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Take a Break from the Books

Hands-on learning is usually, fun, memorable and a great break from textbook curriculum assignments. However, finding meaningful projects which don't belong a week later in the circular file (you know, the trash bin) or in which we have to find a place to store it is sometimes a real task in itself. I have boxes and boxes of past school projects that I've never had the heart to dispose of. It's a good thing I have attic space above the garage! Although I can't guarantee you'll have a place to store each of these projects, the fun factor and learning value should outweigh the little storage situation.

Learning States and Capitals

  1. Cut 3 x 5 cards in half. Label one side of each card with the name of a state, the flip side with its capital. Lay a large outline map of the USA on the kitchen table. Students learning the states place the cards with state side up on the appropriate location of that state on the map. Learning capitals? Place the capital side up on the correct state.
  2. Got any more of those 3 x 5 cards? Cut 50 in half. Write states on half and capitals on those left over cards. Play memory game matching states and their capital. Place all name side down in several rows. Players turn up two cards at a time trying to match the name of states with their capitals. You know the rest of the rules. Play with regions of the USA at first rather than all 50 states.
  3. Build a driveway size map of the USA. Copy an outline map of the USA on clear overhead projector plastic sheet. Project the USA map onto a wall. Tape butcher paper to the wall and trace each state boundary to scale. Cut out and use as a template to paint on driveway. Use sidewalk chalk or permanent paint depending upon your dedication. See what creative games your children will make with such a large map. (Here's one example: toss a beanbag on map and take turns standing on the state where the bag landed and naming it or its capital.)

Keep these points in mind to get the most out of the learning experience. Let students make the cards or draw the map. Even students who can't spell can copy and trace. Let them use their favorite color gel pens or colored pencils, and require they use their best penmanship on cards. On the memory game it's fun to decorate the blank side of the cards with stamps or stickers. You can adapt some of these ideas for learning vocabulary words, phonics, homonyms, math facts and more.

Up, Up, and Away

This idea was given to me by a dad who attended one of my workshops in Indiana. I think it has great potential. I'd love to hear back from you on its results should you take on this little project.

Prepare 20-30 pre-stamped postcards with your address and the following instructions: This is a home school experiment. This card was released in a helium balloon from (city and state). Please mail it back to us and tell us where you found it. Place the card in helium-filled balloons and let loose in a wide-open area. Make note of the weather and wind conditions. Now, it's time to grow in patience as your family awaits the return of the post cards. Let each child speculate how far the balloons may travel and in what direction. It may take days or even weeks. Mark on a map where the cards landed.

Map Projections Are SO Distorted!

Here is a great project to help kids understand how hard it is to flatten a spherical shape without distortion. Blow up a large balloon and tie it closed. Draw a face on the balloon with a permanent marker. You could draw a series of squares and triangles around the upper and lower third of the balloon and around the middle. Any picture will do someone with a bit of artistic talent may prefer to draw the continents. Untie the balloon and deflate it. Cut off the top and bottom of the balloon leaving a sort of tube. Cut open the tube at the location opposite of the face or in the midst of the Pacific Ocean if you drew the globe.

Now stretch the balloon material out and pin the 4 corners to a cork board or foam core board. Watch how different the face looks when it lays flat. (Or look at the distortion of the continents when stretched and flattened.) If you drew squares and triangles you will now see rectangles and elongated triangles on the flattened version.

This is a good start up activity before teaching students how to read a map. Teach students that all maps have some level of distortion. Most are pretty accurate towards the center but become more distorted the farther north and south of the center of the map. The USGS Earth Science Information Center has a great map projection poster. You can call them at 800-USA-MAPS and request one for free.

3D Maps

Have you ever made maps of clay or salt dough? These are fun, fairly simple, and memorable. Here are a couple of simple recipes you can use to make your own:

Salt dough: 2 parts flour, 1 part salt, 1 part water. Mix well, Add more water if crumbly.

Coffee Clay: 1 C flour, 1/2 C salt, 1 C used coffee grinds, 1/2 C cold left over coffee. Combine and blend well. Knead on floured surface until smooth. Let air dry or bake at 175 for 30 minutes.

Using the physical map from a good student atlas, place the dough or clay on a piece of cardboard and shape like the area of focus. You can do a continent a country or whatever you are studying. We like to tape an outline map of the area on the cardboard for accuracy in forming the general shape of the place. Let dry overnight and paint. Use toothpick with flags with the names of places and push into map before it dries or leave unlabeled. It's up to you. My kids especially enjoyed doing the rivers accurately and painting them blue. One thing's for sure - they always remember the lay of the land of the places where they've made their own map.

Unit Study Ideas

You can really make use of a variety of hands on projects associated with geography during nearly any unit study. Make a 3 D map of the area where your story takes place. Prepare a meal or a dessert from the region. Do an art project, fill in a outline map, research games of the region and play them, listen to a tape of the language from the library, check out a travel video and plan an imaginary vacation trip there.


Younger kids really enjoy puzzles. Did you know the earliest known jigsaw puzzle was done of maps? Color an outline map of the USA or of any continent. Cover with contact paper and cut along political boundaries. You now have a map puzzle all your own.

Hey, I know this probably goes without saying, but for some reason I can't help myself, so let me offer this warning. Although I've given these ideas directly to you in this article I really mean for your children to perform all the work. Don't be tempted to do these things yourself. Let the kids color, write, mix, knead, cut, bake, eat and paint. (And don't forget to use this opportunity to let them learn to clean up after themselves!)