Recipe for a world geography co-op

Many people have told me how much they hated geography when studying it in school as kids. I’m always rather shocked; nerd that I was (ummm…, I always thought geography was awesome! History and economics and political science, blah blah blah, not so much, but places and the stuff that goes on there? And maps? Heck yes! When our homeschool group was deciding on the last co-op class of the year, I couldn’t get geography out of my mind. What purpose does learning about Bolivia serve when kids (and adults) don’t have a clue where Bolivia is? So I set out to create a world geography class to accommodate 19 kids ranging in age from 3 to 12, and I’ll show you how you can do it for your co-op (or even just your own kids), too.

First, I had to get it through my thick head that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nineteen pre-school and elementary-aged kids crammed in my living room were not going to appreciate black and white copies of a National Geographic article on the construction of the pyramids, and trying to cover anything in detail was a lost cause. But what I could do for a group of that size and diversity was spark an interest in exploring geography later on at home, and that was my goal. The number one co-op planning rule is to be realistic about your expectations. I wanted this to be as fun and manageable as it was educational.

I jotted down a list of things kids pretty much everywhere seem to love: food, food, and food. Then I remembered that when my kids aren’t busy eating, looking for snacks, or asking, “What’s for dinner?” they also have an interest in animals, stuff that weirds their friends out, mysteries, and anything that takes up a lot of space. The younger ones also like making things, primarily messes. We tried a craft at the first class, but it was met with a lukewarm reception, so I scrapped that idea. Preteen boys aren’t all that impressed by paper maracas.

Since there are seven continents, the class broke down neatly into a weekly six-week session. I couldn’t picture dragging Antarctica out for an hour, so I lumped it in with Australia. They’re practically the same thing, right? 😉 To keep costs down, I chose to draw out a map of each continent on 36″ wide paper for wall display, and I handed out a simple outline map to each kid as the continent was covered. National Geographic has a really nifty free program you can use to add the features you want (or want to omit) on each map. I also printed out a flag coloring page from the Crayola website, and each week assigned a country to each child based on their level of abilities and how complex the flag was to color. The Crayola pages are neat because they show the flag, the outline of the country, instructions on coloring the flag, and a brief fact about the country. We used the states version of these for our Fifty States scrapbook last year. Since we weren’t doing much bookwork, the only thing each kid had to bring was a pocket folder with brads. We love inexpensive projects!

Class debuted with North America. Even young kids are familiar with the United States, Canada, and Mexico, so it seemed like a friendly place to start. After handing out world and continent maps, we discussed the term geography, and the kids had lots of great comments on what they felt it meant. Then I showed everyone that our North America map was missing all of its labels, and explained that the kids would have to find the labels, their flag page, and a surprise object using a treasure map (a quick sketch of my backyard). They practiced using cardinal directions and were able to take two-steps-north-five-steps-east to find their map labels, flag coloring page, and an object commonly found in/made by that country. Most of the objects were food: coffee for Guatemala, cocoa for El Salvador, bananas for Costa Rica. Every kid got a chance to come up and show their object to the group, and then find the country on the big display map which matched their label and add the label. Flag pages were taken home as “homework” to color. Finally, we had a snack of popcorn. There are about a million great treats that would go along with North America, but I was too pressed for time. Don’t be like me! Something like Coca Cola cake would have been awesome.

The following week, we met again to learn about South America. Everyone got a continent map, and this time the kids were divided into three teams with a good mix of ages. I went over some very basic landform facts, asking the kids for input along the way, and then we had an open-map quiz bowl. As each team answered a question correctly, one of their team members earned a map label and corresponding flag page. Questions ranged from naming bordering oceans, finding the largest country, and pointing north on the map, to remembering the largest South American river and rainforest. During this class, everyone colored their maps, and as they came up to affix the label to their country, they showed their classmates the finished flag. After all the labels were up, we enjoyed alfajores, a South American butter cookie sandwiched with dulce de leche. They were huge and messy (hugely messy?) but very tasty. Definitely use a 2″ biscuit cutter and not a 3″ cup like me!

