Given how international our world has become, thanks to technology, thanks to a rapidly growing global economy, it seems odd that our children know less geography than ever before. And yet, largely because of the demands of programs like No Child Left Behind, geography is but a shadow in the jam-packed curriculum of the average school. Our children are learning to read and write at the age of five, but even by high school many are unable to identify their North American neighbors or even to find their home states on a map.
And if their knowledge of domestic geography is poor, their knowledge of world geography, not surprisingly, is worse: A 2006 National Geographic-Roper study found that 63% of 18- to 24-year-old Americans could not, despite near-constant media coverage of the war in the region, locate Iraq on a map, and that 70% could not point to Iraq or Israel. Meanwhile, in other industrialized nations, young people are outperforming American kids in geography; a 2002 National Geographic-Roper survey revealed that of more than 3,000 18 to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the United States, American kids ranked next-to-last in their knowledge of basic geography.
But while it's easy to be disappointed that our nation's kids aren't more geographically savvy, there's no cause for utter despair. In fact, instead of worrying about how our kids will compete in an increasingly global society, we should begin taking steps right now to build our children's geographic literacy. Yes, we can lobby for better geography education, and yes, we can encourage our local school systems to incorporate more geography into their curricula, but we can also talk to our children about the world in which they're living and illustrate why it's so important to be part of the world.
Following are some simple, fun activities to get you and your kids thinking and talking about geography. Do things right, and they won't even know that you're teaching them geography; they'll only know that they're having fun!
Explore the world, without leaving your living room
While there are plenty of good kids' atlases available, any regular map, globe or atlas will provide you with plenty of geography conversation-starters. Begin by pointing out familiar places—home, Gramma's house in Florida, a favorite vacation spot, etc.—and then venture outward, to places that your kids have read about, seen on television or are just interested in.
The best and most fun way to learn about the world is to get out and actually experience it. And don't worry if you can't afford a jaunt to Paris or a trek to Patagonia; everyday places, like the grocery store, the zoo and the library, offer geographical learning opportunities, too. When you go to the store, talk about where your food comes from; when you visit the zoo, discuss the native habitats of the animals; and when you head off to the library, check out books about a variety of cultures and places.
When you go places, pick up a map
Many places, including the mall, the zoo and the children's museum, offer free or inexpensive maps of their layouts. Take one, and then allow your child to plot a course and to keep track of where he or she is going.
Subscribe to a magazine like National Geographic Kids.
Magazines like National Geographic Kids make learning about people and places fun. They introduce kids to newsworthy issues in ways that are easy for them to understand, without being watered-down or patronizing. And the pictures, just like in the grown-up versions, are always amazing!
Visit places where you'll have opportunities to get to know other cultures
No matter where you live, whether it's in a big city, in the suburbs, or way out in the country, chances are that you live close to people who live a little differently than you do. Take your kids to the Mexican Panaderia, to the Korean grocery, to the Ethiopian restaurant. And next time you're planning that big vacation, consider traveling somewhere that doesn't cater exclusively to tourists and that allows you to mingle with the locals.
Most importantly, talk about the places you visit, the people you meet, the world you see and the world you want to see. Because getting them interested in their world today may very well change the world tomorrow.
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