Physical Geography for Elementary School Students

learning by-the-wayWe talked about geography recently over at A Delectable Education podcast, but as we try to limit each episode to a reasonable bite-sized morsel, there are times when we have to leave something out that one of us really wanted to focus on.  For me, and my ever-present science focus, it was the details Mason provided us regarding physical geography for elementary students.

It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields. There are few towns where country of some sort is not accessible, and every child should have the opportunity of watching from week to week, the procession of the seasons.

Geography, geology, the course of the sun, the behaviour of the clouds, weather signs, all that the ‘open’ has to offer, are made use of in these walks; but all is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur.” (vol 3 p. 237)

Mason points out that geography for the young child should mostly be taught by-the-way. Instead of treating geography solely as a book subject at this age, we should be outside looking at a little creek and then comparing it to the great rivers of the world, or looking at a hill and comparing it to the great mountain ranges. She called this pictorial geography, which was just a way to use something accessible to us to foster the child’s imagination about other things in the world which they couldn’t see. She even said that, “There are certain ideas which children must get from within a walking radius of their own home if ever they are to have a real understanding of maps and of geographical terms.” (vol 1 p. 73)

Mason outlines the order in which each concept should be covered, and interestingly, each idea builds on another until the abstract ideas of direction, weather, and distance come together in a very tangible way for children. The following list is in the order she suggests presenting these ideas to our children:

  • The position of the sun in the sky as the day goes by, and how it helps us know what time of day it is. They can even note, in their nature journals, the time and location of sunrise and sunset over the course of a year, to see how it changes. They can be made to notice that when the sun is high in the sky on a summer day, it’s much warmer than when the sun is low in the sky in the middle of a winter afternoon. They may also notice the difference these things make for their shadow.
  • They can even learn a little about the size of the sun and the earth and the fact that the earth moves around the sun. Mason explains that these concepts, while abstract, can be of interest to a child who has a great deal of imagination and faith in seemly impossible things. (I just love that.)
  • They can learn basic information about the weather as it is experienced, again noting it in their nature journal.
  • They can learn about distance, by measuring the steps it takes to walk a certain path near your home. By measuring how many feet are covered by one of their steps, they can calculate the distance of a certain walk just by counting their steps.
  • Once they understand the concept of distance they can learn the time it takes to cover a certain distance, and they can calculate the distance of a walk based on how long it took.
  • Once they understand the progress of the sun, and a little about distance, the concept of direction-north, south, east and west-can be introduced, by coaching the child to stand with his right arm out toward the east (where the sun rises,) his left to the west (where the sun sets,) and his face pointed toward the north. Of course, then south is behind him. Then he can determine things like which side of his house faces south.
  • After this, they will be ready to notice which direction the wind is blowing, by noticing which way the smoke from a chimney is going, or even which way a bit of dirt or grass falls when tossed in the air. You can tell them that the same way we are labeled by where we come from, (American’s come from America,) the wind is labeled by where it comes from. So for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the “North wind doth blow” from the north, bringing with it cold air, and the south wind brings warmer air.
  • Following this basic understanding about directions, they can be introduced to the compass, and learn to use it to find direction.
  • At this point they can use their understanding of direction to accurately describe boundaries. They can say, our property is bordered by a corn field on the north side and main street is the south boundary of our yard.
  • All the while they should be noticing what kinds of crops grow nearby, what animals are raised locally, and what kinds of rocks and trees can be found in the neighborhood.
  • This culminates in the child drawing maps of various areas studied. They don’t have to draw them on paper, at least not at first, but rather they can be drawn in the dirt with a stick. They can note the boundaries and various structures, or where there is tree cover or a meadow. They can also note where north, south, east and west is on their map. They may find it hard to draw their map to scale at first, but eventually they will learn about to pace off a boundary and allow an inch for 10 feet or some such.

Each of these things, the sun, weather, distance, direction and boundaries, is covered by-the-way. There is no specific curriculum to follow, but you can see that by taking them generally in the order outlined above, one idea will lay the groundwork for the understanding of another idea. The only requirement is that you do need to spend ample time outside with your children, and that you are deliberate about noticing all there is to notice about the geography of where you are at. Each day you and your children will find something new to notice. One day the wind is blowing, but from which direction? And then the next day it’s snowing. The western boundary of trees blocks some of the snow, but the meadow is covered evenly. The sun comes out the next day, making the snow sparkle, but it is low in the sky, and therefore does not produce enough heat to melt the snow. And on and on it goes. All of this lays the foundation for learning the geography of other places later on by the use of maps.

