The United States has a geography illiteracy problem. According to the the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress , almost three-fourths of U.S. eighth graders score below proficiency in geography. In reading numerous articles on the topic, I found that U.S. citizens do OK when it comes to memorizing information, it’s just they’re not remembering information that matters. They excel at remembering and reciting sports facts and celebrity gossip and the like, but they have a hard time identifying countries whose relationships with the U.S. have been tenuous recently, including Iran, Ukraine and North Korea. Some can’t even identify states such as Louisiana and South Carolina on the map. One article went as far as to say that our country’s ignorance of geography could be a threat to national security! My wife and I are making sure that our daughters will fall with those not adding any security threat, real or perceived, to our country.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Two years ago, in an effort to start piquing my oldest daughter’s interest in geography, I gave her a state quarter collection kit with a map of the U.S. on which she could place all the state quarters she collected right on the state they represented. Interestingly, when I mentioned this to the students in my college history class at the time, one student retorted, “What are you doing to your daughter?” The U.S. quarter collection has been a great starter for teaching her geography, history, and a little about money. Incidentally, her collection is still incomplete. She’s only missing one quarter – the one for the North Mariana Islands (Whoever even knew the islands existed and that the U.S. laid claim to them without having a quarter to represent them?).
The way I really got my daughter into geography was by downloading the game “Stack the States” on my iPad. After that, she was hooked and got to the point where she knew practically every fact about every state included in the game. I usually do not like my daughters to play video games that much, but with this one, I made an exception because she was learning about the U.S. while playing it. When she got bored of “Stack the States” a little bit because she knew most of the facts, to whet her appetite for more, I downloaded “Stack the Countries,” which is much harder because there is SO much information and the game features countries even I had never heard of before.
HOW WE TEACH OUR CHILDREN GEOGRAPHY
Soon after downloading “Stack the Countries,” my wife had the idea to take teaching geography to a whole new level. She suggested that we choose a country every week, make an entree and a dessert eaten in that country, then put together a prezi showing where the country is on the map, its flag, and interesting facts about the country as well as links to videos teaching phrases in the language spoken in the country and showing a brief overview of the culture, landscape, etc. Our daughters look forward to it every Sunday, which is the day we’ve chosen to do our country presentations. One week we were unable to do the presentation because we received invitations elsewhere and the girls voiced their displeasure about missing the presentation on the country.
Selfishly, one of the things that my wife and I have liked about doing our geography presentations is cooking new meals, some of which have become part of our regular repertoire, including pancit, a rice noodle dish from the Philippines, and caldo verde, a soup from Portugal. We choose our countries by spinning a globe and designating one person to close his or her eyes, put his or her finger on the globe and then wait until the globe stops. Whatever country the finger is on when the globe stops spinning is the country on which we will present the next week. Even our baby daughter gets a turn pointing to a country, even though she doesn’t realize what she’s doing. Sometimes our fingers have landed in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. In that case, we re-spin. So far, we’ve done Niger (Africa), the Philippines, India, Portugal, Uzbekistan (south of Russia and bordering Pakistan – one no one in my family knew about previously but me), Morocco, China, Australia, South Africa and Colombia.
Overall, we love it because it shows our daughters there is way more out there than just the United States. It shows that people around the world dress differently, speak different languages, have different customs, and live in houses that look much different than ours. Someday, someway, we hope to take our daughters to some of these countries.
Our presentations probably don’t do any country complete justice, however. For example, our eight-year-old daughter now has the notion that the Philippines is a tropical paradise from the pictures and videos we showed about the country. The other day, I was just hearing a story of an American living in the country who has to do her laundry in small tubs and my cousin, who lived there for a while, got a bad case of ringworm that was hard to kick. However, our daughters’ 8-year-old and 5-year-old minds can’t handle everything, so it’s OK that they don’t know many of the less-savory details about each country.
One of the things they’ve been noticing from seeing other countries’ money is that our bills and coins are boring. For instance, South African money is extremely colorful. My girls were particularly impressed that some bills include animals such as elephants and water buffaloes.
On the semi-negative side, one thing that was made very clear in our presentations about Niger and South Africa are that they are poor countries. They were particularly interested in the huts and shacks people live in there and were astounded that some of their schools are basically tents with dirt floors. The positive spin on them seeing this is that it helps them realize how good they have it and helps them appreciate what they do have. This has given my wife and I good fodder for when our daughters start complaining, especially for things they don’t have or about food they don’t want to eat. “Remember how kids live in (insert name of poor country)?” will probably be a repeated refrain from now on.
I’d encourage any family to try it for a while. It takes commitment but I can testify that it is an eye-opener your kids could really get into.