Teaching Geography through Literature

It always cracks me up when I hear parents freaking out about how to teach Geography. In international rankings, the USA falls far short in geographical knowledge. It’s a subject not given nearly enough time in the early years in schools, and it’s shameful that one Geography credit, sometimes a half credit, is all that’s required to escape high school and be considered “educated” at a basic level. You don’t need a fancy program to teach geography. You don’t need to make salt dough maps of the continents. And you don’t need to beat your kids with flashcards for the countries and capitals. There are many ways to learn those that are lots more fun.


Geography is such an easy subject to teach, or it should be, because it’s woven into everyday life like little else is. Everything happens in a place, from your neighbourhood, to the news. Every story you read occurs in a location. Geography can be woven through every single subject, but literature is the biggest no brainer.



When You’re At Home

I went to conventional schools, but it was at my Dad’s knee that my geographical literacy developed. At home he read to us, we coloured maps and we traveled from around our dinner table over long snowbound winters in Canada. The method is quite easy, really. Every time you read, take two seconds to point out where the book takes place on the map. Then point out the capital of that country. Discuss for a second the landforms you can see on the map. Identify the bordering countries and bodies of water. Keep outline maps on hand and colour them in accordance with what you’re reading, map the travels of the characters in books, or the historical events in what you’re reading.


A favourite series that lend themselves perfectly to the geography of North America for a wide age range of kids are the Holling C. Holling books: Pagoo, Paddle to the Sea, Sea Bird, A Tree In The Trail, and Minn of the Mississippi. Another obvious story you could start with today would be Around The World in 80 Days.


Begin with your toddlers and put dots on the map for the picture books you read, drawing their attention to the difference between continents and countries, states and cities.


Weave the language of geography through daily life.



When You’re Traveling

Of course it seems easier to teach geography when we take a big trip, doesn’t it? The maps come out and it’s natural to be interested in “where we’re going.” Why not take that one step further? Instead of just going to a place and seeing it, make the effort up front, and while you’re there, to read about it and sear the stories of other people into the minds and hearts of your kids in the way that walking the same world as a favourite character in a story can.


Not sure where to start in finding books related to where you’re going? The Database of Award Winning Children’s Literature is the first place I start.


My kids relate the places they’ve been with the stories we’ve read:
Anne of Green Gables in Prince Edward Island
The Diary of Anne Frank in Amsterdam
Night by Eli Wiesel at Buchenwald
The Corn Grows Ripe in Mexico and Guatemala
First They Killed My Father in Cambodia
Three Came Home in Malaysian Borneo
... to name a few.


As the world continues to shrink and technology ties strings around the world that require the following generations to be able to move between cultures and “worlds” smoothly, teaching geography effectively just becomes more crucial. Being able to label a map is one part of that equation, but it hardly ends there. The stories of real lives within different cultures and the folk tales and fictional literature of people and places far removed from “normal” for our children allow them to see through the eyes of people they’ll never meet in places they cannot yet imagine. Don’t miss the opportunity to bring the world home to your children and make it come alive around your dinner table through good literature, with a map in hand!





Jenn Miller is the Uncommon Childhood Editor for Wandering Educators.
She was raised in log cabins on the shores of lakes and in the back of a van across continents. She's the lucky child of nomadic parents and has grown into a gypsy mama herself. She is a teacher by trade, homeschooling mother of four, and a freelance writer for the alternative education and travel markets, having spent over ten years as an educational consultant and curriculum designer. She does a lot of things, but her real passion is found in helping people live their dreams. She and her family are in their fifth year of full-time travel that has taken them across four continents by virtually every means possible, from bicycles to ocean ferries. They're currently exploring Southeast Asia with backpacks - you can follow along at Edventure Project.
Her one great desire for her children, and all people, is for them to develop vision and create lives built out of big dreams. She's a believer in hard work, hard play and giving back to the world through pursuing our passions.


Photo courtesy and copyright Jenn Miller