Geography is such an enormous subject and so poorly taught in schools that many parents feel intimidated and are unsure where to start. Since in truth geography is everything (politics, science, culture, history, etc.) beginning with familiar things and working outward is an easy way to go about it. Starting with animals and their habitats will create an interest in maps and the world in general.
The Ladybug Game from Zobmondo is a great way to start learning about the habitat in your own yard. A very engaging first board game for age three and up, it introduces children to the interdependence of ladybugs, aphids and grasshoppers. As an added bonus children practice counting and number recognition as they play. Only a few minutes are needed to play, keeping this game well within the short attention span of small children. Instead of dice, The Ladybug Game uses cards to determine how many spaces you must move forward or backward. The cards have large numbers on them with a plus or minus sign to tell you which way to move. Some of the spaces have written directions, so an adult or older child should participate.
The Ladybug Game comes with a charming story about the ladybugs, which you can read to your child before playing the game. Afterwards, if the season is right, you can go outside and look for ladybugs, aphids, grasshoppers, etc. and talk about the places they like to live and what they eat. If you want a hands-on activity to continue learning about bugs and insects and their habitats, you might want to get an ant farm, a butterfly pavilion or even a little terrarium. A wonderful picture book to go along with your study is The Icky Bug Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta and Ralph Masiello. For a little more information, Pet Bugs: A Kid’s Guide to Catching and Keeping Touchable Insects by Sally Kneidel is a good choice.
Follow your child’s interest; don’t push too much. Children will give signals when they are saturated. If you try too hard, you can turn them off. On the other hand, when interested, children ask endless questions. The purpose of the games and the books is not to stuff information in, but rather to awaken an interest in something hitherto unknown. People, but especially children, only learn efficiently when they are interested. The key is to awaken an interest.
If you are ready to introduce your children to the continents of the world and the animals that inhabit them, GeoLoto from Patrix Games, acquaints children with the continents in a lotto/memory game. Eight continent cards (some are duplicated and Antarctica is omitted) are provided for up to eight players. The sturdy animal picture cards match a segment of each lotto card. When a player finds the six animals for his continent, he wins! No reading is necessary and the game is so simple that even young children can play without an adult although I highly recommend that parents play with their children to maximize the learning value of the game. GeoLoto is suitable for children ages three and up. While playing this game, your children will learn most of the continents quite naturally without any curriculum guide or worksheets. Better still, they will connect certain animals with each continent, giving them a start on learning that different animals live in different habitats.
It’s good to have a variety of games for a change of pace. Wild Cards: Baby Animals Around the World from Birdcage Press is a card game suitable for all ages from about age three up. The slightly oversized cards contain stunning photographs of baby animals from every continent but Europe (the locations are labeled). Three card games are included: Memory, Old Maid and Go Fish. There is interesting information on each card, but reading ability is not necessary. Children who can read will quickly absorb the information on the cards, while pre-readers will simply enjoy the animals. Baby Animals also comes with a 28 page fact book about all the animals pictured in the game.
For slightly older children (approx. 4-12) Explore Photo Safari, also from Patrix Games,introduces animals in the context of their continents and teaches some facts about them. Using a world habitat map with beautiful graphics as the base for a “search and find” race, Explore Photo Safari is designed with three levels of play. For non-readers, there are pictures: find the animal first to claim your picture. For older children, there are two levels of clues to guess and find the animal described. While playing Explore Photo Safari your child will begin to get a visual understanding of the habitats of the world (mountains, deserts, oceans, grasslands, etc.) as well as some of the animals that live there. You may find that your children want to learn more about many of the animals pictured. Look them up online or get appropriate books to answer their questions.
It takes time for children to get a picture of the earth in their minds; having a beautiful map as the backdrop of this game is a big plus. The more time your children can see and study maps, the better. Play this or other map games several times a week and you will soon find that your children are comfortable with the world, the continents and much of the wildlife that dwells in it.
Remember that children are learning all the time. Try not to segregate “school time” and “free time.” Talk to your children wherever you are about your surroundings. It does no good to learn facts about the world, animals or habitats if you don’t put that information to use in your life. When you travel outside your home, look for signs of erosion, wetlands, grasslands, forests (even a park!). Talk about what animals and insects might be found there. Play car games finding animals (do billboards count?) or naming them. Make your own car bingo games with the names of animals in your vicinity in the bingo squares and then watch for local birds and other animals as you drive on errands. You can also take along the Baby Animals card game and practice describing and guessing the animals. Make the most of your time in the car!
