My almost 7-year-old son absolutely loves geography and landmarks. Last month, when we visited Washington, DC for the first time, he proudly and accurately served as navigator (without a map) through the busy, rainy streets. “No, Mommy” he said after lunch as I was trying to determine our course, “the Natural History Museum is just on the other side of the National Archives. If we get off of the bus behind the Archives and go around the building, it will be just across the street.” And he was right.
I often have people ask me how it is that he knows so much about geography, maps, landmarks, and navigation. The truth is, it’s just one of his things. He has always been interested in where in the world things are, and where he is in relation to them. That said, we have tried to fill our home with beautiful and useful resources to encourage his love of geography. It is not uncommon to find my son on a rainy afternoon poring over a beloved geography book and matching up maps with landmark models. We try to generously provide him with the tools he needs to gratify his insatiable geography bug. There are many resources out there, but these are some of our personal favorites.
- Maps by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinska- I cannot praise the gorgeous book highly enough. It is so beautiful, it could almost be a coffee table book (it is certainly big enough to be)! This engaging children’s atlas is illustrated with colorful, detailed line drawings of not only countries, but physical features, landmarks, indigenous animals, and cultural references as well. More artistic than literal, the book provides an excellent introduction and education on why each country is beautiful and unique. Although not every country is individually represented, it is our favorite geography book that we own–by a landslide. There is a companion poster book and an activity book to accompany this gem , but we do not own either of those yet.
- Atlas- Every young geography buff needs an atlas, and our boys have two that they love more than others. We started with The National Geographic Kids Beginner’s World Atlas as a general introduction. It answers questions such as “what is a map?” with basic explanations that are easy for children to understand and contains both physical and political maps of each of the seven continents and the United States. After that introduction, my son quickly graduated to the National Geographic Kids World Atlas. This atlas contains several sections of introductory educational information in the front of the book. The first section, Understanding Maps, contains a brief lesson on how to read a map, including longitude and latitude, scale, and symbols, as well as basic information such as how maps are made. The second section, Planet Earth, has spreads containing information on Earth’s place in the Solar System, time zones, and the physical makeup of the planet. The third section, The Physical World, includes explanations on climate, vegetation, and natural disasters. The fourth section, The Political World, contains spreads on world populations, languages, religions, economy, and resources. The actual maps in the atlas are numerous. They are divided by continent and then further divided by regions, and include both physical and political maps.
Along with books of maps, we love books that focus on landmarks and include facts about the countries that we discover in an atlas. Some of our favorite books that feature famous landmarks include:
- See Inside Great Cities and See Inside Famous Palaces– These books by Usborne are fun lift-the-flap books that appeal to both younger and older children. They contain fun facts about the landmarks and the cities and countries where they are located. Both my 4-year-old and 6-year-old will sit for hours looking at these books and then ask me to read the “secret information” revealed under the flaps.
- Wonders of the World– We were delighted to find this book on the discard table at a library sale. It is a gorgeous coffee-table style photography book that captures some of the beauty and diversity of our world. Famous landmarks such as Machu Picchu, the Acropolis, and the Great Wall of China are included in this breathtaking tome. Because it is an art book, the landmarks are presented in a way that is often stunningly beautiful. It is largely a book of photographs; there is some text, but it is minimal. (Caution: My son is not yet a proficient reader so we have largely focused on the pictures. I have not previewed all of the text. I do not recall any photographs that would warrant explanation that would require any discretion, but as I have not read it in its entirety, I cannot recommend without this slight disclaimer.)
We love geography puzzles! And I believe that having a small collection of excellent puzzles has been the greatest influence on my son’s love and understanding of geography. He will play with all of these puzzles for hours on end, arranging and rearranging, studying where one place is in relation to another. For him, there is something about the ability to manipulate the pieces in his hand that allows the orientation of the subject to cement in his mind. Here are the best of the best in our opinion.
- GeoPuzzles- These big, bright, colorful puzzles are made from durable cardboard. The pieces are shaped like the countries (for the most part) and so children are able to grasp the size of one country in relation to another. Because of the unique shapes, these puzzles do not fit together like a traditional jigsaw puzzle, so they can easily be disassembled if the puzzle is jarred. For some children (like my son), this may be frustrating, but he loves the puzzle so much that he feels the reward is worth the extra caution during assembly. We own the World puzzle, along with the United States and Canada and Europe. Asia is next on his wish list.
- 4D Cityscape Puzzles- I absolutely have to include these puzzles in a list of favorite geography resources, though I do it with reservation. My son loves these puzzles. No, my son adores these puzzles. But they are honestly beyond his ability level at this point. So I would strongly recommend this resource for a much older child (manufacturer’s recommendation is ages 8 and up. Most 8 year olds would require significant assistance). That said, with some help, he was able to assemble these 800+ piece puzzles and since then he has been completely riveted. These puzzles combine history, geography, and problem solving into one project, and result in a stunning 3-D model of a city as it developed over time. In addition to the jigsaw pieces, the puzzle contains small plastic landmarks and buildings to insert into the puzzle base. It also includes a large poster timeline of city development and smaller maps that document the historical change of the city over time. It was in the meticulous studying of this puzzle of Washington DC that my son was able to easily navigate us around the real city, and how he knew intuitively where one landmark/building was in relation to another. He had been there hundreds of times in the puzzle, and so it translated easily into real life navigation of the city. As I said, this resource is realistically for much older children and adults. The foam puzzle pieces are tiny and the assembly is tedious. But as my small son confidently and accurately led us through the streets of a city that he had never before stepped foot in, I knew that any moments of frustration during assembly had been worth it. We have Washington DC and New York City. Shanghai is next on his wish list.
In addition to books and puzzles, we have a few other resources that are beloved and used daily in our home.
- Globe- A good globe is essential to the study of geography. You can find them very inexpensively, or spend extreme amounts of money on unique and rare globes. Ours is similar to this one, and it has served us well in a home with three small boys. Our first globe was actually an inflatable globe like this, and all three of my boys still love to play with it! We love that it is safe and fun for the smallest of learners.
- Landmark flash cards– We got our cards from the $1 spot in Target, but any similar flashcards would do. My son loves to study them, sort them by continents, and match them up to their respective countries in his atlas.
- Safari Toobs- There is something about being able to manipulate things with their hands that helps my boys learn more easily, and these miniature models of famous landmarks are so much fun for them. They are made of plastic so they are virtually indestructible. They love to include these landmarks in their general play time, combining them with other toys to create a historical event or scene, and we also play geography-specific games with them by building our puzzle and placing the landmark on the appropriate country. The one who completes it the fastest is the winner. We have the Around the World Toob, but we think the World Landmarks Toob looks fun too!
(Note for parents: Because we live in a fallen, secular world, not all of our resources are going to perfectly align with our family values. While I think that the National Geographic Kids World Atlas is an excellent atlas, there are a couple of sections that may bother some parents. I have taken a few pictures of some of the more controversial ideas that they briefly mention, and parents can decide for themselves if these are issues of concern or not.)