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Five Projects to Juice Up Geography

By Alycia Zimmerman on November 16, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5

“Class, it’s time for geography.” Does that phrase conjure up timed map quizzes and hours of memorization? With those associations, it’s no wonder that many of us brush over geography in our own teaching. Unfortunately it also means that fewer than one third of U.S. students demonstrated proficiency in geography on the 2011 federal geography test that was issued as part of the Nation’s Report Card.

Geography doesn’t have to be boring or banished, though. Here are five fun, hands-on projects that will have your students begging for more geography.


Project 1: Me on the Map!

Geography can seem impersonal at first. Sure, we live on those landmasses drawn onto maps, but how does that really relate to our students’ lives? As one of our first geography activities, my students research where in the world their families originally come from. There are always some who are surprised to learn that their families aren’t originally from New York City.

In class we brainstorm interview questions to use with their parents. Here is a sample interview form that I created with my students.

After they bring in their interview research, each student uses a wet-erase marker to write their initials on a laminated world map to show where their family comes from. Finally, I put together a bulletin board with a world map and my students' photos, and connect the photos to the countries of origin with yarn. (See photo below.) With this project, my students begin to look at maps as a tool for telling personal stories.


Project 2: The History of Maps in Clay

Help your students learn about the history of maps and how maps have changed over time by making clay tablet maps. I begin our map-history research by reading aloud the first section of the excellent book Maps and Globes by Jack Knowlton. The book explains that the earliest maps were made on clay tablets. Other maps discovered in the Pacific islands were made from sticks, reeds, and shells.

My students make clay maps of their table seating arrangements using air-dry clay. With their mini clay tablets in hand, we have a meaningful discussion about why paper maps are more efficient than clay maps.




Project 3: Secret Island Maps

Teach your students about map symbols and legends by having your students create maps of imaginary islands. My students have created map features ranging from traditional treasure chests to alien spacecraft landing pads. Below are photos of some of the maps from this year.





Project 4: “Go West, young students” with a Compass!

While teaching my students about ordinal directions this year, I mentioned that we use compasses to help us figure out the directions. To my surprise, most of my students had never used a compass, and they had tons of questions. What are these magical objects that always point north? I decided to do an activity to show them how a compass works.


Together we read about magnetic polarity, and I gave my students a period of open exploration with compasses and magnets. Then they created their own compasses using needles, corks, cups of water, and magnets. Here are detailed instructions for creating needle and cork compasses.

(Tip: Rather than having my students insert their needles through the cork as per the directions, I had my students glue their needles on top of the corks with regular white glue. We waited until the glue dried to float the corks in cups of water. This felt safer to me than having students stab corks with needles.)




Project 5: Paper Mache Globes


Disclaimer: This project takes a while and gets quite messy. That being said, given the amount of geography learning that results, it is well worth it! While painting the continents on their globes, my students learn so much about scale, landmark features, and the placement of the continents in relation to each other. (For example, did you know that Antarctica’s “finger” points at the southern tip of South America? You would if you made a balloon globe!)

There are many Web sites with directions about making papier-mâché balloon globes, but my favorite directions are from PBS Kids. Since most balloons aren’t really spherical, I buy punch ball balloons instead.

Have your students first rub a thin film of Vaseline or oil on their balloons, or else the balloon will stick to the newspaper and damage the globe as it deflates. Use any papier-mâché recipe you like. I prefer Elmer’s art paste, but any standard recipe will work. I have my students cover their balloons with four layers of newspaper to create sturdy spheres. They paint over the newspaper with white acrylic gesso. Next, they trace paper cutouts of the continents onto their globes. Finally, they use acrylic paint to decorate their globes.




Hint: If you don’t have the time to create papier-mâché globes, you can take a shortcut and buy white paper lanterns. Then your students can draw the continents on with markers rather than painting them.


  Globes made with Chinese paper lanterns and markers.


More Resources

For a hands-on project on topographical maps, check out Classroom Solutions Advisor Addie Albano’s post "Hands-On Geography: 'Paint a Partner' Topographic Maps."

To add a technological spin to a geography study, have your students learn about GPS and discuss how GPS has changed how people navigate the world. Then take your class geocaching with a handheld GPS. To learn about geocaching, read Top Teaching Advisor Angela Bunyi’s post "Latitude/Longitude: Recess Treasure Hunting."

The book Amazing Hands-On Map Activities by Rose Forina provides detailed directions for seventeen more map projects, ranging from mural maps to puzzle maps. I’ve used many of her ideas with my class.

National Geographic has an excellent new teachers’ site with lesson plans, articles, and, of course, free maps to download. One of my favorite features on their Web site is the MapMaker Kits program. MapMaker Kits provide free large-format maps that can be downloaded, printed, and then assembled to create large wall maps, table-sized maps, and single-page maps.


Please share your hands-on geography projects with all of us! Add your ideas to the comments section below.


Comments (2)

Oh, great suggestion about having students track their interests on a world map! I just found this scratch off world map online, and I can't wait to buy one to use with my geography unit next year. http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/scratch-map I'm thinking that I'll have my students scratch off the countries we "visit" in our reading, looking to see how many countries we can reveal.

Great ideas! I'd also suggest having students trace their own interests around the world. This might also be a good option for classrooms that don't have such a diverse student body. Sport fans can look up the top soccer teams around the world while students interested in music can research traditional music from various regions.

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