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You Call THIS Geography?

by Cindy Wiggers

I travel the country teaching parents how to teach geography, use timelines, and many other topics. I love to see their reaction when I cover the 5 themes of geography. All too many of us think geography is only about states and capitals, rivers and mountains, and locating countries and their capitals, but that is only a small part of the study of geography. When I share that you can teach geography from your refrigerator, while riding in the car, or while buying an air conditioner, a whole new world is opened to them. Although I canít present my entire seminar on geography in the space of this article, Iíd like to provide some enlightenment on the subject. Perhaps you, too will say, "You call THIS geography? I can do this!"

Although knowing states and capitals is an important part of geography it is by no means the core and foundation of the subject. To deepen your understanding of geography it helps to have a basic introduction to its five themes.

Location Ė Where is it located?

Cartographers give location according to degrees latitude and longitude. Youíve seen the globe inscribed with horizontal lines across and arching lines around. Do you know the difference between latitude and longitude? The horizontal lines, or lines of latitude, are also called parallels. Theyíre measured in degrees north or south of the equator, which is the name given to the parallel at zero degrees. Stay with me, now, it gets easier. The fun stuff follows.

The imaginary arching lines that cross through every line of latitude are called lines of longitude, or meridians. Theyíre numbered by degrees east and west of the Prime Meridian, the name given to the zero line. The Prime Meridian runs through Greenwich, England and separates the earth into eastern and western hemispheres.

Assuming you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you can determine your latitude location by using the night sky and a protractor. Extend one arm toward the North Star (Polaris) and the other arm toward the horizon. Using the protractor measure the degree of angle between your outstretched arms. Compare your answer with an atlas. How close were you to the accurate figure in the atlas?

Okay so basically Iíve described the longitude, latitude grid. Youíll find it on most maps and will use it often throughout life to locate places on the map. Now there are a number of ways you can introduce and use the grid without even thinking about geography. Have you ever played Strategoģ? I suspect you hadnít thought of it as a geography game. Kids can make their own grid and place items or ships in the grid and make up their own Strategoģ kind of game. Label the grid with numbers across and letters down and take turns calling off locations in search of your opponentís "ships".

Now that you have the grid try another kind of location game. Label the spaces across the top of the columns with numbers and the rows with letters. Write a secret word or message in jumbled order in the grid cells using one space for each letter. Record the locations of these letters in order. Fill in the rest of the spaces with other letters. Now let your opponent use your location list to find the correct letters, which spell out the secret message.

Do you know east and west from your own home? Find out by using the sunrise and sunset or from a compass. Once you get it figured out start asking your kids what direction is . . . the library, grocery store, grandmaís house. Let your children give you directions home from the grocery store using east, west, north, south terms instead of left and right. A simple geography moment in the car and the kids never suspect their having a geography lesson! Teach little ones using left and right, above and below terms while putting away their toys or trying to pick up the right item and theyíll easily make the transition to north, east, south, and west later. (i.e. Put the Legos on the right of the Barbies. The book is above the Teddy Bear.)

You call this geography? I do. I love to sneak in learning experiences for my kids. They donít have to know theyíre "in school" all the time, even if they are.

Place Ė What characteristics describe this place?

What is the terrain, the climate, the soil like in the place? What kind of plants and animals thrive there? What makes this place special? This is all about the characteristics of a place. Learning about geology, weather, agriculture, botany, animal studies, plate tectonics, and water all are really in a large part, studying geography. Find out why the animal lives where it does and what kind of food and conditions are optimal for its reproduction and proliferation and youíll be learning about geography. Weather patterns are all directly related to the physical terrain, location on the globe, and tilt of the earth.

Make a salt dough map of your community, your state, or any place your studies take you and youíre kids will gain a better understanding and have a blast doing it. Form the terrain of the area with the dough, let it dry, and color it with craft paint.

While reading novels or books pay close attention to the words used to describe the place of the setting. Youíll find a wide variety of geography terms. While youíre at it assign the terms as vocabulary words and have your students draw a picture of the term accompanied by a short definition. Youíll be amazed at how much more meaning the story has when you have a visual perspective of the place.

Study the weather

Learn how to predict the weather using natural tools. Did you know that caterpillars hatch into butterflies (or moths) only during a drop in the barometric pressure. When the barometric pressure drops it brings a storm. The winds from the storm fling the new insects far from their home where new sources of food await them. This and many other interesting weather facts and lore are included in a book called, The Weather Companion by Gary Lockhart.

Relationship Ė Whatís the relationship between places and people?

Did you know that choosing between an air conditioner or swamp cooler is a mini geography lesson? Whatís a swamp cooler? Let me explain. I grew up in southern Indiana in the Ohio River Valley where humidity is a given. We cooled our homes by removing excess moisture in the air, and blowing a fan across the process to move cold air into the room. "Close the windows, close the door, the air conditionerís on." I often heard my dad say.

