With the right geography lesson, students can travel around the world without ever leaving the classroom. Teachers of any grade and subject can incorporate geography into their curriculum to help students gain a global perspective and understand the world around them. From learning to locate different cities, states, and countries on a map to understanding time zones and where their clothing comes from, we asked teachers to share their favorite tips and fun geography lessons that inspire students’ curiosity about the world. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Create autobiographical island maps
Students in Amy Getty’s sixth grade class start off the year by creating maps of islands that illustrate their lives. They first fill out an autobiographical survey and then use their creativity and knowledge of landforms and symbols to design their maps.
2. Put the world into perspective with Google Earth
Anytime fourth grade teacher Julia McIntyre talks about her personal travels, she uses Google Earth to show students the distance between their school and her destination. “It really puts it into perspective for them,” she says. Now you can also use Google Earth to follow National Geographic Explorers, including those working to protect the oceans through National Geographic’s Pristine Seas initiative. Josh Williams’ students explore the Pristine Seas program and use Google Earth to analyze how places around the world have changed over time.
3. Hold a mock geography bee
Fourth graders in Ashley Peterson’s class often play Kahoot! before dismissal. She recently held a mock geography bee using Kahoot! that teaches geography concepts and helps kids prep for the National Geographic Bee. Currently National Geographic has six geography-themed Kahoot! games available with topics including U.S. Food Faves, Amazing Animals, and Road Trip U.S.A. Learn how to use Kahoot! for a mock geography bee in your classroom.
Ashley Peterson’s fourth graders get ready for the Nat Geo Bee using Kahoot!
4. Play a global game of hide and seek
Mystery Class, which Christina Michelle plans to try with her students next year, helps kids understand longitude and latitude while learning about continents, countries, and cities around the world. Kids start by gathering data about the Earth based on latitude, longitude, and seasonal changes in sunlight. Then they investigate clues and compare their data, narrowing down their search to find 10 secret sites around the globe.
5. Map character journeys
When teaching about setting, Jessica Brookes suggests having kids create a map of the main character’s travels throughout the story, including a title, scale, key, and compass rose. Reading specialist Melody Arnett says a simple way she incorporates geography is by helping her class figure out where in the world each book they read takes place. “Sometimes it’s obvious … ‘This is a folktale from Thailand,’” she says, “and sometimes we infer based on clues from the story.”
6. Travel With technology
Technology teacher Melinda Klecker has her students design travel brochures. She asks each student to select a different state. They research that state and two cities in it to include inside the brochure. It’s a great way to incorporate writing, technology, graphic design, and geography all in one project.
7. Map your global footprint
Texas teacher Deborah Edmondson has her students take a group survey of where their shoes and clothing come from by checking the labels. They then use the National Geographic World Political MapMaker Kit to mark locations of where the materials come from and have a discussion about the global reach and interconnectedness of clothing and other goods they use every day.
Source: Mark Theissen
8. Explore the world through pen pals
Set up a pen pal exchange with a teacher in another city or country to help kids practice their writing skills while gaining a global perspective. Bring the experience to life by ending the year with a Skype chat where kids can finally “meet” their pen pals.
9. Feed your fast finishers
Here’s an idea to keep your fast finishers busy. Runa Zaman suggests photocopying a stack of blank world maps and asking kids to label them. Students can even receive extra credit or a small prize based on the number of countries they label correctly.
10. Map your classroom
Introduce spatial concepts without ever leaving the classroom. You can practice with familiar places using National Geographic’s activity to help your students understand the wider world around them—starting with their own classroom.
Source: Winn Brewer
11. Hold the whole world in your hands
Play “Throw the Globe” by tossing a beach-ball-sized inflatable globe around the classroom. When a student catches it, they must tell the class which continent or ocean their right thumb is touching. If they know something about the location, they can also share it with the class.
12. Put up a wall of clocks
Help students start to understand the geography of time zones by putting up a wall of clocks in your classroom. Set one clock to Universal Time and label it Greenwich, England. Choose a variety of major cities throughout the U.S. and the world to label the other clocks. Point out the clocks at different times throughout the school day. For example, in the morning when students in your class are just starting school, talk about what students in other time zones may be doing. You can also use the clocks as a starting point to explain how longitude and time zones are related.
