Teach Geography Without Curriculum

You can easily teach geography without an expensive curriculum. Even better, you don’t have to spend thirty extra minutes of your day teaching it. Purchase a few basic supplies – like a good atlas – and you have all you need to give your children an excellent grasp of world geography.


My Geographer

I have a daughter who is a Geo-whiz. In a recent game of Wits and Wagers, the question came up, “How many countries surround the Mediterranean Sea?” We all scratched out our guesses, which is exactly how the game is designed. Meanwhile, the Geo-whiz was lost in thought, mentally envisioning a map of the Sea, and counting up countries. One…sixteen…twenty-one. She boldly wrote the correct answer. Our Geo-whiz finished top ten in the state Geography Bee, names capital cities with ease, and can picture the entire world in her head. Yet, I never purchased a formal geography curriculum.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Geo-whiz has a counterpoint within the family. A Geo-bomber if you will. The Geo-bomber boldly placed Spain in South America. The faulty reasoning ran like this: “They speak Spanish in South America. And Spanish in Spain, obviously. Therefore…” The Geo-bomber also missed a bit of history, like the Discovery of the Americas. Oh well. There are no guaranteed results in this homeschooling affair.

All you need to teach geography

To effectively teach geography, you do not need to carve out extra hours in your already full schedule. There’s no need to pour over homeschool catalogs looking for a geography curriculum. Simply gather a few resources, a collection of maps and an atlas, and – as always – all the good books you can read. That’s all you need to teach geography without a curriculum.

If money is tight, you can buy one book: an atlas. Find it used for cheap, with the caveat that it must be fairly recent or your kids will know countries that haven’t been in existence for twenty years. With that one book, some paper, the internet, and the library you have everything you really need.

How you begin to teach geography

Young children learn concretely. And their learning centers around themselves. Begin by teaching them where they live: their city, state, and country. Physical geography should focus on the things they can see outside the window on a car ride, or on a hike.

Once your child knows where they live, begin to teach them about a few other places. Don’t teach strange and foreign places like Mount Fuji or the Taj Mahal – not yet. A young child is all about relationships. The next step is to teach your children where the people they know live and travel.

1. People we love live in places on the map

Relationships with places are formed because a child has a relationship with a person. Where is grandma’s house? Your child has a relationship with grandma’s house, especially when grandma serves cookies and hot chocolate. When we visit grandpa and grandma at Christmas it snows. Or, Dad flew to New York. Here it is on the map. Why didn’t he drive in the car?

Then begin to branch out. Where do uncles, aunts, and cousins live? Your uncle took a trip to Uganda, let’s find out where that is. Does your child have a good friend who moved away? Show your child where they went. Do you know friends from church who immigrated from a different country? Teach your child where they came from. Your child will notice a foreigner’s accent, so tell them about the native language of the country as well. Eventually, you can connect people you know, or know of, to places all over the world.

But always remind your sweetie of home. Here’s your place on the map.

2. The features of the earth around us are noted on a map

Keep handy a map of the state in which you live. Then point out to your sweeties the places your family goes. The lake we swim in is this blue oval on the map. The river that runs through downtown is this blue line – so thin you can barely see it. We hike here in this State Park shaded green. Help your kids learn to read the markings on the map and relate the markings to the world they see around them.

Road trips are great times to show your kids a map of the route. Give them a paper copy they can look at and color in as you travel. You could sketch in mountains, rivers, or landmarks before you leave home. Teach your kids to look at the map and see what’s coming, then look out the window and find it. Watch for signs marking the state line and cheer every time you enter a new state. This is all geography!

3. The books we read are set in real places

Intentionally choose picture books that tell stories of the whole world. Look for tales that show how people live. Illustrations teach without words. Read about as many places as you can. Comb through the books in the children’s section of the library, both fiction and non-fiction. But make sure you bring home fun books. I’m not talking about boring non-fiction titles like, “Kenya.” Instead, try Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain and read it over and over.  This is just one example. Your guiding principle is: Books should be fun! And geography can be fun too.

Finally, find all these story-land places on a map of the world. If you keep a map handy, you can point to the country on a map in thirty seconds or less. “Here’s Kenya. It’s in Africa. Where do you live?” Always bring it home.  If you do this over and over, your kids will have an excellent knowledge of the world.

4. Travelers photograph the world

If you want to take your exploration of the world one step further, take a minute to look up photographs of the places you read about. If your phone or tablet is handy (and it always is – right?) do a quick internet search and look at the images. For example, if you search “Kapiti plain” only a few photographs come up. But if you’re resourceful, you can search “Kenyan plains.” Then enjoy!

Don’t guilt yourself into doing this every time you read a book. Not necessary. But some things are fun to see in pictures – like African wildlife and Masai herdsman – you’ll find it time well spent.

5. Memorize place names

Finally, I’ve gotten around to mentioning memory work. Have you been waiting? Too often we skip right over helping our children make connections to the real world, and want to get straight to memory work. After all, it’s impressive when your three-year-old knows all fifty states and capitals. Don’t get me wrong – we did plenty of memory work when our kids were little. But, especially with young children, don’t skip real-world connections.

We began by memorizing state names using plastic placemats with a map of the United States. We would teach our kids two or three states at a time. Then drill. Countless times we repeated, “Point to Montana. Point to Florida.” Or we would ask, “What state is this?” Cover the state names if you have an early reader. After our kids could find all fifty states on the map, we moved on to capitals. You know, to impress the relatives. But if the placemat is always handy, this is a fun and simple way to learn.  You can also buy a map of the world placemat that your kids can carry to the couch while you read stories. (If it’s clean!) A United States puzzle is another great way to get their little hands involved in the learning process.

Hanging a wall map is also a good idea. If you school at your dining room table (and we have always schooled at the dining room table – or the couch), there are simple ways to “frame” an inexpensive wall map, making it decorative. Check out my Pinterest geography board for some ideas. If you hang a map, you have one handy at all times to point out any geographic locations that come up in daily conversation.

A geography habit

You can repeat these basic activities over and over as your children grow up. Make an interest in geography a habit. Train your children to look things up. Have them do it over and over again. You can do it too! The other day I read about a missionary flying into Entebbe. I found it on a map. I took note of (and promptly forgot) the countries surrounding Uganda. Then I found pictures of Entebbe and scrolled through a few. Once you make this a habit you can keep at it for life.

Just for fun

Miroslav Sasek wrote and illustrated over a dozen books for children, beginning with This is Paris in 1959.  After a vacation in Paris, he was inspired to create “children’s travel guides to the big cities of the world.” The books introduce the highlights of the city. The reprinted editions include a page at the back, “This is…Today.” Don’t expect an in-depth history, maps, or geography. Still, these are a fun way to get the feel of the city. And the illustrations (we’d call them retro – did Sasek?) are charming. Sasek also produced several books introducing kids to countries, such as: GreeceIreland, and Israel.

These are a bit expensive, so I wouldn’t plan to purchase all of them. Unless you’re just smitten with Sasek. But I think they’re worth it if you find a guide to one of your favorite places. After my sister and I visited Great Britain, I bought my kids This is London.

But wait…there’s more

I had so much to say, I split this into two posts! Read my next post Geography Resources. In that post, I will share my absolute favorite way to practice country names and locations!

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