Dr Paula Owens from the Geographical Association discusses how learning geography encourages children to use their natural curiosity and imagination to learn about both their immediate world and the bigger world around them.
Little ones are naturally curious and want to know everything about the world. If you’ve been asked why mountains are tall, why does the rain fall, or why it takes so long to get to some countries, you can find answers to these using geography!
We tend to think of geography as focusing solely on places on a map, but the subject is about much more. Geography teaches us about the Earth’s features such as oceans, islands, deserts and forests, as well as climates, the weather and human development. “Geography is about so much more than where places are and what they are called,” says Dr Paula Owens. “It helps explain how everything we do has a bearing on other people, places and environments - for good and bad.
What is it about geography that children find fascinating?
According to Dr Owens, children are natural explorers from a very young age. They love to explore the real world around them; their back gardens, local parks and neighbourhoods. “Children hear about the wider world through a range of stories and perhaps some knowledge from their own backgrounds and travels.” She added that children are fascinated by little bits of everyday life: a twig, a tiny burrow in the ground or a patterned stone. Geography provides skills to help them strengthen their exploration skills.
Children are also fascinated with people from different backgrounds and places. You can use geography to teach kids about how people use the land, plants and animals in different parts of the world in their daily lives. So, for example, you can explain to your children why some people live in houses made of clay, why some people are nomadic, and why some people’s houses are on stilts.
How do I get my child interested in geography?
Dr Owens’ advice is simple: go outside! “The real world is on your doorstep no matter where you live so go there, talk about it, notice things and ask questions together.”
You don’t need to buy expensive maps or globes - you could just use postcards, posters, a jigsaw or even something as simple as a road atlas. Dr Owens suggests buying an inexpensive inflatable globe to show your little one how the world looks as a 3D model. You can also make simple maps with your little ones - why not draw a map that shows the routes to the local shops or to school or a friend or relative’s house?
Talk to your children about famous landmarks and natural features and where they are located. The Great Pyramids in Giza, which is Egypt, the Victoria Falls in Zambia, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA are all examples you could use with your children.
How geography can help literacy and maths skills
We tend to see a lot of focus on literacy and maths once children start nursery and primary school, but learning geography complements and enhances these essential skills. Literacy and maths skills work best when given a real-world context and geography provides this. “Geography requires a great deal of vocabulary to name, describe and explain places; how they are changing and what is happening there. It enables young children to be confident communicators about the world and to make better sense of what they encounter.”
Dr Owens says that maths is incredibly well served by geography. She says that mathematical language such as distance, time, capacity, scale, height and shape are essential in describing the world.
“How tall is Mount Everest? Where is it and how far is it from where I live? How big is your country compared to the USA or to China?” We can present data to children in a way that can be easily understood. This might be done with simple visuals such as colourful graphs, reports or tables.”
Play some games!
Dr Owens has some ideas for geography games you can play with your little ones:
- Give your child an inflatable globe and ask a question such as “Show me a hot/cold country”.
- Have a treasure hunt using a homemade map.
- Make a memory game by printing pictures and locations of famous landmarks or geographical features and sticking them to card. Your child should match the picture to the location i.e. Mount Rushmore to America.
- Make a simple outdoor explorer kit with a map, compass and camera.
- Use modelling clay to make 3D landscapes of things such as beaches or volcanoes. You could create a famous landmark or place.
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