Greening Geography — Connecting Students to Their World

Helping students connect, by greening geography, to the world of their backyard, their schoolyard, their community, their bioregion and their nation and the whole planet ... ah, what a gift. And to do this with the sustainability of communities and the Earth in mind
... what a transformative gift!
This is what greening geography is all about.

Since the beginning of humankind, the study of geography has captured the imagination of the people. In ancient times, geography books extolled tales of distant lands and dreamed-of treasures. The ancient Greeks created the word "geography" from the roots "" for earth and "graphia" for writing. These people experienced many adventures and needed a way to explain and communicate the differences between various lands.
— Matt Rosenberg

I would like to share two anecdotes with you to show that geography — "writing the earth" — is part of everyday life, and we need to honour it as such, instead of viewing it as "just another subject" with no special place or impact within sustainability education.

  • The other day, a friend of mine ran into a stranger who was visiting our community. This man lives in the town where my friend lived when her children were quite young. This chance meeting caused a rush of fond memories for her, so she phoned her eldest to reminisce. "The fellow I met lives on Such-and-Such Street," she told her son. "Do you remember it?" To which his reply was magical: "Mom, I don't remember the names of the streets in our old neighbourhood. I just remember where all my friends lived, and all the places where we played, and all the shortcuts in between."

As my friend recounted that story, it struck me — THIS is geography as children experience it, as they live it! This is what environmental education guru David Sobel calls "a sense of place."

In the beginning, children's maps represent their experiences of beauty, secrecy, adventure, and comfort. With these affective endeavors as a foundation, I then gradually start to focus on scale, location, direction, and geographic relationships. The development of emotional bonds and cognitive skills needs to go hand in hand in my approach to developmentally appropriate social studies and geography.
— David Sobel

As if to prove that children love mapmaking, here is my second anecdote.

  • I was talking with my best childhood friend recently and it came up in conversation how much she absolutely loved the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics website. After a bit of probing from me, she admitted that, along with its ease of navigation, it was the site's colour scheme that grabbed her. The blue and green reminded her of school days and geography class and mapmaking ... colouring a fringe of blue around the oceans and lakes, and a fringe of green inside all the land forms. (Memories came flooding back for me, too!)

Who would have thought that making maps in geography class during elementary school could influence something so unrelated decades later? It's because geography is our walking (physical geography) and our talking (cultural geography), and it touches so many everyday aspects of our lives. Indeed, a textbook definition of geography might be "the study of the physical features of the Earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these." Now there's a definition — and a subject area — that doesn't leave anybody out!

If a major goal of green schools is to model how core ecological and environmental concepts can be applied to create sustainable human communities, then greening geography is the perfect way to do this, and geography class is the perfect place and time.

Geography teachers can contribute to greening geography and transformative sustainability education by helping their students

  1. do walkabouts as often as possible (once a week, every month, or once per season at least) to observe changes in physical features of their environment
  2. map their "known world" (as David Sobel calls it) through hands-on, feet-on explorations — in their backyard, the schoolyard, even their classroom and the whole school
  3. develop a sense of place, scope, and perspective by mapping the neighbourhood
  4. explore their region and country, the planet and human-created borders and boundaries, even the solar system, through mapping and research
  5. create raised relief maps and contour maps to develop visual literacy and spatial reasoning skills (see Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years, by David Sobel)

  6. learn first-hand which way water flows (after a rainfall, in ditches and streams, through sewers) in their neighbourhood (it's hard for children to picture their watershed if they can't picture which way water flows)
  7. learn the history and usefulness of the "ecological footprint" concept
  8. explore how the geography of the school limits or facilitates renewable energy installations, and which types will be most efficient and cost effective
  9. determine uses of geography that contribute to sustainability (for example, siting wind turbines) and those that contribute to unsustainability (locating further fossil fuel reserves)
  10. learn to use GPS (Global Positioning System) to site different landmarks such as trees in the schoolyard or parks in the neighbourhood, and GIS (Geographic Information System, a more complex mapping technology that is connected to a particular database) for keeping track of this information
  11. create a "geographically correct" map and booklet about the different natural features in the schoolyard

Greening Geography and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) — Resources

What follows are resources that focus on greening geography and integrating it with education for sustainable development (ESD), with discussion pieces and/or teaching ideas.

The best part of geography for me is that it gives us the opportunity to get "out there," to experience and sense the world and to interpret what we see. This is a good starting point for understanding our world and our role in helping to shape the future, as well as providing the basis for imagining alternative futures.

— John Lyon

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