Physical Geography Books:

Form I (grades 1-3,) has 10 minutes, twice a week allocated on the morning schedule to book work for geography, and form II (grades 4-6,) has 20 minutes, twice a week. I would use one of those two time slots for a physical geography book. You could certainly use Mason’s first geography book (online), or you could use several short books on various topics. You might even want to see if your library has them available. Some of my favorites are below:

What Makes a Shadow? by Clyde Bulla (LRFO 1)
What Makes Day and Night by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 1)
Sun Up, Sun Down by Gail Gibbons
Energy from the Sun by Melvin Berger (LRFO)
Follow the Sunset by Herman and Nina Schneider
The Moon Seems to Change by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 2)
North, South, East, and West by Franklyn Mansfield Branley (LRFO)

The Planets in Our Solar System by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 2)
What the Moon is Like by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 2)
The Sky Is Full of Stars by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 2)
The Sun: Our Nearest Star by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 2)

On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World’s Weather by Marilyn Singer
Dear Rebecca, Winter Is Here by Jean Craighead George
Sunshine Makes the Seasons by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 2)
What Will the Weather Be? by Lynda DeWitt (LRFO 2)

Close to the Wind: The Beaufort Scale by Peter Malone
Feel the Wind by Arthur Dorros (LRFO 2)

Clouds by Anne Rockwell (LRFO 1)
Not only for ducks: The story of rain by Glenn Orlando Blough
Rain and Hail by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO)
Flash, Crash, Rumble, and Roll by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 2)
Down Comes the Rain by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 2)
A Drop Of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder by Walter Wick

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
AND Snowflakes in Photographs by W. A. Bentley (a book of Bentley’s photographs)
The Big Storm by Bruce Hiscock
Snow by Thelma Harrington Bell
Snow Is Falling by Franklyn M. Branley (LRFO 1)

How Mountains Are Made by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld (LRFO 2)
Follow the Water from Brook to Ocean by Arthur Dorros (LRFO 2)
How a Rock Came to be in a Fence on a Road Near a Town by Hy Ruchlis


For Reference or further reading on this subject, read Mason’s own words in Home Education (vol 1), part 2, ch 9: Out-Of-Door Geography, pp. 71-78

40 thoughts on “Physical Geography for Elementary School Students

  1. Laurie Gardner

    Love, love, love the website! It looks amazing! I also want to thank you for putting so much time and energy into Science. What you have been putting together is wonderful.

  2. Catie

    Thanks SO much for all the great book recommendations!! 🙂 I’m saving this list for sure!

    I’ve also really appreciated the DE podcasts – thank you!

  3. Kelly Ann

    Hi Nicole,
    Am I right that there is overlap with physical geography and science/nature? I am looking over the booklist here and seeing how they could fit in with elementary science.

    Thank you!

    1. Nicole Post author

      I’m sorry RuthAnn. Those are Let’s Read and Find Out books. (LRFO) They are typically reprints of older books that are by good authors, so not only can you find them readily, but they are usually good quality living books. Most are a reading level between grade 1 and 4. But I do find they are a great supplement now and then to an older child’s studies.

      1. RuthAnn

        No problem, Nicole. I know exactly what you are talking about now, but I couldn’t place the abbreviation before. Thanks for clarifying.

  4. Laurie

    I glanced at CM’s early geography book and sighed. This is probably horrible, but I was bored with the first page. Maybe because it was so focued on Europe. I am also thinking of a first grader, we are not there yet, and keeping it simple. This does njot feel simple to me. I love, love, love all the other book recommendations. Have you ever looked at A Geography Primer that AO mentions. Not quite a living book, but seems simpler to me for the one day book and then something on the list that coincides for the other day. As i have not started HS yet this is all speculation that I am trying to have a handle on BEFORE we begin. Thanks you your hard work.

    1. Nicole Post author

      I’m wondering if you were looking at CM’s second geography book, which is focused on the English counties. Her first one starts with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and other simple poems, where the sun is,
      the earth’s zones, etc. It is very simple. Remember that resources like this should only be used very sporadically, if at all, in year 1, maybe a little in year 2. It’s more year 3 material. I’m not sure what primer you are referring to on AO?

