“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” ― Benjamin Franklin
As a busy parent with a million and one tasks on your plate, the thought of tackling hands-on, possibly messy projects, which will almost certainly initiate a plethora of questions (many of which you won’t know the answer to) can feel somewhat overwhelming.
And yet, as Mr Franklin tells us, it’s often the most powerful way to learn.
Getting children involved in the learning process, rather than just imparting facts you know, allows them to grasp even the most complex of concepts, and increases their chances of remembering what they’ve learned.
Phrases like, “Do you remember when we did that crazy experiment…”, “Oh look, I remember designing that model/making that lapbook/drawing that picture/writing that story/creating that video…” are much more common than “I remember when you taught me about…” (unless it involves a funny story and then they’re almost certain never to forget!).
And although it can feel overwhelming sometimes, involving your children in the learning process can be much simpler than you think. The trick is to accept that whatever they produce will not be a prize-winning piece of art, literature or science. The learning is all in the process, not in the end product.
With that in mind, here are some simple geography projects which teach aspects of the GCSE geography curriculum but in fun and creative ways, enabling younger children to build their geographical knowledge in a way they’ll remember.
Personally, I believe it’s very important to have a good knowledge of where places are in the world and it’s something children love to learn about.
Activity No. 1: To draw a continent
The Draw book series by Kristin J. Draeger (e.g. Draw Africa) is the perfect way to study how the countries of a continent fit together through the medium of art. We have the whole series as the Beans, and I can spend many a happy hour engrossed in sketching the world! Each page gives the next step in drawing the continent, whether by adding the next country, part of a coastline or a group of islands, until finally, by the end of the book, you have produced an outline of the whole of Europe or Africa!
Activity No. 2: To plan a tour of the UK or Europe
Invite your children to imagine they are tour guides planning a month-long tour around either the UK or countries across Europe, for a group of families with children aged between 7-13. Using the internet and guidebooks to research, ask them to plan:
- a route for their tour group, working out how which cities, villages or renowned sites to visit
- how long they would have in each destination
- how they would transport them from place to place
- what activities or trips they plan to do each day, from tours of famous museums to white water rafting excursions
- optional: a total cost, how much they would charge each person (including discounts for children) and thus a profit for the tour
Or alternatively, they could plan their dream UK summer tour, with free rein to choose where to go and what to visit!
Geographical Facts and Figures
If your children are anything like Bean9, they’ll love facts and figures. He’s obsessed, happily pouring over reference style books to find fascinating titbits to share. Here are two activities to build their world geographical knowledge and practise some maths skills at the same time.
Activity No. 3: To find the most interesting geographical facts to blow your parent’s minds!
A super simple challenge for your children to search your book collection or the internet for ten of the most mind-boggling, fascinating geographical facts they can find. One or both parents can then act as judge (judging scoring paddles optional!) and score each fact from 1-10 on how interesting or incredible they deem it to be. Highest total score wins. Here are some examples:
- Continents shift at about the same rate as your fingernails grow!
- Australia is wider than the moon.
- Russia spans 11 time zones.
- In the Philippines, there’s a tiny island (Vulcan Point) within a lake (Crater Lake), situated on an island (Taal Island) in a lake (Lake Taal) within an island (Luzon)…
Activity No. 4: To graphically represent interesting world statistics.
Practice their statistical ability in a meaningful way by using a varying array of graphs and charts (think bar charts, histograms, line graphs, pie charts) to represent geographical information your child is interested in, such as the lengths of the longest rivers, drops of the biggest waterfalls, heights of the tallest mountains, or size of the largest lakes.
Here are some examples the Beans completed when they were younger:
This is a great way of demonstrating how powerful it can be to see data in a pictorial form, turning a bunch of numbers into a meaningful story. For example, Bean10 was surprised by just how big a percentage of the world’s population was represented by people from Asia and Bean9 was amazed by the difference between the height of Mt. Everest versus the height of South America’s highest peak, Mt Aconcagua – something he didn’t fully appreciate just by looking at the numbers.
