Editor note: Welcome to a new column by mother and writer Kristin Wognild. Kristin lives, works, and plays in the forests of Central Oregon and is an advocate of place-based learning. Thus, this new regular column’s title “Nature’s Place” should appeal to those families who desire to have a deeper connection to how, when, and where their kids learn. We hope you enjoy it. ~Erin Kirkland
by Kristin Wognild
I can still recall the feeling of thumbing through the pages of my very first National Geographic magazine as a child. Admiring the photos of places I’d never heard of and lifestyles I’d never imagined, a spark was ignited. I wanted to know more about the people behind the words and cameras, going on adventures and documenting a world that was far greater and vaster than I’d known. On that day I knew that I wanted to be an explorer.
I went on to study geography in college and have travels of my own. I can even pinpoint the moment I become a bona fide explorer–riding in the back of a pickup truck, headed up a dusty road in the foothills of the Andes with a dozen children running behind, laughing and waving their arms wildly as I snapped photos. The pictures would go no farther than the pages of my photo album, but I knew that this moment was important. I felt deeply alive and connected to the world around me.
Since then I’ve spent a dozen years teaching geography and close to a decade raising my own little explorers- not because I want them to ride in the back of a pickup truck in Colombia, but because I want them to be curious and alive in the world in whatever way fits best for them. It’s not the places that we go that matter, but the way we connect to them that does. So I teach them to start with what they know- their own community or backyard, and to look at it through a closer lens. We divide up the places we study by geographic themes and then set out to discover what we can learn about this place we call home, as backyard explorers.
Location tells us where we are, and while it might seem obvious, closer inquiry into our location is one of the best ways to help kids foster a love for the outdoors. What geographers refer to as absolute location is the exact spot determined by latitude and longitude. In contrast, relative location teaches where places are in relation to one another. Geocaching is one of the best family activities to teach the former. Here, someone hides a cache- typically a waterproof container and log book, and notes its position online. Seekers can use the website or official geocaching apps to choose caches in their area and find them by using global positioning units. In the end, kids get to participate in a modern day treasure hunt and learn about absolute location.
Treasure hunts can also teach relative location, but this time use a compass. Learning cardinal directions is important. Begin by deciding on the location of the course: a park, a beach, or even a backyard works fine. And then follow the steps of setting it up. Consider using this as a birthday party activity. Kids work for their party favors and learn something along the way.
This theme is so large that geographers divide it up into two categories: physical and human. A place’s physical components include all those things that are part of nature, while the human components are those pieces related to culture. Physical features are the best place to begin. Go on a hike and have field guide books on hand. If you find something of interest, teach kids how to use the field guide’s key to identify species of birds or plants, animal tracks, or anything else of interest. Give younger kids a checklist like this one of backyard birds from the National Federation of Wildlife or follow the directions by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to make a local bird checklist through the eBird website. And if you don’t want to carry books, consider getting one of the mobile app field guides suggested by the National Wildlife Federation.
For kids to truly understand people living in a place, they definitely have to know where they come from. I recommend teaching explorers about their home’s earliest residents, indigenous populations. First stop should be your your local museum, but if you are looking for more, visit the website of the National Museum of the American Indian. How did you come to be in the place where you reside? I’ve found that some of the best bedtime storytelling sessions with my own kids have been centered around stories of family history.
In this theme, backyard explorers learn how humans depend on, adapt to, and modify their environments. Start with what your kids know. I like to begin with what they eat and drink. Consider touring a local farm or call ahead and see if your family and friends can volunteer for part of a day. I’ve been amazed at the warm response I’ve received by farms over the years. If you are willing to dig in and help out, it can be a win/win situation for all parties. Another option is to help your child grow her own garden. Consider working together to build your child her own garden box. She can be responsible for planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, and even cooking. Finally, kids should know where the water coming out of their faucet comes from and where it goes once it disappears down the drain. The Environmental Protection Agency offers a website that allows families to locate their local watershed. Begin here to learn what you can and then take a series of family outings that will let your child see it with his own eyes, noticing how it’s shared by plants, animals, and people. Consider also taking kids to see local water intake and treatment facilities. In the process, they will discover that their water consumption is a small piece in a much bigger picture.
After getting a glimpse at how we use our Earth, it’s always nice for kids to try their hand at helping it. Ideas are endless, but consider the following: plant a tree, ride a bike or walk instead of taking a car, decrease water by getting a reusable water bottle, or- one of my favorites- decorate a reusable canvas bag and give it as a gift to someone you love to take along to the grocery store.
Here, explorers learn to identify what makes their home and surrounding area unique and learn to identify it from other regions. Sometimes recognizing that what is a norm to one is different to another is the hardest part for kids. My daughter, for example, spent the first nine years of her life in Alaska where we went to a reindeer farm each year to celebrate fall’s harvest. For her this was normal. When we moved outside of the state and picked our pumpkin at a farm with an adjacent cattle ranch, my daughter couldn’t get enough of the cows. “We’re used to reindeer,” she said nonchalantly to new friends whose eyes widened in disbelief. To make a visual model of regions, I recommend making a large Venn Diagram- two intersecting circles- on chart paper. Have your child write about, draw, or cut and paste images that represent your home region in one circle. When you travel or learn about another place, have her do the same for the second circle. Finally, make sure to discuss how regions also have their commonalities by filling out shared characteristics in the center where the two circles overlap.
Geographers study how people, places, and ideas are all moved to and from the place of study. This theme reminds our explorers that nothing is stagnant and everything is connected, especially in the age of technology and globalization. Spend some time paying attention to all the things you use and purchase that come from other places. Consider even having your explorer put stickers or dots on a world map as they track items. They will quickly realize how their decisions as a consumer cross the globe. It might even lead to a great discussion of the benefits of purchasing locally, possibly even lending way to an “eat and buy local” challenge.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether you tackle all or just one of the themes of geography. Keep sight of the goal- to nurture the spirit of an explorer, learning about and connecting to the places they go.