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I have a pet theory about geography and it is this:  if you travel to a place, you will always be able to find it on a map. Geography can seem abstract and difficult, but once you’ve actually sat in a plane or a car and crossed a border, seen buildings and people and eaten food of a particular place, it will be seared in your memory.
This worked great for me. Any place that I have gone in cognitive memory I can find on a map. (I went to 7 countries before I was 2 but I only remember the ones visited later, or grown up in. However I can find all 7 on a map, so my theory still holds.) It seemed to be working great with Elliot, too. When he was 3 he went to a little Montessori-style preschool, and they were heavy on learning geography in a really fun way. They also had puzzles that taught algebraic concepts, which were frankly beyond me. By the time he was 5 he knew all the continents and oceans and could find quite a few countries, especially the larger, easier ones.
The twins blew my theory out of the water, as they have done with pretty much everything else. To be totally honest, I’m still not sure they could quickly find Mauritania on a world map. I think they could, but I wouldn’t swear to it–and this is where they grew up! They have been to Senegal and Morocco, the countries that border Mauritania to south and north, but in spite of several very memorable border crossings, they’re still pretty shaky on location.
When Abel was in CE1 (Grade 2), his teacher decided to take advantage of the fact that she had a population representing major areas of the globe in her very international school, so she asked parents to come in with their children and present something about their countries of origin, followed by a question and answer time.
I presented Thanksgiving, since it was November. I talked about the Pilgrims coming, traced the basic route of the Mayflower, pointed out New England on a map, then opened it up to questions. A little girl raised her hand. “How many states are there?” she asked.
I prompted Abel to go ahead, since this was such an easy one. “25,” he replied confidently. Uh, yeah. That’s my boy. I was appalled and hurried to correct him, although in retrospect I should have protected his dignity. Like they would have known enough to catch us out!  Although that would be an awfully easy fact to check up on, so maybe it’s just as well.
Then, another girl asked who was the first president. Abel knew that one too. “George Bush,” he told them.
I was highly embarrassed and realized the need to teach my kids something about American history and geography.
Then they asked me  some questions about the population and size of my country, and I didn’t know. I remembered learning in school that the population of New York was 8 million so I told them that, and that the population of LA was 5 million, and they were all very impressed. When I got home and told Donn, he choked with laughter. Apparently I was right to remember learning that–the population of New York was probably about that when I was 13, but now it’s over 19 million. Yeah.
So you can see that growing up (mostly) in a country does not indicate later knowledge of certain basic facts.
But I really do find geography a fascinating subject, and I’m glad that my kids can confidently identify all the major regions of France, along with what each region is famous for (cider, sausage, a type of wine, etc). And just what exactly did you expect them to study in a French school?
I’m enjoying a new blog that celebrates geography. It’s connected to National Geographic but it’s aimed at parents who want to help their kids go beyond being to identify all 32 states. (Or was it 42?) Since I know that many of you are parents out there, I thought I’d mention this. If you can convince your kids it’s fun to play geography games on the computer, maybe you won’t have to learn the hard way, like I did, that travel alone does not teach to geography to everyone.

January 2008

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