Understanding Geography

January 2012, By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman

When you think of geography, what comes to mind? For many of us, it’s location, but geography encompasses so much more. While geography used to be a subject in school, it is now buried in social studies and history, resulting in a population less geographically literate than people from many other countries.

Geography is such a broad subject, so I was pleased to find that the American Association of Geographers condensed it into five specific themes: Location, Place, Human Environment Interaction, Movement and Regions. We as families can work—in a fun way—to improve our knowledge of each.

Location

If you’re like me, you celebrated when you got a GPS for your car. Can life get any easier? However, my GPS occasionally gets me lost, taking me to a dead end or not knowing about a new street. Luckily, I still know how to read maps. The great thing about googlemaps.com, which I always use for a backup, is that it offers you several choices of how to get somewhere. You can also zoom in and out and follow roads to various destinations. My young daughter used it to track the trip from our house to school. I used to spread out gigantic maps, but now children can learn a lot about maps and directions with software. The coolest map software is Google Earth, which enables you to see aerial photos of geographic areas all over the world. (See below for more details.)

Vacations and day trips offer great opportunities to practice mapping skills. You can map out your trip on a highway map and then track the trip along the way. When traveling by plane, check out the map of airplane routes found in each seat pocket; after arriving at your destination, use a local map to get around. Practice using directional terms like “east” or “northwest” while looking for your destination.

Do you like to ride the Metro to get downtown? It can be fun to use the Metro map and see where you have to switch trains. Try practicing this in other cities, too. Our family has done this in San Francisco, Montreal and New York.

Are you and your children proficient in locating states and countries? My daughter memorized the countries in South America by making up silly sentences: The first letter of each word stands for a country. For some games to improve these skills, go to kidsgeo.com/geography-games or sheppardsoftware.com/Geography.htm.

Place

Place includes climate, physical features and the people and different cultures who live there. You can use Google Earth to find the climate and topography of places all around the world. For additional information, you can also go to worldatlas.com. There you can find details about many countries and even see a map of the brand new South Sudan, which became a country on July 9, 2011. You and your children might be interested in learning more about places you’ve been to or want to go, or even places where some of your friends are from. For a fun game to test your “geofacts” and learn more, see http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/games/geographygames/.

Human Environment Interaction

How have people adapted to their environment and changed it to meet their needs? Examine political differences between areas, or compare industries such as farming, fishing and manufacturing. Washington, D.C., for example, attracts people who want to work for the U.S. Government or for nonprofits. Farming areas attract immigrants. When reading books, watching movies and traveling, you can discuss how people differ in diverse locals.

Movement

Consider the patterns of movement in people, products and information. For example, many of our products are now made overseas; how does this affect our relationship with other countries and the quality of life here and around the world?

Thanks to satellite TV, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, information is regularly exchanged among countries (except in those that are closed, like North Korea). The impact of this has been shown in current events and global affairs (e.g., the use of Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring). While watching the news with your children, try to incorporate geography into each story.

Make geography personal by discussing the movement of your own relatives and ancestors from other countries. What was their experience like as immigrants? If possible, ask some of them personally. Talk with older generations about their memories of the past, and what has changed over the years.

Even family vacations can be used as a teaching tool. While on a road trip, look at the license plates from various states. Make up stories about the nature of their trips; where are they from, where are they going and why? Creativity is key!

Regions

Every geographical area is divided into regions—countries, states, cities, towns, and districts. Try discussing the region you are in when traveling. It is also fun to travel to different time zones or to talk to people who are in different time zones. Imagine what your friends and relatives in different time zones are doing at a particular time of your day.

GOOGLE EARTH

The coolest geography computer tool that I have found is Google Earth. Follow these instructions to expand your knowledge.

  • Google Earth must first be downloaded onto your computer. Type Google Earth into Google, click on the page and it will walk you through the steps.
  • Once completely downloaded, Google Earth will pop up in a separate window. You can then continue to access it from your computer under the Start menu: Google Earth.
  • Pay attention to the tips that pop up when you open Google Earth. They give you helpful hints on how to use it!
  • The time slider button at the top of the browser allows you to view how the geography of cities and towns has changed over time. This is especially helpful when used in conjunction with a history class.
  • Practice latitude and longitude by locating coordinates on the map, anywhere in the world. You can also enter any address into the search engine in the top left corner and Google Earth will zoom in on it. Find your house or your school.
  • You are now free to navigate the Earth. The Layers menu in the bottom left corner gives you different options for exploration. For example, Borders and Labels outlines continents, countries and states, depending on how far you zoom in, and it also highlights capitals and cities. The Weather layer allows you to see current weather conditions and forecasts around the world. The Ocean layer allows you to view ocean topography and get detailed information about shipwrecks, marine life, ocean expeditions and even sea temperatures. The Global Awareness label is particularly interesting because it highlights human rights and environmental organizations that have been established around the world, such as UNICEF, WWF, Fair Trade and programs initiated by the United Nations. As the title suggests, this feature allows children to be more aware of the world’s issues as a whole and gives them information about what they can do to help.
  • As a fun added bonus, you can also investigate the sky (i.e., stars and planets), the moon and even Mars!

They don’t teach us enough about geography in school. With the requirement to teach all subjects and administer standardized tests, there just isn’t time. Fortunately, there is much we can do in our daily lives to become more worldly.

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