How I teach - When the world is an exotic idea

Geography can be a revelation to pupils who have never travelled beyond their home town

When your young students have rarely, if ever, left the confines of their housing estate, teaching them about the countries that make up the UK - let alone Europe or the wider world - presents a number of challenges.

These are children who have never been to the beach, despite it being a five-minute bus ride away. They are unaware that they live in close proximity to several other towns, because all their family and friends live in their immediate area.

You can begin to see why trying to explain where different countries are and how other people live can prompt blank faces and confusion. The children have little concept of the world and how it is made up of different continents, countries and cultures. They think that everyone lives as they do.

What these students are missing is a foundation of geographical understanding. Other children may be exposed to the concept of "elsewhere" through books, newspapers, holidays and television programmes, but many of my pupils simply don't have that bank of experience to call on.

Remedying this is difficult in the crammed school timetable. There is little room to cover the basic geographical skills that many ministers assume children have already, yet there are simple ways to instil this knowledge.

I began by setting a world map as the desktop image on our computers, so the children would see it every day, whatever they were doing or studying. I hoped to show them that they were part of a wider world and increase their recognition of different countries and where they were in relation to each other.

Next, I introduced morning sessions where we played clips from children's news shows, such as CBBC's Newsround, that featured places around the globe. This helped the pupils to grasp some of the issues and events outside the UK and to see how other people lived. They also had to find these countries on the world map.

The most successful technique, however, has been short, uncomplicated games that use an atlas, which can be inserted into a lesson when you have a spare minute or two. One favourite is when I ask one child in a pair to think of a country and provide clues for their partner on what it might be, naming the national food or sport, for example. The children always enjoy competing with each other.

Once this basic awareness has been built up, you can move on to more in-depth learning about differences in temperature, landscape, people, food, animals and lifestyles. I tend to use African countries as an example because they provide such a stark contrast to the lives of my students. This introduces the concept of difference, paving the way for later exploration of more subtle variations between countries.

Teachers whose students have more experience of the world may question the need to do such basic geographical work, but anyone who has worked with pupils such as mine will realise its importance. These measures have really improved the children's knowledge of the world around them, broadening not just their horizons but their viewpoints, too. This ensures that they are more tolerant and less narrow in how they perceive and react to others.

Lucy Dowson teaches at a primary school in Hampshire

Top 10 geography and map resources

1. Simplified symbols

Can your students find their way from A to B with a paper map rather than an iPhone? This introduction to symbols used on maps will ensure that when the batteries run out on their mobiles they can still navigate the world with confidence.

2. Grid unlocked

Reveal the secrets of the grid systems used on maps, and ensure that your class can talk the talk as well as walk the walk, by teaching them the correct orienteering vocabulary.

3. Country cut-outs

Could you identify a silhouette of India or Italy? Ask your students to do just that and more in this country map quiz.

4. Speaking in scales

"Navigation literacy" may not be a phrase on every teacher's lips but this resource will help your students to become fluent in the language of maps in no time.

5. Map it out

This fun, atlas-based activity develops students' knowledge of world geography and gets them travelling the globe without leaving the classroom.

6. Capital conundrums

This pack of resources provides a range of activities to teach students about continents, countries and capital cities.

7. Settle the issue

Human settlements are the focus of this worksheet, which gets students to rank villages, towns, cities, countries and continents in terms of size.

8. Battle of the borders

Do you know where Romania ends and Bulgaria begins? Test yourself by taking this European country quiz alongside your class.

9. Points of interest

What is the longest river in France and which mountain ranges elevate the American landscape? Your students can use these templates to create fact files about the countries of the world.

10. African adventure

This simple and clearly labelled outline map is a great starting point for discussion of the countries that make up the African continent.

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