Indian American parents often bemoan the fact that Geography is not taught in American schools. Certainly it seems that no tangible benefit can arise from a study of this subject and career options in the field seem non-existent; how many of us have even heard of a “geographer?”

Yet, this subject is of particular importance to immigrant families, with geography and the wider branches of social studies playing a surprising part in the social, intellectual, and personal development of our children.

Current research in pedagogical science has proven that an appreciation of cultures, countries and languages has diverse benefits ranging from appearing to delay the onset of certain diseases to enhanced social inter-action and self-esteem! Geography leads children to observe and appreciate the world around them; it helps them make wise choices about their environment, and to relate more meaningfully to people from other lands and cultures.

Recognizing the importance of maintaining and fostering cultural heritage, our country has now moved from analogizing itself as the homogeneous blending of a “melting pot” to the distinct diversity of a “salad bowl,” valuing acculturation over assimilation.
Our children are in the unique position of experiencing firsthand two major cultures. How can parents maximize this natural advantage? Here are some strategies and resources that have helped me.

Gaming Theory

My kids can be every kind of pest but unfortunately could never be accused of being bookworms; they’re more likely to burn up bandwidth than burn the midnight oil.
So getting them to use some of that online time for geography games was easier than plonking an atlas before them. Computer games as learning tools are increasingly gaining acceptance and two online resources I liked were ilike2learn.com and sheppardsoftware.com. These inter-active sites present factual knowledge and work well for upper elementary and middle school children, with content grouped into easy categories such as rivers, continents, mountains, etc. These sites have been cleverly labeled as learning games, with children clicking on a “play” button for each level. The child progresses to the next level only after mastering content so assessment becomes easy for the parent. Do give these “games” a go!

It’s The Tempest!

When my son recently asked, “Why do I need to learn Shakespeare? I’m never going to use it in my life!” I should have retorted, “Son, into each life some rain must fall, and in your case it’s the Tempest!

But seriously, when our kids question the relevance of any learning content, it’s sometimes hard to come up with a satisfying response. The truth is that both teachers and parents need to make learning as relevant as possible, and one way parents can help is by incorporating Geography into their child’s day as often as possible; get your kindergartner to look up the weather map in the newspaper every day, ask your middle-schooler to research your holiday destination. As Indian Americans, our children are quite literally more “worldly-wise” than their peers and opportunities abound in their daily lives to connect with geography, be it calculating time-zones when calling Grandma, or celebrating ethnic festivals.

The Glossies

As much as I like online learning, I can’t deny it gave me a pang to hear that theEncyclopedia Britannica had published their printed edition for the last time a year ago. I guess those weighty hardcover tomes didn’t quite cut it with Gen-Y kids. A recent survey of 6-14 year-olds revealed that one in ten think an encyclopedia is something you cook with, travel on, use to catch a ball, or used to perform an operation. Really!

But magazines such as the National Geographic and The Smithsonian are a different kettle of fish. Cleverly understanding that a picture is worth a thousand words, these magazines have crammed their pages with breath-taking illustrations that captivate both children and adults. Consider subscribing to these magazines. These journals aren’t just limited to geography, but offer content broadly covering the entire umbrella of social studies. These magazines come with versions suitable for younger kids as well and even children who don’t read yet will love looking at the pictures.

Collecting Change

When my daughter felt the tooth fairy had dealt her a raw deal by leaving her a dollar bill instead of a shiny quarter, I knew I was onto a good thing! She needed little encouragement to start her own coin collection, especially after the U.S. Mint produced those fantastic state quarters. A close examination of these commemorative coins offers an opportunity for interesting research into the fifty states. Indeed, any collection, rock, shell, or coin is replete with learning opportunities. Tell your kids these coins are going out of circulation fast and you’ll have them begging for change!

Linking Cultures

Straddling two diverse cultures can be challenging for our children, who sometimes perceive the adherence to native culture as a deterrent to social acceptance among peers. Making connections between cultures will help them acquire the knowledge and skills required to “walk in two worlds.” They will learn to recognize and cope with cross-cultural values that often seem at odds with each other. Ask your child to find parallels between their cultures such as in the celebrations of Thanksgiving and Pongal/Sankranthi, both celebrating harvest and nature’s bounty (some kids may even make the connection between the over-flowing pot and the cornucopia).

As our world gets increasingly globalized, and the earth metaphorically flattens and shrinks, geographical boundaries may become less relevant, but cultural differences will always remain, and an awareness and understanding of the different physical and cultural characteristics of people and places will become integral to our children’s success.

Gayathri Chakravarthy lives in Cupertino, CA and has been teaching Math for over 12 years in public schools in California, Australia, and India.

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