Geography these days is a study of other cultures and social differences, as well as the study of geology and weather. Primary school geography deals with environmental issues, seeing how land erodes, understanding the water cycle and weather pattern, learning to read maps, and comparing other countries and cultures with ones’ own.
If you have moved abroad, you have an immediate geography topic around you; talk with your children about the differences you see, and also the similarities with your own culture. If you have friends abroad, try and write (or email) to them; ask questions, learn about recent developments, the kinds of produce that’s grown, local customs.
Even in a short holiday in another country – or another region within your own country – there will be opportunities to talk about how different people live, and what cultural differences you might expect to find. That’s not to say that you need to talk about educational topics all the time! But in the course of everyday discussion, issues of this sort may well arise as you visit small villages or large towns, have a look at museums or ancient ruins, and even when you search in supermarkets for familiar produce.
However, even if you rarely stir outside your own local environment, and have no friends abroad, you can still encourage your children to have an interest in the wider world. There are some excellent television documentaries about other countries, and many useful resources you can buy, or perhaps borrow from your library.
It’s useful to have a set of encyclopedias, either on CD-Rom or in book form, or to be familiar with online encyclopedias. You may need a good world atlas and local maps, although again this can often be found online. A globe is helpful, too, for seeing the overall shape and size of the world and the different continents. With an atlas, it is hard to realise just how much sea there is, or how enormous the world is compared to our own local environment. Children often ask questions about countries they have seen in TV documentaries or heard about on the news: with home education you can look for these places on the globe and then find out about them as soon as the child expresses interest.
There are various world atlas CD-Roms; we used to have the Dorling Kindersley one but there are a wide variety. There are also many web sites which allow you to see up-to-date views of the world, and to explore various aspects of geography. See my geography resources page for some recommendations to useful sites.
Skills rather than topics
Teaching your children the skills to do their own geography research is actually more important than the specific topics they are studying. Try, too, to ensure that they cover a wide variety of different cultures, and understand that there is no ‘best’ or ‘worst’ country or culture; moreover, some customs which seem very odd to us are taken for granted elsewhere. If you live somewhere which has people from many different cultures, try and get to know some of them and talk about different foods, styles of dress, and expectations.
You can help your children understand maps as soon as they start to read. If you point out your road on a local map, and places of interest, then you may find them following maps in the car when you drive anywhere, rather than continually asking when you will arrive! Help them to understand the concepts of keys and scale, and give them appropriate maps to follow whenever you travel. Board games like Risk or Settlers give a general big picture of world geography, and there are CD games such as SimCity and SimIsle, or Civilisation II, which give the player a chance to simulate different environments and explore what happens under different conditions.
A series we found useful for the older primary years (approx age 7-11) is the ‘World Watch’ series published by Collins Educational. This provides a progressive scheme covering physical, human and environmental geography with excellent photographs, and various ‘things to do’ to encourage children to research more into the topics and understand maps and diagrams.
Geography at secondary level
If your child is interested in the topic, and particularly if he or she is considering taking GCSE geography at some stage, you may want to follow one of the Key Stage 3 geography courses. These cover basic skills and understanding of National Curriculum topics. An interesting and thorough course which we used in a low-key way is the Heinemann ‘Geography in Action’ series.
There are many other key stage 3 geography study guides, which give an overview and description of topics; some are intended to be used as extra to school geography lessons, but some can easily be used at home. It’s worth browsing in your local bookshop to see which ones seem interesting to you and your children, and which will suit their learning styles.
GCSE and beyond
A child who is particularly interested in geography may wish to consider taking a GCSE. An excellent text book which covers much of the GCSE work in all boards is David Waugh’s key stage 4 geography<, but you would need to find out what particular topics are covered in each board for special study.
This may be possible at a local college or adult education classes, or you may want to check my GCSE page for possible courses by correspondence. Alternatively, geography is a good subject to study at home, where the student can explore topics of interest in greater depth than would be possible in a group environment. The GCSE-exams-alternatives list at yahoogroups is a useful resource for advice, and suggestions for where your child might be able to take an exam.