When I moved with my husband and children to Colorado. We didnít use an air conditioner to cool the air. Colorado has an arid (dry) climate, very little humidity. We installed a swamp cooler (evaporative cooler) in our home to cool the air. It works on a nearly opposite principle. Instead of removing moisture a swamp cooler pumps moisture into the air, a fan blows the evaporating moisture into the room and voila the room is cooler. Want the rest of the house to cool too? OPEN the window to draw the cool air into that room.

Now what does all of this talk about air conditioners and swamp coolers have anything to do with geography? Itís all about the relationship between people and their environment. The characteristics of a place may make people uncomfortable. So what do we do? We make a change to suit our needs. Thatís what relationship theme in geography is all about. We build bridges over rivers, construct levees and dams, and roads and buildings. The construction techniques and architecture often have the geography of the area at its central core. How many adobe houses do you see in Delaware? (Not much clay found there to build homes) Why are homes in Belize nearly all made of concrete block? (Hurricanes canít blow over a concrete block home.) Itís all about the relationship between the place and the people who live there.

Watch for relationship between people and the place where they live and youíve got yourself a mini-geography lesson. What is the main source of outdoor recreation where you live? It depends upon what characteristics your home has and what the people of your community do with it. You canít ski on mountains in Kansas, but Colorado generates plenty of revenue from the Rocky Mountains. Have you ever noticed that the most highly populated areas of the world are also areas with at least one major river or other water source? Notice how many state capitals or large cities are located on a river.

Movement Ė How do places affect movement?

Watch for patterns of movement in the places your historic novels take you. Map the Lewis and Clark Expedition or the lives of the Ingalls family in the Little House series of books. See how many different modes of transportation you can take in one day. On a flight to say, Atlanta you can easily use a car, bus, walk, train, that people-mover thingie (anyone know what itís called?), and the airplane itself in one day!

Did you wonder in the first paragraph about having a geography lesson in your refrigerator? Well hereís where youíll find out how. Create a game from the ingredients in your refrigerator by having the children make a list of the foods on the shelves and in the drawers. Now, next to each item record WHERE it came from. Not sure? A field trip to the grocery store might be in order. Check out the labels on the packaging and on the boxes in the produce section. Get a big laminated outline map of the world and start marking the places on the map. Draw a line from the place to your home. Learn how these food items traveled from their place of origin to your refrigerator. I bet at least 3 modes of transportation were used. Oranges were trucked from the orchard to the processing plant, maybe flown across country, packed in a refrigerated truck for delivery to your store, in your car, and carried into your house on foot.

Why are eggs and milk from near locations while fruits came from a long distance? What kind of climate and soil conditions is needed to grow this food? How are perishable foods transported differently than non-perishable food? . . . Just a bunch of stuff to talk about, while eating that peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. Oh, and while youíre at it, you can challenge your kids to nibble their sandwich into the shape of a state. Or how many different states can you make from one sandwich? And how would you best travel from where you live to visit the state capitol?

You can do this same sort of fun activity searching items throughout your home for the "Made in" tag. List the items and where they came from, and learn about the people who may have worked in a factory to product the goods.

Regions Ė How is this place similar?

A region is any area with similarity. Regions can be based on cllimate, physical features, culture or just about anything. The Rocky Mountain region spans portions of a half dozen or more states plus parts of Canada. The region is not each of the whole states, only that part that is mountainous. The Great Plains also take a wide swath across Middle America. There is the corn belt, the wheat belt, the Bible belt, the coastal regions, tropical regions, countries, cultures, and more.

Learning about different cultures, their traditions, clothing, religions, and languages is all about geography. Collecting stamps or coins from other countries makes for a memorable experience of learning about the world. The symbols on the coins and stamps say a lot about the culture and history of each country. Children Like Me, published by Dorling Kindersley, is a great book for learning other cultures through "meeting" school age children from countries all over the world.

Well, if Iíve met my objective this mini-lesson on the 5 Themes of Geography has served to open your eyes to the vast amount of opportunities around you to study geography.

Thereís a lot to be said for integrating geography wherever it fits in some of these examples Iíve shared with you, but when youíre ready to teach geography as an independent course check out my Trail Guide to Geography series of books. For more information log onto and look for Trail Guide to World Geography, Trail Guide to U.S. Geography, and Trail Guide to Bible Geography.

Copyright © 2004 by Cindy Wiggers All rights reserved.


Like most busy women, Cindy Wiggers wears many hats including that of homemaker, author, publisher, and motivational speaker. In her practical and engaging workshop presentations her enthusiasm is infectious. One is inspired as Cindy shares her passion for creating a learning atmosphere where children are motivated to explore and discover priceless gems of knowledge for themselves. As a veteran homeschool parent of three children, including two college graduates, she knows that of which she speaks. By developing flexible, easy-to-use materials like the Mark-It Timeline of History, the Trail Guide to Geography series of books, co-authoring The Ultimate Geography and Timeline Guide as well as Geography Through Art, Cindy has given the homeschool community a map to the joyous freedom that home educating was intended to be. (Please see the Geography Matters ad on p. 52 in this issue.)