Teaching Children about Place

Over the years while teaching outdoors I’ve often wished I had a globe with me to help children visualize their place in this big world.

Many children come to the program with muddled ideas of the world and know very little about their local environment.
Vast concepts like the timeline of dinosaurs are very confusing to young children and conversations can go on for weeks as they try to make sense of the idea.

For example one of the first games we play is animal forms where we embody what it is like to ‘be’ different animals.

I offer the challenge to name an animal that lives here, in this ecosystem.

Many children cannot.

They can name tigers and elephants and giraffes and polar bears but when challenged to identify a wild animal that lives here in our own backyards they do not know any.

While these two things may seem insignificant and like I am being a negative nelly I believe this has real significance for us as human beings to not be closely linked and identified with the place where we live.

Knowledge that is not grounded is mere noise.

Honestly who cares if they know what a giraffe is. Most children will never see one in real life.

But they most certainly will see a deer.

And forming a relationship to a deer, what it eats, where it sleeps, how it raises its young develops an understanding of the local environment that forms as a part of their identity.

Same goes for place.

Children who do not know what neighbourhood they live in cannot comprehend that Africa and Australia are continents on the other side of the world thousands of kilometers away.

Again these conversations can take weeks to help them sort out.

I’ve found that maps help.

I’ve printed off a collection of maps that help me teach children about their place in the world. It goes something like this:

“Honey Badgers live in Africa”

“Yes they do. And we have a different kind of badger here in North America.”

*blank stare* or sometimes, “A honey badger could eat an anaconda!”

“Yes but they probably wouldn’t since anacondas live in South America.”

“Could I be eaten by an anaconda?”

“No they don’t live here.”

*blank stares* and another ungrounded fact

*I take out my maps and start with the map of the world*

“This is the whole world and we live right here.” I point with my finger. “Honey badgers live here.” I point to Africa/Asia. “Anacondas live here.” I point to South America.

This usually prompts a child to state they live in Canada, which is true.

I show them which part of North America is Canada and then take out my Canada map.

We talk about the provinces and if a child has been to another Province we show how far apart they are in comparison to the distance between Kamloops and Vancouver.

Children love maps.

I love maps and have found them to be a valuable teaching tool to help ground children’s knowledge into something they can use.

I know this perspective isn’t for everyone but I truly believe that our path towards a sustainable future begins with ideas like this.
It begins with teaching children about the place where they live before they learn about the rest of the world.

Here are what I believe are the building blocks of global awareness.

  1. Concept of Home
    Most children have gone to other people’s houses whether it is friends, relatives, childcare etc. and they can understand that their house is in a specific place.
    Many can even remember their address (which is a smart thing to teach your child!)
  2. Concept of Neighbourhood
    Some people’s houses may take longer to get to than others.
    Talking about this and naming your neighbourhood and that of a friend can begin to help children understand that their home is in an area that has a name.
  3. Concept of City
    This is a concept most children are acquainted with. They know which city they live in and many can even name other cities they’ve been to.
  4. Concept of Region
    This one is trickier to teach because it relies on a lot of local awareness but children who have developed a keen eye for their environment can absolutely understand this concept.
    I tend to talk about this concept in terms of ecosystems and places that ‘look the same’. Vancouver is a different region because it is wet. I have a map for this.
  5. Concept of Province
    Because Provincial boundaries are imaginary legal boundaries that are somewhat arbitrary and most children have not travelled across the provinces this is another hard concept to teach. They know the words but cannot really grasp the concept.
    I believe this is really an intermediate level concept because the grounding of it is in a legal framework that young children really cannot understand.
    There is a place for rote memorization for children who travel the country because they learn how far apart provinces are from one another.
  6. Concept of Country
    Again most children know they live in Canada.
    The idea of Canada is an abstract concept unless they have lived or been in another country. America is so similar culturally that the lines tend to blur but many other countries are dissimilar enough that this concept can be understood by even the youngest of students. Again the legal framework of what is a ‘country’ is something beyond young children.
    We can teach this but it is purely rote memorization until they have lived experience that helps ground the concept.
  7. Concept of Continent
    This one reaches into the idea of a global world that for some reaches into their hearts and for others remains to abstract to comprehend.
    Children who know a lot about nature and have been supported to know what animals live where and in very different parts of the world actually can begin to understand. Because it is ecological awareness we can somehow sense the vastness of the world in which we live.
  8. Concept of Planet
    I don’t work with older students much so this honestly doesn’t come up.
    When I talk about the sun as a star it blows my students minds and many of them haven’t even seen the moon.
    Astronomy is a complex and dynamic subject that is barely grazed upon in school.
    Many adults have a hard time grappling with this concept and the idea that there is indeed other life out there in the universe and we are not alone.

For me, learning about our place in the world and that there are many people who come from different places is a foundational piece of building empathy, compassion and awareness.

Forming a deep awareness of place also shapes our identity.

I am from Kamloops holds a different meaning when you can name dozens of the plants and animals that also call that place home.

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