Teaching Geography: Why and How

Dear Reader,

For the upcoming Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival I am reading the section of Charlotte’s sixth book which deals with geography. My own initial thought when I became a homeschooler and heard others talking about geography was that it seemed like a very old-fashioned subject. I think I also had very dry conceptions of what geography should be, imagining memorizing countries in Africa with little or no context.

Charlotte begins this section by indicating that even in her own day geography was seeming to go by the wayside:

“The teaching of Geography suffers especially from the utilitarian spirit. The whole tendency of modern Geography, as taught in our schools, is to strip the unfortunate planet which has been assigned to us as our abode and environment of every trace of mystery and beauty. There is no longer anything to admire or to
wonder at in this sweet world of ours.” (p. 224)

As I am beginning to study geography in a CM way, I am seeing that what Charlotte describes is exactly what has happened. We have lost all sense of beauty in the world. We no longer study science or geography for the sake of learning about what God has made. After we first lose this conception, we then begin to strip geography down until it becomes what I had always imagined — a dry subject focused mainly on memorization.

But Charlotte tells us that while children should learn where things are on their maps, they must also begin to picture themselves in these places. Geography rightly done should be very engaging. So much of a CM education is about forming relations with things through our reading. In geography we can get to know places and peoples which we may never get the chance to actually visit. Charlotte calls her approach to geography panoramic and describes it thus:

“The second which might be called the panoramic method unrolls the landscape of the world, region by region, before the eyes of the scholar with in every region its own conditions of climate, its productions, its people, their industries and their history. This way of teaching the most delightful of all subjects has the effect of giving to a map of a country or region the brilliancy of colour and the wealth of detail which a panorama might afford, together with a sense of proportion and a knowledge of general principles. I believe that pictures are not of very great use in this study. We all know that the pictures which abide with us are those which the imagination constructs from written descriptions.” (p. 228)

I feel like I am only beginning to get a good feel for geography but I have found some really enjoyable resources I would like to share:

For map drills we use free online games from Sheppard Software. With a little introduction, my kids have all been able to do this on their own. They all do it once  a week for about 5 minutes so this does not add a big burden to our day. For many areas of the world, we had gone over the countries ahead of time, coming up with mnemonics to help us remember the order they come in. For instance, for central America we say “big gorillas eat hotdogs, not cold pizza” (for Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama). We did not, however, do this for Africa and they still all seem to have learned the countries on their own by playing the games.

While we are always looking for more, there are a number of geography books we have enjoyed. One of the first was V.M. Hillyer’s Child’s Geography. I like a lot of Hillyer’s books. They are older and so sometimes things have changed (or changed and changed again; how many Germanys are there?). But I find such things just give me the chance to talk about world events and how things change. He also uses outdated languages referring to people groups which I either edit as I go or else use again as a chance to discuss how things have changed.

Last year we finished a book I had found at a used book store called In the Land of the Lion. It is probably hard to come by but it was again an older work, this one focused entirely on Africa and particularly on its animals. Animals can be a great way to get into geography because kids are interested in them and they also naturally lead one to consider climate and landscape. We followed this up with a book on Australian animals called Spotty the Bower Bird.

This year we are beginning a large volume by Richard Halliburton called the Book of Marvels. It begins in the US and continues through the world discussing both man-made and natural features. For example, thus far we have read about the bridges in San Francisco, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. The chapters are short and a great length for reading aloud together. There are lots of pictures though they are in black and white. I am having the children place each spot on a map of the US as we go so they get a sense of where things are. It is again an older book, as all the good ones seem to be, so I do wonder if some of the things its says along the lines of “this is the biggest bridge” are still true.

How about you, what geography sources have you found and loved?


Edited to add: I also have this post on how we have taught geography and current events as my kids get older. Here are some of the sites we have found with maps that teach about the world:

16 Maps that will change your understanding of the world forever

Mother Tongues

32 Maps that will teach you something new about the world

40 Maps that will help you make sense of the world

40 More Maps that Explain the World

And lastly, GeoCurrents — This website is a bit different from the others; you might have to dig around a little more but it has some interesting maps and a lot of resources. Consider, for instance, this map on milk and meat consumption in India.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Karen on October 27, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    We’re using SCM’s Module 5 -which incl. plans for Tree in the Trail by Holling – we have the Beautiful Feet map on the wall. Since my children are young (9 and younger) and I want the map pretty, I’m doing most of the coloring and labeling – but it’s on the wall and I notice people looking at it and touching it and remembering what we’ve read. We’re enjoying this study of geography.

    On a side note, I scored a copy of Hillyer’s Child’s Geography at a book sale this weekend!


    • What a nice find! It is so hard to just run across those old, good books. I am glad we live in the era of Amazon.

      I have never been a huge fan of Holling’s books though I did think about trying them again this year and may still. I can’t explain why; I know others love them. I suppose it is just how one automaticaly clicks or doesn’t with other people.


      • Posted by Karen on October 29, 2013 at 2:33 am

        On HOlling’s books, we tried Pagoo several years ago and it didn’t work. But Tree in the Trail is working very well this year. So, it could be the book you tried…or the children’s ages….or it just doesn’t fit your family! All are acceptable reasons!


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