      It is wonderful that you are trying to get a handle on all of this BEFORE you start homeschooling. It will bless your children. I hope you are spending a lot of time reading CM’s volumes 1 and 2. They both are so valuable toward your understanding the foundation of Mason’s principles. There have been several moms in my book group who have children that are not of school age yet. Again, what a blessing you will be to your children!

    1. Kelly

      Hi Nicole,
      I am continuing to think on this question. My son will be in the last year of Form II this autumn. He has a good grasp on many of the elementary topics (but he may listen in when I read them to my 8yo). Do you think a study of maps could work for my 11yo? We have used maps before but never really studied them in depth. I’m planning to read Halliburton’s Book of Marvels to both boys as our geography “story” and will continue to do map drill.

      Thank you for any help you can give!

    2. Nicole Post author

      Once children are in form 2 (grades 4-6,) real science begins. I say that a bit tongue in cheek, because the observation they are doing in form 1 (grades 1-3) is VITAL to any later science understanding, and should continue throughout their education, (and hopefully their whole life.) That said, physical geography turns into the study of “earth science” once science is added to the curriculum. The study of weather, astronomy, geology, and water, becomes an entire science discipline. So, hopefully that helps clarify that while they are in form 1, physical geography should have the air of nature study.

      1. Nicole Post author

        In regard to your older son, if he hasn’t had the physical geography foundation that a form 1 student should have done, then you will want to run through those basics with him. It happens so frequently that our children that begin a CM education late, miss some of those foundational materials. They can be gotten through rather quickly, and it is worth the time to establish that foundation. Then you can begin map work, and the map will make so much more sense to him.

        Map work should be part of your geography studies, which is different from physical geography, but you can see how it all ties together. While you read Halliburton, track his voyage on a world map. (As a side note, if that book doesn’t get everyone excited, ditch it for Halliburton’s Seven League Boots. We enjoyed that one so much more! And in that case, print a copy of a map of Europe and track Hannibal’s travels.)

      2. Kelly

        This is so very helpful, Nicole. Every day I inch closer to pulling this all together! When I look at your Physical Geography booklist, I have covered many of these topics with my older son, but I did not require enough narration. I think we will do a brush-up on a few of the topics and he can also sit in on the lessons with my Form I child, too. I finally feel like we have a plan for science and I could not be more excited. Your website has been critical to forming that CM foundation!

        Thank you,

        1. Nicole Post author

          Kelly, I am so pleased that I have been able to be a help to you. Depending on your older son’s reading level, you might even ask him to read some of the basic books to your younger child. I used to do that with my “big kids”. They had missed so much in their early education, but to have them read one of Hollings’ books like Tree in the Trail or Paddle to the Sea was a bit insulting to them. Instead, I enlisted their help with the little kids by having them read from one book each day to them. Sometimes it was history, other times science or literature, but in every case, they were getting some of that foundational material that I felt would be very beneficial to their education. Besides, Mason was all about Citizenship, and it’s a way for the big kids to be of service to the family. Just a thought.

  5. Laurie

    Kelly, i have not looked beyond form I as we are just getting ready for it. I had to check my files, but the one I mentioned is Home Geography for Primary Grades by CC Long. It is a free file download. Since this will be my first child part of me is still figuring out exactly what i need to touch upon at every level. While history is a repeat delving into tougher topics is the true same for geography? Do you continue to study the continents further in depth? That would be a great discussion for all the subjects. One example is that in art I might not circle back to the same artist we covered in grade 1 because there are so many, same for music, but yes to history for cycling. A whole podcast in itself!

    Do we need a spine for geography? Would it work to read all the other great books and look at maps and plot out courses between the areas we are already learning? I admit i get bored with lists of lots of names thrown at me at once so i like the idea of incoporating it with other subjects. We do that with animals talking about where they are from and while i do not expect the four year old to know where those places are I hope as we start looking at maps and after the first grade he will start understanding, but I am optomistic with no practical experience, yet.

    1. Laurie

      Oops, sorry Kelly. Your message came through my email and on the ipad and I thought you were adressing me. I figured you were helping Nicole with the blog, but then i realized you were also asking a question.

  6. Morgan

    So what would you do for the other 10 min geography slot in form I? Travelers tales so you can incorporate maps? Or is there something else I am not understanding? Also-could you give some examples of travelers tales for form I?

    Thank you so much for this post! It is so helpful!!