Maps, glorious maps! I have a slightly weird fascination with them: I am that person who gets excited to receive a fresh new OS map through the post…
Getting children familiar with using them is a key geographical skill. In this post, I highlighted easy ways to do just that with the ubiquitous OS maps. Aside from this most popular of map, there are a few other types they should know and feel comfortable deciphering. Here are a couple of them:
1. Isoline Maps – isolines are simply lines on a map that join up places which have the same value of something, so for example the same heights, average temperatures, wind speed or rainfall. Normally the lines are labelled with this value and the closer the lines are together, the steeper the gradient (how swiftly the value is changing) at that point.
Activity No. 5: To design their own island
Explain the above and show altitude isolines on an OS map as an example. Then, ask your child to draw a blueprint for their very own island! It’s up to them to decide on its name; its shape; the names and locations of key towns, ports or major landmarks; and finally, its topography. They can do this by drawing on altitude isolines and labelling them to show the height of the land across the island, thereby demonstrating where the hills or valleys are located (NB: you may need to show them the “normal” heights of hills in your local area to give them a reference point for the values of the isolines). Here’s an example:
Once this is complete, ask them to set you a number of questions! My kids love doing this, but what they don’t realise is just how much they’re learning in the process. So, for example, they might ask you the height of the peak of Mt. Major or which town sits at a lower altitude, Port Ena or Upperville? Or, if you were to climb Castle Hill from Port Ena, how many metres would you ascend? Or, what is the difference in metres of the lowest point on the island and the highest?
2. Latitude and Longitude – these are lines that run horizontally (latitude) and vertically (longitude) around the Earth, breaking it up into sections. Using lines of latitude, you can work out how far north or south of the equator (the middle line across Earth’s belly) a place is. Using lines of longitude, you can calculate how far west or east from the Prime Meridian (the central vertical line which runs through Greenwich) a place is. If you have both a latitude and longitude coordinate (measured in degrees), you can use it to work out exactly where a place is on Earth.
Activity No. 6: To track an enemy target’s movements!
The back story: pretend they are spies working for MI6 tracking an enemy target’s journey across the world. They receive information about the locations he’s visited on route and their job is to work out which cities (and countries) he visited, and thus who he may have interacted with. The information they receive is in latitude/longitude co-ordinates. Can they work out his route?
Write out the following co-ordinates on slips of paper and deliver them one at a time for your child to work out which city the co-ordinates correlate with:
- 30.04 degrees N, 31.24 degrees E
- 15.50 degrees N, 32.56 degrees E
- 28.70 degrees N, 77.10 degrees E
- 14.60 degrees N, 120.98 degrees E
- 6.21 degrees S, 106.85 degrees E
It looks like he might be headed to Sydney next, as you know he has key contacts there. Approximately, what would be the co-ordinates for this Australian city?
The answers are as follows:
- Cairo, Egypt
- Khartoum, Sudan
- Delhi, India
- Manila, Philippines
- Jakarta, Indonesia
- 34 degrees S, 151 degrees E
Now they have completed their mission, can they set you a similar challenge by looking up the exact co-ordinates of cities online?
Learning how to carry out and write up fieldwork projects is a key part of the geography syllabus. Practising this by doing simple hands-on experiments on rivers is an easy and fun way for younger children to build these skills.
Activity No. 7: To measure how quickly water flows down a river
A super straightforward experiment which involves dropping an orange into a point in a river and timing how quickly it travels across a pre-measured distance, to determine the speed of the water flow along the river:
- Measure out a 5m section along a river, marking the start and end points
- Have two people hold a piece of string or tape measure across the river to mark the entry point
- Place the orange in the water under the string and start timing as soon as you let go
- Stop timing as soon as it reaches the end of the measured stop
- Catch the orange with a fishing net (probably their favourite part!)
- Repeat 3 times and work out the mean time
- Speed (m/s) = Distance/Time, so 5m/mean time
- Optional: Repeat on different parts of the river to see how the flow rate changes along its course
This should show that rivers flow progressively faster on their journey downstream as more water is added via tributary rivers. The increase in total water means that less of it is in direct contact with the riverbed, so less energy is required to overcome friction.