Source: Sharon Angal, Quatama Elementary
13. Get to know foods around the world
Are your students hungry for knowledge about the world’s food production? National Geographic’s MapMaker Interactive layers show leading crop production per country on an interactive map. Challenge your students to think about what the map doesn’t show—like where crops may grow in the future or where the crops travel to when they are exported.
Source: National Geographic
Lessons, Activities, Map-Making Resources, and More
By Phil Nast, retired middle school teacher and freelance writer
Found In:language arts & literature, math, science, social studies, preK-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12
Lessons & Activities
Introduction to Latitude and Longitude
Students in grades K-2 look at lines of latitude and longitude on a map of the U.S. and discuss why the lines are helpful. They also discuss how temperature varies with latitude.
A View from Overhead
Students in grades K-3 develop an understanding of the overhead view presented by most maps. See six more lessons at Map Adventures.
Mapping Your State
Students in grades 2-4 work in groups to create a state tourism map.
How to Read a Topographic Map
Students in grades 4-8 learn how to read a topographic map of Salt Lake City.
Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map!
Students in grades 6-8 evaluate historical and geographical information on 16th-19th century maps and create maps of their own.
Genographic Project: Looking Ahead
Students in grades 9-12 discuss how the world may change in one thousand years, and then work in teams to create an imaginary updated study of human migration.
Making the Invisible Visible
Students in grades 9-12 evaluate and compare ways geographers, cartographers, artists, and scientists are beginning to map cyberspace.
Activities & Games
Collect rock samples on the surface of Mars with a map and Rover.
MapStats for Kids
Students in grades 5-8 can click Globie to learn map concepts or Stixie to learn about statistics. Five games will help students practice the skills.
Students in grades 9-12 can help astronomers classify galaxies according to shape.
Sally Ride EarthKAM
More Lessons & Activities
National Geographic Maps: Tools for Adventure
Aimed primarily at elementary students, this site includes information about using maps, games, and links to other National Geographic resources.
National Geographic Maps: Tools for Adventure: For Educators
Many lesson plans and activities for grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.
Mapping Discord: Creating a Primer on the Arab World
Students in grades 6-12 create an annotated map of the Middle East and North Africa.
Connecting the Dots: Interpreting U.S. Census Data
Students in grades 9-12 examine maps representing census data from the last 100 years and generate and find answers to research questions.
Mapping Our Neighborhoods, Mapping America
Students in grades 6-12 read an article and interpret an associated map showing local data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey to learn where immigrants have settled in the U.S. during the last ten years. Answer six data analysis questions using both resources.
The US Geological Survey offers many lessons, activities, and teacher packets for K-12 classrooms.
Google Earth Lessons
This site aids teachers using Google Earth in their classrooms. Some of the links are dead, but the site is still worth investigating. NOTE: the site is not affiliated with Google.
Historic Maps and Lessons
Chicago’s Newberry Library offers maps and lessons for gradesK-12, covering the themes of exploration and encounter, migration and settlement, environmental history, transportation, political and military, and communities.
Map Making GuidesThese grade level guides introduce mapmaking, explaining map elements, map design, and types of maps. They include links to related resources.
Teaching with Infographics | A Student Project Model
A social studies teacher with years in middle school and high school classrooms characterizes herself as a “fanatic” about using infographics in education. In this series of blog entries, she describes ways to use infographics.
Math/Science Nucleus: Types of Maps
Introduces elementary students to types of maps and geographic information systems.
Maps & Globes: Maps
Students in grades 3-5 can learn about various types of maps and map features.
National Weather Center: Weather Lessons
A basic introduction to map analysis and interpretation for students in grades 5-8.
USGS Science Resources for Primary Grades and for Middle School and High School
These USGS pages included geography resources.
USGS Science Resources for Undergraduate Education
Although designed for college undergraduates, some of these activities might be fitted to high school students.
GeoThentic Online Environment
Designed to use geographic technology to make and justify decisions about contemporary issues: for example, where to build a hospital in San Francisco based on seismic activity and population density. Teachers can sign up for a free account.
Videos & Interactives
Printables & Quizzes
- Quia: Map Skills
A 20 question quiz on reading and using various types of maps.
Dozens of self-correcting quizzes covering the continents.
Timed and untimed quizzes covering Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States.
Special Purpose Maps
Examples of Special Purpose Maps
Statistics for Making Maps
Statistics from more than 100 agencies.