    1. Nicole Post author

      Form 1 and 2 students have 2 geography slots and one map slot per week. (Take a peek at my Matrix to see clarification.) Physical geography, taught “by-the-way” as I mention above, was typically done during an afternoon nature walk. But I’m suggesting that one of the time slots for geography could be used to further this knowledge, by reading something about the, sun for example. The other time slot should still be used for regular geography. Books like Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling or a short book about your own state. I hope that answers your question.

      1. Morgan

        Ok I just want to be sure I understand form I (based on this post and the podcast)
        1 10 min slot: geography book like Holling
        1 10 min slot: geography related book like about the sun, shadows, weather, etc.
        1 map slot: starting with yard/house and moving outward to neighborhood, then county, then state

        Physical geography (from Charlotte Masons geography book or other similar source) done ‘by the way’ during nature walks in the afternoons

        Do I have this right?

        1. Nicole Post author

          That looks good. You can even bump those form 1 students up to 15 minutes if you would like. Then you can do any map work during that same time, rather than have an extra slot. Mason suggested making maps in the dirt with a stick in these early years, so that can be part of your nature walk also.

  7. Katie Fisher

    Thank you so much for your book suggestions. Having looked through them, I recently bought Peter Malone’s Close to the Wind for my 6 y.o. who currently has a fascination for the Beaufort Scale. It was just the right book for him and even better because I’d been on the lookout for books about old-fashioned sailing ships.

  8. Tina Paul

    Thanks for the resources! I am beginning to introduce these ideas to my 7 year old. I look forward to utilizing this great list of physical geography books. However, I understand that I should be including map work. Honestly, I am really unsure how to practically do this. Any advice or resources how to start doing map work with my 7 year old? Thanks so much!

    1. Nicole Post author

      You’ll notice in my list that there are things that must come before starting map work, such as understanding north, south, east and west, as well as understanding what makes a boundary. Mason’s always assigned the reading of Ambleside Geography Book, Book I in the programs, which took the students through an understanding of these concepts (a book that has been reprinted, by the way,) and then she assigned something like “Describe and tell the boundaries of six fields,” over the course of a term. In 2nd and 3rd grade questions like “Pace and make plans of your schoolroom, the distance to front gate and 10 yards on each of 4 roads,” where put to them. She also directed that age student to scouting tests, which included questions like “Know all the mountains and lakes seen from some elevated point of view : or be able to make from memory an accurate map of your county.” or “By a rough sketch map, direct a stranger to any place he may wish to find within a five mile radius of your home ; or, in towns, be able to direct a stranger to any of the principal buildings or streets.” or “Understand the signs used in common maps and in Ordnance Survey Maps.” So you can see that you can pick just one thing to work on each term, once your student has the basics down.

      Start with the basics mentioned in this article, which eventually includes map drawn in the dirt with a stick. The basics allow maps to have meaning later on. Its similar to wanting your child to understand what 5 x 6 means rather than simply rote memorizing it. I hope that helps just a little?


      1. Tina Paul

        Thanks for your response! It does help, especially the point about choosing one thing to work on each term after we have the basics down. However, I feel that I have no knowledge of how to make maps or the like, so I feel very unsure how to teach even the things you mentioned. I see many online recommend a book Me on the Map. I thought this might be helpful for me to understand how map making works? I wish I had some teaching manual to walk me through the process as everything you have shared makes so much sense and I really want to implement it.

        Also, since we are beginning Paddle-to-the-Sea would it be too much to follow along on a map, even if we haven’t covered the basics?

        1. Nicole Post author

          I think you should definitely follow any character on a map if the text provides for is. It is the very best way to learn geography. Regarding Me on the Map, I have never seen it, so I can’t say either way. I’ve also heard of one called Mapmaking With Children by David Sobel, but again, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment. I think I would start with Mason’s own geography reader and then maybe check those 2 out from the library to peruse. Maybe one of them will be perfect? Even if you don’t use them with your kids, they might build up your confidence in this area.

          1. Tina Paul

            Great! I will check them out and see how it goes! Thanks for your encouragement and wisdom in this area!

  9. Allie Swalberg

    I’m sorry if you have already answered this question, but I was wondering if you have any suggestions for maps. Would just a map of our country and the world be good enough, or would you recommend an atlas? If so, any particular one?

    1. Nicole Post author

      Starting in form 1a (gr.2) Mason required that each child have their own atlas. I don’t have a recommendation though. I am a map-lover, so I really like having a world and country map up in my house too, but that’s just my wish.


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