Next was Europe. Let me tell you, Europe was no picnic! So many little countries with jagged edges and long, hard-to-spell-much-less-pronounce names. Since Europe has a lot more countries than we had kids attending class, I picked the least confusing ones out for them to label and attached the remaining labels ahead of time. For this class, we focused on the many different languages spoken. I made strips of paper with the word “hello” written in 19 different languages spoken throughout Europe, and we spread them out on my tile floor, one per square. Each kid got to come up, toss a beanbag onto one of the squares, and learn how to say hello in another language. Once again, completing the activity earned a map label and flag, which was colored in class and later shared. As a treat after class, we tried an apple strudel. Such a tasty recipe, but maybe leave the raisins out. I had no idea so many kids were raisinphobes!

Our fourth class covered Africa. Like Europe, Africa covered more countries than we had kids, so the easier to find countries were left for the kids to label and the remainder were pre-tagged. We own a glut of little plastic animals, so I pulled out 5 different native African species for each team and drew each animal’s footprints on separate index cards. A sixth card was numbered one through five with spaces for the kids to write the names of the animals as they decided which footprint belonged with which animal. This was my favorite activity – it was great watching the kids work together! Only the zebra versus giraffe prints stumped one of the teams. As the teams finished the activity, they colored their flag pages, and then everyone did the usual labeling and flag sharing. The snack this day was a heaping plate of koeksisters. I wound up making three batches, and we ate every one of them! Very interesting taste, sort of like a funnel cake.

Week five led us to Asia. I picked out the countries the kids would be covering and labeled the rest, and then researched in which year each kid was born so we could find out their Chinese zodiac sign. I hung up pieces of paper with the year and the Chinese symbol from 1999 to 2010 to cover the twelve signs and all of the birth years. We talked about the importance of a New Year’s celebration in the U.S. and the differences in Asia, and then as each year was called. The kids born in those years came up and played silent charades until the other kids guessed the zodiac animal. Some of them, like the rooster, were hilariously difficult to act out silently! We added the kids’ names to the symbol papers hanging on the wall, and I read out a few of the good qualities that are supposed to be associated with each year. After everyone was finished, they labeled the map and opted to take the flags home to complete. I had a hard time finding a treat for Asia that would be palatable to kids, so I finally cheated and just bought fortune cookies and chow mein noodles.

The final class covered Australia and Antarctica. I only drew a map for Australia, since our large world map showed the icy south quite nicely. I did hand out maps for both, and we discussed the research stations housed in Antarctica. Since we were only covering three countries in Australia, I decided to make the last class a review of the world. I had all of the maps displayed around the room, and we reminisced on learning about products grown or made in North America, landforms of South America, languages spoken in Europe, animals native to Africa, and the cultural celebrations in Asia. I was hoping that, given the big picture, the kids would see some of the many things geography is all about. As a final activity, each team was given one country label from each continent’s map (so six total per team), and they had to work together and use their folder of maps or the large world wall map to find out where the labels belonged. A few less-familiar countries took a little longer to find, but in the end they got them all back up. Our last treats were lamingtons, an Australian sponge cake filled with jam and dipped in chocolate and dessicated coconut. They were surprisingly tasty, and huge! Even though I had cut them half the size recommended in the recipe, I had to cut the finished treats in half again to serve.

If you’re thinking about hosting a world geography co-op, you should go for it! Seeing an interest sparked right before your eyes is incredibly rewarding. If you have the time and resources, this could be a springboard for much more in-depth learning on the vast array of cultures around the world. If you’re teaching just a few kids, you could fully involve them in the mapmaking and cooking aspects. I know that, after the summer break, my kids will be making some lapbooks on other countries, and they can use their maps and their taste of products, landforms, languages, animals, celebrations, and foods to decide what interests them. I can’t wait!

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