The prospect of travel elicits so many questions in a young child's mind. Any answers we give to our little ones' endless where, when, how far and how long questions are, however, invariably met with a puzzled face. And then more questions. Questions that really can't be answered just with words. Some things must be seen to be believed, and this vast, beautiful world of ours is certainly one.
So give them the visual aids they need to enjoy the anticipation of your summer travels, as well as the trips themselves. And with a little geography under their belts, they'll soon be planning their own fantastical getaways to far off places.
For starters, a good atlas is a must in any household. It's also a great idea to have one specifically for the little folk. You don't want them mauling your grown-up atlas too much (which they will once they get into the travel mind-set), and the various versions for children tend to have such smart visual presentations to spark understanding. You can't go wrong, for example, with Kingfisher's First Picture Atlas.
Once the kiddos start talking about geography, they'll want to have a map at their fingertips pretty much all the time. The solution comes via a super savvy mom we know who mentioned that she always uses map placemats for her childrens' meals. Genius! Now we'll never be at a loss for dinner table conversation. Whether they have a United States Map Placemat under their hamburger, a World Map Placemat under their spaghetti, a Canada Map Placemat under their fish sticks, or a Mexico and Central America Placemat under their tacos, there will always be something to talk about—but not with your mouth full, please!
Maps by themselves, however, can be quite confounding. Learning to read a map is a skill unto itself. (And if you've ever known an adult who can't read a map, you realize just how important it is to help kids get good at this one.) Another book we like, Me on the Map, takes this topic head-on, starting with mapping a child's room, house, street, town, state, and on and on. It's very clever, and models great mapping activities you can do with your own little cartographer.
If your preschooler is into maps, wait until she get her hands on the amazing Explorer Globe. This is one of those all-too-rare toys that truly works for absolutely all ages. We haven't met anyone yet, little person or grown-up, who isn't engaged by its tricks and educated by its trivia. The most advanced features of this globe won't be reveal themselves until your little one is a grade-schooler, but don't let this gather dust in the top of a closet until your child is "ready." Even the littlest preschooler is ready to whirl the globe, tap the interactive pen on a chosen spot and hear what the world has to tell him about itself. Given the price tag, this is a special occasion present for sure, but it is also a gift that will delight for a decade (at least). A modern version of the beautiful mounted globe in the drawing room, and just as useful in plotting wild adventures in unknown parts, pirate launches on the open seas, and all sorts of trips to far off lands.
Once you're "mastered" the map, your kids will love practicing their wayfinding skills and decoding the magic inherent in a compass. Start with a quick walk around the block, turning the compass this way and that to find true north. Next, tackle the park or a walk around the lake, and when you're ready (and old enough!) for your first big trip to a national park, your Junior Ranger will be ready to go.
Finally, for the more advanced students (aka 4-6 year olds) make it a game with the Great States Junior board game. Parents rave about this one: it's educational, fun, and short (we all need to save our stamina for the future endless games of Monopoly that await us).
What have we missed, dear readers? Please share your greatest geography teaching ideas.
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