To extend it for older children, teach them how to write up the experiment using the correct terminology, including:
- An initial question, such as How does the water speed change over the course of a river? Or a hypothesis – your prediction – so, I predict that the water flow will be faster on downstream than upstream sections.
- Your method – step-by-step what they did, like the set of instructions above
- The results – what the data shows and an opportunity to practise their graphing skills
- Conclusions – an explanation of how the data provides evidence to support the initial hypothesis or an answer the question
- Improvements – were there any problems in how they collected the data? How could they improve the experiment, by for example taking more readings or using data from additional sites? How reliable are their conclusions?
We’re currently studying coastal landscapes, so I thought I’d share one of the simple activities we did which the Beans really enjoyed. We’d learned about how waves wear away the coastline using two processes of erosion:
- Hydraulic power – as waves hit the rocks, air in the cracks are compressed, putting pressure on the rock. As this is repeated again and again, the cracks gradually widen, and sections of rock break off.
- Abrasion – small particles in the water scrape and wear away the rockface, taking smaller pieces of rocks with them.
We then discussed how these two actions erode headlands to form caves, arches and stacks. First cracks are enlarged and eventually form into caves. Over time, continued wave erosion deepens the cave until it breaks through onto the other side of the headland. This forms an arch like the one at Durdle Door in Dorset. Finally, as the waves continue to attack the sides of the arch, they become unable to support the weight of the material at the top of the arch, until ultimately it collapses. This leaves behind a stack, isolated from the headland, such as Old Harry in Dorset.
Activity No. 8: To make a clay model of an eroded headland
All you need is some modelling clay and paints. Ask them to make a model of a headland to demonstrate how the cliff is eroded over time from cracks, to a cave, to an arch, to a stack. They could also paint it and label the distinct sections. Finally, ask them to explain their model to another family member. Here’s Bean10’s model:
Tropical rainforests are a fascinating ecosystem to study and one of the key topics within the GCSE curriculum. There are some lovely rainforest picture books, such as Lynne Cherry’s: The Great Kapok Tree, The Shaman’s Apprentice (Cherry & Plotkin) and The Vanishing Rainforest (Platt & van Wyk) to name but a few.
Below are two simple ideas for bringing this topic to life, but first watch this virtual field trip of the Amazon Rainforest which gives a great nine-minute overview of this complex world.
Activity No. 9: To describe the rainforest through your senses
Have your child imagine he is sitting on the floor of the rainforest. Ask him to describe what he can see, hear, feel and smell, along with what a meal in the rainforest would taste like! Here’s an example:
Activity No. 10: To draw the adaptations of animals in the rainforest
Find out and discuss the various adaptations animals have evolved to optimise life in this tough environment, such as the flaps of skin that allow glider monkeys to fly from tree to tree; or the strong limbs of the spider monkey, climbing and leaping amongst the canopy; or the perfect camouflage of leaf-tailed geckos as they hide amongst the leaves from predators. Ask them to have a go at drawing some of these amazing creatures.
The UK’s weather appears to be becoming more and more extreme and, following the global pattern, temperatures continue to rise slowly with the ten hottest years recorded within the last twenty years.
Activity No. 11: To become a news presenter reporting on extreme weather conditions in the UK
Let your kids sharpen their acting, producing and directing skills by asking them to film a weather report highlighting the different climatic hazards to the UK: extensive rain, strong winds, heavy snow and ice, thunderstorms, hailstorms, drought and heat waves. Challenge them to get creative when thinking about how to film wet and windy weather even on a dry, sunny day! They could either present the film themselves or allocate this role to one of their teddies/toys.
In their report, ask them to touch on the impacts of this extreme weather on people; crops; buildings; road and rail networks; businesses; and schools.
If they’re planning on filming each weather condition in different takes, show them how to edit the video using a free editing tool, such as Lightworks, which has an associated, easy to understand instruction video (even I managed to follow it!). Here, they can connect short segments of film together to make one seamless report. My two have been using this to edit a production of Henry V acted by their loyal teddies (!), and they’re loving fiddling around with it.
As you can see, it doesn’t have to be difficult to involve your children in building geographical skills in creative and memorable ways. Offer your children one of the challenges above and watch their little imaginative minds set to work!