6 Fun Ways to Teach Geography to Kids at Home
Geography, a Subject Often Left Behind
So many parents, teachers, and schools are focusing on teaching reading, math, and now STEM. These subjects are all definitely important and play an integral part of overall learning. However, it seems these days that there has been a loss of focus on other subjects that also contribute to a well-rounded education. Geography—both an awareness of the physical features of Earth, and knowledge of political boundaries and people—is somehow getting lost in the shuffle. With so much pressure from above to get students to achieve higher test scores, and to do progress monitoring at such frequent intervals, teachers are not usually to blame—they just don’t always have time to touch this subject.
I have come across a handful seven or eight-year-old students who couldn’t name more than three or four states out of the United States, or tell you the difference between a continent or a country. These students are often otherwise quite smart—they can read and do math problems well above their reading level. They just simply haven’t been taught that much about maps or political geography. This saddens me, because as a kid I was somewhat of a geography nerd—my twin sister and I regularly competed in the National Geographic Geography Bee, and she even was runner up at the state level one year. We were fascinated by different countries and different people, and would spend hours recreating maps of different places and imagining going there one day.
I believe that when you teach kids geography, they have the final puzzle piece that pulls a lot of their experiences together. As a parent, I want my kids to know about geography. If we go on vacation I want them to have a sense of where we are and appreciate those different places. I want them to have a basic understanding of where things are on the globe, and where we are in the solar system. I hope that if they have this worldly awareness, it will spark more curiosity to learn about other subjects like history, literature, and the arts, and how those all are linked to the different people and places on Earth.
My kids are five and one. So, no, they cannot name off every country or list every mountain range on Earth, but the five-year-old is on her way to having a pretty good basic understanding of what a continent, country, and state are and what the difference is between oceans, lakes, and rivers. Thanks to many of the ideas below that we’ve implemented, she can tell you the 50 United States in order and point to many of them on a map. The one year old can’t talk yet, but she participates in many of these activities. It’s never too early to start! We probably spend only about 1-2 hours a week total on any of these activities, and yet, I think they’ve made a big difference.
I am not a teacher and don’t claim to be—the suggestions below are just some things we’ve tried at home that have worked. I think these ideas can carry over to other subjects as well—art, music, math, etc. They key is that they are all fun, and don’t feel like “work.” You’ll notice that none of these involve workbook pages, and most don’t even involve pencil and paper. The more something feels like fun, especially for the little ones kindergarten age or younger, the more likely they are going to want to participate. (We tried workbook pages, and they were fine, but the other activities are what I really think made a difference). I also did not include any “app”—the only screen time is some of the songs, and sometimes we just listen to those in the car or at bath time without the screen, although the animations in many of them are helpful.
This is the number one way I’ve taught my kids anything. Songs stick in their head, and they memorize them quickly. Even if they memorize words to a song before completely making sense of the concept, they can put two and two together down the road.
A few songs have really worked for us to get an idea of the solar system, the Earth, and the states of the United States. The Kids Learning Tube channel on YouTube has some really catchy songs about all school subjects that my kids really like to listen to. The ones we use are:
My favorite favorite favorite song of all time for geography, though, is the “Fifty Nifty United States” song. I learned this song in 5th grade (a million years ago), and it still gets stuck in my head from time to time. I decided to teach it to my older daughter when she was 4. After some resistance (she preferred the “50 States and Capitals Song” above), one day she started reciting all 50 states to the tune of the song, and has been doing so spontaneously ever since. Here is the song:
After singing that song for a few months, and doing the United States puzzle (below) for the past few years, she is now starting to sing the song and point to the states as she sings. She can name a few capitals form the capitals song, and I expect her to keep getting better as her reading also gets better.
Fifty Nifty United States
Puzzles are the best when you want a little one to “study” a picture of something for a longer period of time. Instead of just staring at a map (or alphabet, or whatever other educational picture) for a while, putting a puzzle together forces them to keep referring back to the work at hand. When they refer to the puzzle, to the picture on the box, and back to the puzzle again, and work out which pieces go where, they are ingraining an image of the picture in their heads.
There are plenty of geography puzzles available, ranging from wooden ones very little kids can do, to more complex jigsaw puzzles. I have not yet gotten a wooden geography puzzle the 1 year old can do, but I plan on purchasing a continent one or a globe puzzle.
For my five-year-old, we have done both floor puzzles of the 50 states, and smaller ones. She loves it—she’ll beg me to do these with her, even though now she has a pretty good idea of what goes where. Again, these are great for an awareness of where continents, countries, or states go, depending on what map the puzzle depicts.
