Geography: You Can Make It Come Alive

Using maps and a globe helps your children learn the art of map reading and teaches them the location of some fabulous far away places. You can teach them how to read a map and explore all of the wonders that a globe of the world has to offer. You can open their eyes to the varied land formations and natural wonders of the world around them. Showing your children the treasures that will unfold as you study geography together is exciting. Soon you and your children will discover where Bouvet Island is located and what ocean surrounds it. That will be just the beginning of your geography adventures together as a family.

Begin by collecting a pencil and paper, an inexpensive compass, a globe, as many maps as you can find, and any copies of the National Geographic magazine that are available to you.

Paper and a pencil are sure to be in the house, but what about a compass? If you don't already have one, buy a cheap compass in the toy department of the nearest 5 & 10. By all means purchase a better one later if you can, but for now the cheapest compass will do, as long as its needle swings. It will teach the concepts of direction. You can even make one by magnetizing a needle-rub a magnet repeatedly along it, always in the same direction and lower it gently into a shallow dish of water. If you're careful, the needle will float on the surface tension of the water, and will swing to indicate direction.

Globes, particularly the large ones, are often expensive when purchased new, but older ones can frequently be found at yard and rummage sales. They may be out-of-date-displaying the Belgian Congo instead of Zaire, say, or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics instead of Russia and all of the other now-independent nations that used to form the U.S.S.R.-but that's to your advantage, for now you just want to show your children where things are placed on the surface of the earth in relative terms.

National Geographic magazines are a great source of maps. Friends and neighbors are sure to help you with your collection of these well-known yellow periodicals. They are a fantastic resource for children of all ages. Collect them when you can; maps often come inside National Geographic. Road maps are also readily available at gas stations and bookstores, and will serve you well.

What to do with this collection of material? To start, use your pencil and paper and explain the concept of the map. A map (any map) is just a diagram or picture of a place. It can encompass the world, or one tiny corner of it. Therefore, when you teach your child to read a simple map, you are teaching map-reading skills that will help him or her grasp any other map they come across in school or later in life.

Begin simply by sitting down with your child and drawing the floor plan of your house. Label the rooms and any significant landmarks, like the front door, or a fireplace. If you're sitting at the kitchen table for this project, you can put the pencil point on this room in your drawing, or map, which represents the kitchen, and say, "We're here." Use the pencil to trace a path to the front door, or a bedroom closet, and describe the route together aloud as you do so. "Now we're turning left to go into the dining room..."

Ask your child a few simple questions, such as: "Tell me, and show me with the pencil, how you move through the house when you get ready for bed." This simple exercise demonstrates the relationship of the diagram, or map, to the real world. Try the same exercise, but expand it a bit-draw a representation of your yard, draw in the house, put in gates, fences, driveway, mailbox, and then play the same location game. You can even hide a little prize and give your child a treasure map showing them the location of the booty, and set him or her loose to follow the map! Then expand it a little more by drawing a simple map of your neighborhood together. Once your child can read and understand this level of mapping, they are ready to graduate to reading a commercial map. They'll be able to grasp the depiction of an area in map form-an indispensable skill for later in life.

A globe is a good way to begin an explanation of our world. Point out where you live (as close as you can at this scale!), and then show some other points of interest: the North Pole, or Africa, or China, or California where Aunt Rose lives, or anything else that comes to mind. "Here is our country, and here's the Atlantic Ocean, and this little island over here is England. Do you know that when the Pilgrims sailed from here...to here...it took them two months? It's a long way!"

When describing directions and locations we use points of the compass, so point out the North Pole and the South Pole, and show that west is to the left as we face the globe, while east is to the right. It's easy to show that California is west of Massachusetts, and that Africa is south of England.

Later sit down together with a compass and go over the directions again. Children are fascinated with compasses, and with the idea that the needle always shows due north. Now that your child has seen the North Pole on the globe, you can use the compass to point out the right direction to face, right here at home, in the house or the yard, to be certain of looking toward the North Pole and the direction north. Now talk about the immutable law that when you face north, south is always at your back, your left hand points west, and your right hand points east; it can be fun to learn the directional positions in this manner.

Maps, compass, and globes provide the mechanics of geography. What is the pile of National Geographic magazines for? They're to awaken your child to the immense treasure chest of things that are of interest in our world. Pre-schoolers also enjoy the vivid photography, and the pictures stir interest in reading the stories, even if to just read the captions. Polar bears, elephants, Scottish bagpipers, crowded Tokyo subway trains, Antarctic expeditions, the story of chocolate, the history of the Statue of Liberty: the stunning variety of our world is laid out to explore. By supplying a pile of Geographic magazines in the playroom for your children, you will be opening the doorway to knowledge, the type that they will thirst for, now that they know it exists! What could be better than that?

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