Geographers classify habitats by their characteristics including rainfall, temperature, vegetation, surface terrain, elevation and more. This can be learned little by little by utilizing picture books, games, videos and outings that will gradually expose them to all these concepts. Hit the Habitat Trail! is a new game from Jax, Ltd. Created to familiarize children age eight and up with animals and their habitats, it is a large board game with a trail that circles through eight beautifully illustrated habitats: forest, ocean, grasslands, wetlands, mountains, desert, arctic and jungle. Two to six players move along the trail, answering interesting trivia questions and collecting cards from each of the eight habitats. The questions are either true/false or multiple choice and focus mainly on animals, although there is a variety of other geography related topics represented in the “Knowledge” (question) cards. The game provides enough “chance” situations to make it fair for younger children playing with older ones.
About 25% of the stepping stones in the path are “blue” spaces containing a situation like “trapped in ice –lose a turn” or “dust storm – roll again.” Another 25% of the spaces are “Wisdom and Consequence” spaces where you are directed to pull a card and follow the directions. These are the environmental consciousness cards; the “Wisdom” cards give you ideas for conservation and reward you with a habitat card and the “Consequence” cards name some environmental disaster and take a card away or send you back a few spaces.
I recommend this game; it’s fun, interesting and unpredictable. That said, if playing with children (especially age 8-12), I would pull some of the more hysterical consequence cards (“Another bug extinct!”). There are only a few of those and it would not affect the game to remove them. Children are impressionable and some are very sensitive. I don’t think it’s helpful to scare them. They’ll get plenty of information about endangered species in multiple other venues and the “Consequence” cards contain no educational information. For those who are sensitive about evolution, there are only three or four questions that mention it. You can remove them if you object, or use them for a discussion of origins. Hit the Habitat Trail! is valuable for learning eight major habitats and interesting facts about our world in a fun way.
Once your children have a basic concept of animal habitats, Professor Noggin’s games are a great way to delve into individual habitats. All the Professor Noggin’s games have the same simple format. They contain 30 cards, each with three easy questions, three hard questions and a clue picture on the other side. One player rolls the die (numbered 1,2 &3) to determine which question he will be asked. Use easy questions for beginners and hard questions for teens and adults. This is a very popular family game which is compact enough to travel and versatile enough for the whole family to enjoy. There are eight Professor Noggin’s nature games: Rainforests of the World, Freshwater Life, National Parks, Reptiles & Amphibians, Birds of North America, Wildlife of North America, Insects and Spiders Life and in the Ocean. They also have four additional Geography games: Geography of the United States, Geography of Canada, Countries of the World and Countries of the World II. Any of these can be used to complement the study of habitats.
If you want your children to become really familiar with world geography, maps must be handy. A nice wall map is great if you have the space. You can also lay out a big world map on your table and put a clear plastic cover over it. The map will be right there even while you are eating or working at the table. There are many types of maps. Political maps are the most common and are the ones that people think of first, but physical feature maps are also available. I find them much more interesting because they show where the deserts, mountains, etc. are located. Try to have one of each if possible. Atlases are great for looking things up and get a detailed view and I particularly like the graphics in the Usborne Atlases. However, a wall map is right there whenever you need it and will be a constant reinforcement to whatever bit of geographic knowledge your child learns each day.
Placemat maps are available at www.excellenceineducation.com for all the continents, the world and the U.S. You can play games like 20 Questions using the place mats. Find out the countries of origin of the ingredients in your meal and search your maps to find them. Look up the countries you hear about on the news. Use erasable markers or crayons to mark routes, find a relative’s location or mark an interesting landmark you learned about. If you play Kathy Troxel’s Geography Songs often, your children will soon know every country in the world by continent or region. Once they can place a country within a continent, there are a number of other games they will enjoy to enhance their political geographic knowledge.
Don’t forget to have some map puzzles available for your kids. Puzzles are a great way to learn geography. In order to put the puzzle together, a child must look closely at the puzzle pieces. I found a great series of free geography puzzles online at http://maps.nationalgeographic.com/maps/atlas/puzzles.html. These are physical maps rather than political, so they will help your child learn about the rivers, oceans, mountains, etc. on each continent. I tried the South America puzzle, which looked somewhat intimidating at first, but it only took me 10 minutes.
Sheppard Software has an amazing set of tutorials and games to teach United States geography. See http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/web_games.htm. These range from beginner games to super-expert map games.
Geography is a wonderful adventure. This is only the beginning. Don’t stop with games and maps. You need a reason to look at them. Read books from around the world. Find their locales on your map and keep track of the different places you have read about. This makes the places on the map real and meaningful – and unforgettable.
Carolyn Forte, a former elementary school teacher, homeschooled her own daughters for 14 years. Along with her husband, Martin, she founded Excellence In Education resource center in Monrovia, CA in 1991. In addition to writing and speaking to homeschool families, she and Martin are certified Learning Success Coaches. Carolyn can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of the games mentioned can be purchased at www.excellenceineducation.com
For more ideas on using games to teach go to www.gamecurriculum.com