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Should I Teach Geography?

Have you ever been teaching a history lesson when one of your children pipes up with a question. “Mom, is Carthage a city in Oregon or some other country?” Oh dear, you think to yourself and then calmly explain, “Honey, first of all, Oregon is a state, not a country. And Carthage no longer exists, but I think it was located on the northern tip of Africa across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy.” After receiving two or more questions along this vein, you realize that you need some better resources.

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Homeschooling parents are experts at juggling, but sometimes in the hullabaloo of school and life, a ball gets dropped.  More often than not, that ball is geography.  Who has time for geography when the three R’s need to be taught, the science experiment from yesterday needs to be cleaned up, the dishes need to be done and three loads of laundry are waiting to be folded.

Besides, geography isn’t that important, right?  Really, who is going to care if my child knows where Chile is located?  It’s not a big deal, really, is it?

In truth, Americans are among the most geography-illiterate residents on the planet.  Sadly, when it comes to geography, Americans just are not measuring up. In a National Geographic survey, it was found that 49% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could not locate the state of New York on a United States map. 88% of these respondents could not find Afghanistan on a map of Asia. And, perhaps most shocking, is that 11% of these Americans could not locate their own country on a world map!

American students, in general, have a very limited understanding of world and even U.S. geography in comparison with their counterparts from around the world. European students, for example, have a much better handle not only of their own surrounding geography but of the entire world as well. It is the same with students from Asia and many other parts of the globe.

Perhaps you are thinking that I am only referring to public school students. But in reality, homeschooled students often suffer from this same lack of knowledge in geography as well. The two subjects most neglected in the homeschooling arena are writing and geography. I am not entirely certain why this is so, but I can speculate… Skill areas, such as math, grammar and spelling are easier to measure than the artful skill of writing and so it gets pushed aside. Similarly, history and science require such large portions of time that geography is often left in the cold.

The little-known truth about geography is that it is not a difficult subject to teach! The teacher does not have to master the topic before challenging his/her students to increase their knowledge and skill in this neglected area. In fact, this subject can be combined easily with history, adding very little additional studying to the family’s full schedule.

Are you ready dive in and discuss some fun and effortless ways to teach geography? Well, hold on for just a moment more… first let’s take a minute to discuss why learning geography is even a necessary component to one’s education. I mean, honestly, why would anyone need to know where Timbuktu is located? (By the way, in case you do not know, it is a city situated smack dab in the center of Mali, a country in western Africa, just south of the Sahara Desert.)

First, we need a working definition of geography. According to Noah Webster, geography is “the study of the earth, or the terrestrial globe, particularly of the divisions of its surface, whether natural or artificial, and of the position of countries, kingdoms, states and cities.” In essence, geography is the spatial aspect of earth study and is integrally related to its sister subjects of history, ecology and the economy.

Consider this perspective… All wars that have been fought throughout history have been over geography, which, of course, ultimately boils down to greed. The source of tension between lords and tenants, neighboring kingdoms, settlers and natives comes down to this one particular thing – who owns the land currently and who has enough power to take control and keep it!

Physically speaking, the landscape of our earth has changed little over the course of time (with the exception of the Great Flood and its aftermath), but the historical events that have transpired over even just a portion of this ground has had and continues to have tremendous impact on that locale as well as the world as a whole.

We must take an interest in and even study geography because it is an aspect of studying mankind and his development and movement over the face of the globe. We should not only concern ourselves with the name or even the course of a given river, but we would do even better to make an attempt at understanding the societies that have grown up and then departed from that river, the trade that was conducted up and down that river, the connections that that river makes to other waterways and its overall significance to the local and worldwide economy. Many people do not realize that geography is more than just naming countries, cities and landforms. It is the study of the land as it relates to people, their history and their resources.

If we truly want to understand another culture, to reach out in missions, to bring aid to hurting people and share the love of Christ beyond our local borders, we must study geography. Cultures are significantly defined by their geographical limitations and whereabouts.

Geography is a natural extension of history, literature and science. It just makes sense to learn it along with these other subjects. Yes, teaching geography can be painless and your children may even develop an “obsession” with finding locations on the map! Here are some ways to incorporate geography into your daily studies.

Fasten a large world map to the wall – the bigger the better. This map can be either labeled or unlabeled. If you choose an unlabeled map, have a globe on hand for looking up locations. On this wall map, have your students mark locations when they run across them in their studies, whether it be the name of a country they just read about in their literature reading, the name of a city where an inventor was born, or the location of a famous battle. Marking locations on a map can be done a few different ways. Straight pins can be outfitted with a labeled “flag” which identifies the place. Simply fold a rectangular piece of paper around the pin, glue it to itself and label the specific place name with a fine point marker on the “flag”. These place-marker pins can be stuck into a map that has been adhered to a foam backing (spray adhesive works best for adhering paper maps to foam board). Or, if the map is not laminated, and if this activity meets with your approval, the children can mark the location with a dot using a marker and then write the place name directly on the map itself. This usually works better with a blank unlabeled wall map.

An effective yet enjoyable activity that incorporates geography into their other studies is for your children to label and color notebook sized maps, on a weekly basis, which correspond with the topics they are studying in history or learning about in their other assigned reading. Maps can be labeled and colored while you read your history text aloud to your students, or as a separate activity.  Again, map work is best used in conjunction with a globe so they can see where the area is located in relation to the rest of the world and to gain the distance perspective that only a globe can give because it is not distorted as a flat map is.

Finished maps can be displayed prominently on the refrigerator or a bulletin board, or assembled into a history notebook.

Where can you find a comprehensive resource of historically based maps?  Knowledge Quest has just released its long-awaited revised map resource – Map Trek.  Map Trek is an atlas plus historical outline maps that allow you to teach geography alongside history. This is a resource that any homeschool parent can use with brilliant success, even if you don’t remember a thing from your history or geography classes in public school.

Map Trek comes in 4 volumes that have been broken down by time period.  Choose from Ancient, Medieval, New or Modern World map sets.  Lesson plans are included for students in grades 1-12 so that little preparation is required of the teacher.  Students that label and color one historical outline map per week are light years ahead in their geography knowledge than those that do not. Find our more about Map Trek »

Terri Johnson

Terri is a homeschool mom of six children. She and her husband love educating Their children at home and have been doing so for nearly 12 years. They created their business - Knowledge Quest, Inc. - in 2001 with the desire to produce simple black and white maps that children could label and color while studying both world and American history. Their efforts eventually expanded into producing 10 foot wall timelines, a hardcover timeline book, a historical biography series along with some additional geography resources that would delight the whole family.

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