all sorts of things: seven continents, oceans, countries, mountain ranges, and the list goes on. Never expect this to be rote memorization. At minimum geography requires an excellent understanding of maps, both physical (showing mountains, plains, deserts, etc) and political. So everything your kids memorize they should also be able to find or to place, on a map.
Buy a beginner’s atlas
This is the time to invest in a nice atlas. After all, your plan is to look at a lot of maps! Keep the atlases on a handy shelf and take the time to look up places you read about in your history books. Help your younger children find the maps to begin with and over time train them to use the atlas and find the locations all by themselves.
Begin with a nice children’s atlas, like National Geographic Student World Atlas A beginner’s atlas is a perfect book to find at a used bookstore or homeschool book sale. Young kids don’t need maps that are updated yearly. You don’t even have to buy a National Geographic atlas. Buy any version you find. Just open it up before you buy it and make sure you like the format inside.
Here’s a fun way to introduce maps to kids, and get them engaged for hours. Maps by the Mizielinskis is illustrated in captivating style. My kids always loved illustrated maps. Any book that will draw your kids in for hours is a sure win. However, this cannot be the only book of maps you purchase. This is a small collection of maps, not the whole world. Buy it for fun and also keep an atlas of the world on the shelf.
Buy the best atlas you can afford
Soon you’ll want to invest in a good world atlas. The National Geographic Atlas of the World is very highly rated. You can buy it once and use it for years. I linked to last year’s edition because it will save you one hundred dollars. But if the most up to date atlas is your top priority, spend more.
How do you use this atlas? After you read about a location in a book, even fictional books set in real places, take a minute to find it in the atlas. If you have younger children, you’ll do most of the work. But talk about your process out loud, “This is the index. I’ll look for the city name of London.” Or, “Here’s the continent of Europe. We know France is on the European continent. Can you find it? Now to look at a closeup map of France, we need to turn to page 100. Now we can see the city names. Here’s Paris.” When your kids are a little older, they can look up the entries while you watch over their shoulder.
This method sounds so simple, but I promise if you use it consistently it works. Also remember, an atlas has more than just political maps. Find time, every once in awhile, to look at all the other charts and maps at the front of the atlas. Older children can read the articles. It will be time well spent.
Interacting with maps
We all know young children thrive when you provide hands-on learning opportunities. One way to do this is to buy blank outline maps that your kids can color or label. We bought Uncle Josh’s Outline Map Book and used it for years and years. There are also free maps available online. Those often have extra words cluttering them up, and I prefer a paper with less distraction. I thought the cost was worth it. But if saving money is your number one goal – and sometimes it is! – then the free printable maps work too. After you and the kids read a place name in a book and find it in the atlas, now you can have them color it in (or add country and city names, depending on ages).
These Olde World Style United States maps from Homeschool in the Woods would be super handy when you’re studying American History. There is also a world version available. (I have so many resources to recommend, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. I’ll just mention in passing, buying a historical atlas would also be a wise choice. I love flipping through the pages of our historical atlas.)
My absolute favorite way to practice geography
I don’t want you to miss, among all these options, my hands-down favorite. Are you familiar with Montessori education? There are philosophical problems, but there are things Montessori does well – and you should borrow regardless of your educational philosophy. Using Montessori maps to “drill” geography is highly effective, hands-on learning.
You can purchase maps of each continent, the continents, and the USA. (Check the publisher’s website if you can’t find them all on Amazon.) To use the Montessori maps you should buy two: labeled and unlabeled. You should also purchase a set of labels (the country names). That means for each continent you need three items. You can also purchase Montessori puzzles used with these maps, but the price is exorbitant! I wouldn’t spend my money on those.
There are flag sets you can purchase, or be a cheapskate and buy a book of stickers, like this or this. Neither of these includes the flag of every country of the world – but that’s okay! Just put the flag stickers on some cardstock and use them as you would the labels with country names. You could also make a control map with the flag of each country stuck on it. That way your kids could check their own work.
If money is tight (believe me I know!) you can make your own version of these. I took a reproducible blank map to the print shop (Fed-Ex, Staples) and asked them to enlarge it. I think our pages were 11×14 but you might go even larger because the labels need to fit on or near the countries. There are some r-e-a-l-l-y small countries. Then we laminated it. I typed and printed the country names, laminated the page, and cut them apart into labels. Then make one map with all the country names written in. This might be a thrifty option. However…right now these Montessori maps are 85% off. For under $8 you can buy all three items you need. Plus shipping. Consider all your options, but do consider how much time it will take you to make them yourself.
How to use the Montessori maps
At the most basic level using these maps is very simple. Your child sits down with the blank map in front of them. Then set the labels on the unlabeled map either on top of or next to the country names. Then your child should check their work with the “control” map, or the labeled map. You could let your kids teach themselves all the countries on the continent at once. Or, if you have more time to be involved, teach them two or three countries a week and practice only those countries until they are mastered. This is easy, self-directed, and self-corrected learning.
Be advised, genuine Montessori instruction would have a hundred procedural rules for these activities. But, I’m not a Montessori educator so I borrow haphazardly. Search the internet for precise instructions.
Once you have all your supplies, keep them together, as a set, in a place your kids are able to access them. Train your kids on how to use them and how to treat the materials. Then your children have an independent learning activity.
This is a great way to learn! Even adults – like me! – can learn country names and locations using these. Then take it one step farther, if you have a competitive family like ours, and run speed drills. Your children will delight in being able to label every country on a continent faster than mom. Trust me.
Seterra: an online geography game
Seterra is a FREE geography map quiz game. We all love free, right? If you know me at all, you know we limit screen time in our home. But we’re not Luddites. We watch movies and my kids play a few video games, but we try to use media thoughtfully and purposefully. This online quiz game is one we play when we’re a little more relaxed in our schooling. And you notice I used the pronoun “we”? I admit I play it too. And crushed my son last time we competed in African geography. Just so you know (smile).
Seterra keeps score of both accuracy and speed – perfect for family competitions. You can learn everything from South American countries to Bulgarian provinces, to Norwegian bodies of water. There are a lot of quizzes on this site! The Voice Feature allows you to hear how place names are pronounced. And, bonus, I just noticed they added human anatomy quiz games. The site even allows you to create custom quizzes. I have no idea why you would waste your time on that; but if you wanted to, you could. So explore and have a little fun.
A quick note about older children
You can follow these suggestions all the way through high school. It should go without saying, but I’m going to point this out, high school students should be beyond simple picture books. However, as they cover World History, your students will have ample opportunity to look places up in the atlas. As older children fill in maps, don’t expect just maps of place names. They could go beyond that by making maps of battle lines, troop movements, routes of sea crossings, westward expansion, and on and on. High school students are also old enough to do most of this by themselves. Just look over their shoulders every once in a while to make sure the work is really happening.
Enjoy geography with your children
I am passionate about this! I have even more I could say, but this is enough. Right? But let me sum this whole post up in a few words.
Grab a pile of good books (picture books, historical fiction, cookbooks, travel photography, etc). Next, have a map handy. And make sure the kids are around! Now…have fun! That’s how easy it is to teach your children about God’s amazing world and the people He’s placed on it.