Learning Geography The Montessori Way

“The purpose of geography is to provide ‘a view of the whole’ earth by mapping the location of places.” ~ Ptolemy, 150 CE

Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician established a unique education method that uses concrete materials to teach abstract concepts. From her extensive work with school age children in the early 1900s, she concluded that children between the ages of seven to twelve are in The Years of Plenty.  She observed that the elementary child is poised to learn about his place in society and begins to develop a keen sense of morals. The child’s sense of judgement starts unfolding, and armed with a grounded moral base of knowing good from bad and right from wrong, the child learns to find a purpose in society. This is the age for the child to learn social norms and develop relationships. Dr. Montessori discovered that the elementary age child with a strong body has a curious mind and can travel far in his imagination. What then, should the teacher do for him?

Dr. Montessori designed the geography curriculum to give the child an experience of a rich culture. In a Montessori Elementary Environment the teacher presents a ‘Whole view of the Universe” leading methodically to the child’s immediate community. The teacher carefully prepares the geography shelf with a lessons about the Formation of the Universe, the Solar System, the Earth, and introduces the child to the globe and maps of the world. The shelf also holds a world map, political and biome maps of the continents, flags of various countries, many resources for research including the atlas, books about flora and fauna from different biomes, and people of the world and their cultures. They include land and water forms of the world, and additional materials to learn about the plants and animals of the world.

The curious child, whose imagination is captured by stories of early men, fascinating lands and lost civilizations explores the geography shelf with interest and chooses a continent to study. As the child traces the puzzle map, and labels the countries and capitals carefully, and uses the various books to add details to the map, he discovers physical features and learns interesting facts about the lifeforms that inhabit the land. This discovery happens subconsciously during the long uninterrupted work time where the child is free to immerse in deep learning.

Cartography, the act of making maps in the elementary classroom is a long process. The child learns to trace the outlines carefully and color the various parts neatly. This is a calming exercise, allowing the child to focus on his thoughts. The child begins to internalize the various facts that he comes across while looking up details to add to the map. Empowered by his own love for learning, the child begins to memorize facts about the continent. Within few hours of engaging in the activity, the student begins to share his discoveries with peers and teachers. This impromptu exchange of ideas is contagious in the classroom and inspires other students in the classroom to conduct their own research. Over the course of the year, these young cartographers develop expertise in various aspects of geography. Some memorize names of all countries and their capitals, others challenge themselves to match the flags to the countries, while others learn to name animals of the continents. 

This kind of spontaneous learning is important in laying the foundation for future studies in geography. Students who understand their world grow up to appreciate the world around them, and participate in creating a healthy community, making the world a better place to live.

Rupali Sharma, Founder and Director of The T.E.C. Schools, Worcester, MA.

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