by Betsy Hopkins1

We’ve tried to incorporate geography into our homeschool curriculum over the years with varying degrees of success. As I read through Wayne’s recent article (“Putting Geography Back Into the U.S. Curriculum,” November 1998), I realize we’ve actually experienced a gradual shift in our own approach toward the type of integrated awareness of the various standards that Wayne describes as the current trend in geography education. That’s encouraging! And we do need encouragement because with all we do, I know we still have so much of our world’s geographical knowledge to explore.

After a recent rousing game of “Where in the World?” with my sons (ages 15 and 12), I was telling about the time our Africa Area Director visited our branch and distributed maps of Africa with country borders marked. It was our task to fill in the names of the countries! Quiet moments later we (adult SIL members, mind you!) were chagrined to be confronted with our individual and collective lack of familiarity with the very place we lived and ministered. Eight countries, all contiguous to our place of residence? Could we name them correctly?—oops, two wrong on that one. It was really embarrassing. Can you do any better?!

Well, that was 10 years ago. I’m pleased to say that I can—now! We can successfully identify all the countries in Africa and Europe, and have fun doing it!

As I look back, we’ve had some good long-term geography influences at work in our family. With all the travel we do, there have to be some lasting geographic-awareness effects, don’t there? With a lifelong love for maps, my husband has been a live-in model over the years for practical application of geography skills. It’s fun to read maps!

Geographic Tools

We’ve also used many geographic tools other than “just” maps. Games like “Take Off” and “Carmen San Diego” have been our Sunday afternoon entertainment on many a weekend. We have had a geography skills unit each year, moving from basic direction finding to more advanced calculation of location by latitude and longitude degrees as the boys have gotten older. Art and map making are natural companions, and we have done many a compass rose! Topographical rainbow-colored versions of Africa, salt-dough maps, tracing the continents in various displays, creating original illustrations for keys, matching stamps and their places of origin. We’ve done a lot with maps! The sky isn’t even the limit for us as we’ve also done a few maps of the solar system!

Diane’s article about “Miles of Mathematics” (November 1998) brought back memories of our three-month cross-country trek during furlough in 1992. With a third grader and a kindergartner, we mapped and counted—you better believe it! I wouldn’t have wasted a great opportunity like that! Each section of the resulting trip album was introduced with the kilometer/miles of ground covered carefully calculated on our original maps.

Geography Integrated

Alongside the traditional activities, we just naturally began to, as Wayne puts it, “incorporate geographic principles and concepts into other subject areas.” We would cull the geographic content out of whatever we happened to be reading at any given time.

One of the first efforts like this was when we read Trumpet of the Swan. My fourth grader traced the swan’s travels across the US and back. We had visited Boston and lived near New York, and it was fun to imagine Louis’ adventures so close to where we had been! Now we rarely let a book go by without at least locating the places it describes on our world map (hung prominently in our study area) or in an atlas (if we are on the road ourselves!). Often, we drop everything and spend a few hours doing some kind of mapping related to the reading.

I’ve had a good time using our computer graphics program “Print Artist” to create professional-looking printed maps to accompany book reports and research papers. This program allows us to select one state or country and highlight it, or cut and paste several into a regional map of our choice. We can then trace where people traveled, or main events which took place, and include a brief descriptive paragraph beside the map.

One on-going project we’ve done in fifth and sixth grade has been to make a list of all geographic land or water terms mentioned in our reading. We define these terms and sometimes illustrate a group of them. It’s interesting to see the same terms showing up in very different books—like about tropical islands and climbing mountains in Switzerland!

Out of Africa

Right now we are doing an Africa unit (sixth grade). Along with learning all the countries in Africa, with capitals added in for good measure, we’re heavy into other geographical pursuits! We’re mapping the locations of early empires in West Africa, each in relation to “our” country, Senegal. We mark things like the ancient trade routes and people-group migrations over the centuries and add illustrations of trade items and historically relevant information.

We’ve done topographical, ecological zone, natural resources, and political maps of Senegal. We also enjoyed looking through an atlas just about Senegal (Atlas Jeune Afrique) which had several dozen different types of maps! We’ve located and mapped sites of prehistoric communities and other archaeological digs. We are starting a master map now of where the characters of each book we’ve read for the unit lived or traveled (including several books of folklore, two biographies, an ecological study of Lake Nakuru in Kenya, and several fictions).

Just a note about all these maps. I have found that the more maps we make, the merrier! Don’t skimp and try to cover too much information on one map, especially with younger children. To save on photocopies, we often trace our own maps which in itself makes us more aware of the boundaries we are talking about.

Is it all worth it? Well, I must confess I did use the incentive of performing well in an upcoming home-school geography event to encourage my son to hang in there with those African names! And he does pursue Carmen until he can earn the detective title!

But, I think it goes way beyond that. The pay off comes when we can pray intelligently for Rwanda and Burundi, knowing where they are. Or we find a stamp in our collection from “Katanga” and know during which brief period in history this newly independent state issued stamps (Do you know that one?!). Or, despite having lived most of their lives in Africa, our sons can discuss China’s lay of the land with the family of a Chinese friend, as we celebrate Chinese New Year with them (as we did this past weekend). Yes, I think it’s definitely worth it! Once you get into geography though, the only word of caution I’d offer is—watch out! You may be having so much fun, you don’t want to go to other things!

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial purposes.

  1. This article by Betsy Hopkins, who serves in Senegal with her husband and two sons, wonderfully illustrates how some of the ideas mentioned in other articles “worked” in their family.