I Don’t Teach Geography

You don't have to use a curriculum to learn a lot about geography. Here's how Shell's family does it.

Someone who was worried about our decision to homeschool asked, “Do you teach geography?” Considering how much the person asking knew about geography, I have no idea where that came from. The problem with these kinds of questions is that the questioner does not realize that homeschooled kids can learn quite differently than their public school peers. So on one hand, I could answer truthfully, “No, I don’t teach geography.” But on the other hand, I could also answer, “My kids know a lot about geography.” My 11-year-old, especially, knows much more about geography than I did at his age. (And I went to public school!)

The question made me start thinking about how we have learned about geography because I have never bought a formal geography curriculum. I have never checked out a book from the library that would teach my kids map skills. But my son knows how to read a map, he knows all the continents and several of the country names in our world, and he even knows what kind of terrain exists in most places of the world. He even knows what the people and cultures of some other countries are like. How does he know all this, if I didn’t plan any lessons?

Well, when you are a curious, love-to-explore, documentary-watching, globe-and-map-using kind of family, you’re going to learn elementary geography and then some.

Here are just a few ways my kids have learned about geography without any formal lessons:

First of all, we own a globe. When we watch documentaries, we pull it out because we’re curious to know exactly where the place is that we’re seeing on the T.V. My eight-year-old, especially, loves to get the globe and find places on it.

We also own a lot of maps. We own a map of our state, and we’ve pulled it out when we’re traveling somewhere. We also own maps of all the states we’ve traveled to. During our trip out west, my eleven-year-old kept our Rand McNally Atlas by his side most of the way, often looking at it to see where we were. His younger brother looked over his shoulder.

Also, puzzles! We have a United States puzzle with the names and capitals of each state on it. We have a world map puzzle, and we also have a book of puzzles for each continent in the world. The boys love working on puzzles again and again, so these map puzzles are popular in our house. 

I also snatched up a box of National Geographic U.S.A. ©1978 maps at a library book sale for $5. These were the same maps my dad owned when I was a girl, and I longed to look at them. I pestered him about them, but he would never let me touch them. Well, guess what? My boys and I pull them out whenever we want. They may be a little outdated, but they have gorgeous illustrations and details about each state’s history and recreational sites. 

At some point while looking at our maps, I’ve briefly talked to the boys about the compass, legend and scale on the map. I’ve also told them about latitude and longitude. (This has also come up in discussions about how ships navigate the oceans.) I’m sure over the next few years, we’ll have plenty of other reasons to look at maps, so this will come up again. How can they not learn about it?

While we’re speaking about maps, I shouldn’t fail to mention Google Earth. My boys love exploring Google Earth. They have zoomed down to Mt. Everest and even found the beach we visited once in Florida. Also, they are constantly looking over my shoulder as I use Google Maps on my phone to navigate our way through unfamiliar places.

Learning about maps is just a small part of geography, though. Geography also has to do with the terrain and how humans interact with the landscape around them. I can’t think of a better way to learn about this (besides traveling) than through our daily dose of documentaries. Everyday at lunchtime, my husband, two boys and I watch part of a documentary. Most of what we watch are nature documentaries, but we also watch science and history documentaries. We occasionally watch travel shows or cooking shows that take us to other parts of the world too. (See below for a few recommendations.)

It would take a book-length blog post to describe what we’ve seen and learned through these documentaries. My boys have watched people in the Arctic ice fishing, native tribes in the Amazon hunt for food, and they’ve seen the ancient practice of fishing with cormorants in Asia. They know where the taiga, tundra, and the rain forests are located. They also know about the efforts of the North American Prairie Reserve, which we try to support when we can.

When I think about how I learned about geography in schools – through a textbook and drawing a map of my neighborhood – it’s no wonder that I didn’t truly appreciate this subject until I began to explore it in a different way with my kids. While I do plan lessons for reading, writing, math and history, geography – at least elementary geography – is easily learned by owning a few maps, being curious, watching documentaries, and reading interesting books about the world. I guess the one thing I’ve failed to tell the boys is “This is geography!” I think I’ll do that tomorrow.


Many documentaries take you to other places and teach you about people, animals and the land they inhabit, but here are a few documentaries I especially recommend for your social studies and geography lessons.

If you watch only one documentary series about our planet and the humans that inhabit it, it should be this one: Human Planet (We found it on Netflix.)

The following are several series that I like to call the “Wildest Series.” These are some of the most educational documentaries we’ve ever watched, and we learned about wildlife we never knew existed. Look for these and others like them on Netflix.

Planet Earth is so popular that you’ve probably already seen it, but I couldn’t leave it off this list. It’s available now on Netflix.

See how humans have changed their planet in Generation Earth. If you love engineering, it’s a must see.

For a list of all the documentaries I recommend, see my Pinterest board.