3. Maps and Globes
If you can, make maps a part of your child’s environment. Hang a big world map in their room. Have a family map where you put pushpins of where you’ve been and where you want to go. Hang pictures around the perimeter of the map to depict landmarks, physical features, people, or food from those places. By having maps be a natural part of their surroundings, kids will become more familiar with them.
On the same token, globes are a great learning tool. You can invest in a good globe that shows the topographical features of the world like mountains, desert, etc., but any globe is good. Our globe cost me all of $6 the Learning Shop in Milwaukee. It is a blow-up beach ball globe, which often doubles as a soccer ball, volley ball, etc. in my house. We’ll pretend that if we hit it on one spot, that we just created an earthquake in that country. If something gets spilled on it or we’re playing outside and it starts raining, we pretend it’s raining on our little globe, too.
We use our blow-up globe pretty often for some map games, and when we read books set in different countries (below). I would like to invest in a higher quality, real globe when they get older, but for now this one is working just fine.
Especially with our globe, we play a lot of games. One fun game is to pass the globe back and forth. Wherever your right-hand lands, you have to try to name that country, continent, ocean, or other feature you decide. They will need a lot of help identifying things at first, but you’ll see that they catch on quite quickly.
We’ll also play a game where one person holds the globe and spins it, and the other person has to close their eye with their finger on the globe. When the person closing their eyes says “stop,” the person spinning has to stop, and together they have to name what they’re pointing to.
We use our map of the world (and also the US puzzle doubling as a map) to talk about distance or time zones. We’ll get a ruler and say one inch = 1,000 miles, for example, and measure from place to place to try to figure out how many miles one is from another. This is good math practice, too. Sometimes my older daughter will use Barbies or Lego figures to walk across the map on their journey.
Another fun activity is to give kids a piece of paper, some colored pencils, and a ruler, and ask them to create their own map. It can be an imaginary place. Ask them to include mountains, roads, forests, bodies of water, or other features. Help them create a legend at the end and color it all in. We recently completed “Princess City,” which had “Knight Lake” and was bordered on the South by “Rapunzel Sea.” Although it was a completely made up place, we learned about compass directions, topography, and scale.
Children's Books Set in Different Countries
There are plenty of children’s books for all ages that talk about different places on the globe. Right now, we are reading a series called We have read the books about Australia, Italy, and Mexico so far. This series is great because it introduces a character who lives there and walks through their daily life, all while touching on the history, geography, and culture of those places. After reading these books, I have my daughter point to that country on the globe, and tell me a few things she learned. Many times, she remembers the food they eat (she now wants to go to Italy because they talked about eating sweets for breakfast!), and what they do for fun (the little girl in India gets to go speed skating after school!). Living In….
Although it’s not always feasible, you can also try an “immersion” activity after reading these books—the best way I can think to do this is to go to a restaurant with authentic cuisine from the places you read about. We’ve done this for Italy and Mexico, and I would like to for Russia, China, and India. Our learning is on a budget, so these nights will have to coincide with nights we would be eating out anyway!
You can try some strictly non-fiction books about these places, but for us I’ve noticed that I get the best results if there is some kind of story involved, rather than just a list of facts.
Explore Your Own City or Town
Geography is not just about faraway places. It is also about where you live and your immediate surroundings, too, and how it all fits together in the world as a whole. By getting to know your neighborhood, city, and state, your child can gain a better understanding of how everything is connected.
A good place to start is your own neighborhood. The book has been a good starting point for us to learn about how even our own room can be a place on the map. After reading this book, you can have your child learn about their neighborhood—how many blocks are there? What does your neighborhood look like on the map? Have them learn your address, and then notice how other addresses around you have similar numbers and are all part of a system. Me on the Map
As much as you can, get to know your city—the landmarks, roads, parks, and other places. We live in Milwaukee, so many of our adventures around the city have involved things close to Lake Michigan. We learned about North, South, East, and West—the lake is usually East of wherever we are. We’ve learned about lagoons, rivers, sand dunes, marshes, prairies, and other geographical features just by visiting many places in our own city. When you are out running errands or on family outings, talk about your surroundings. When you travel outside of your city, talk about the features you see and see if they can relate those to things they saw near home.
As you can see, none of these ideas cost very much money or time to integrate into learning and play time at home. When you use any one of these ideas, however, I bet you’ll be surprised at how much your child retains. Learning doesn’t have to be boring, or feel like “work”—with a little conscious effort, making geography a regular part of your child’s life can be easy and fun.