Charlotte Mason on Teaching Geography


Excerpted from Charlotte Mason’s 6-Volume Series
Home Education (Vol 1)
Part V. Lessons As Instruments Of Education –  XVII. Geography


Geography is, to my mind, a subject of high educational value; though not because it affords the means of scientific training. Geography does present its problems, and these of the most interesting, and does afford materials for classification; but it is physical geography only which falls within the definition of a science, and even that is rather a compendium of the results of several sciences than a science itself. But the peculiar value of geography lies in its fitness to nourish the mind with ideas, and to furnish the imagination with pictures. Herein lies the educational value of geography.

As Commonly Taught

Now, how is the subject commonly taught? The child learns the names of the capital cities of Europe, or of the rivers of England, or of the mountain-summits of Scotland, from some miserable text-book, with length in miles, and height in feet, and population, finding the names on his map or not, according as his teacher is more or less up to her work. Poor little fellow! the lesson is hard work to him; but as far as education goes––that is, the developing of power, the furnishing of the mind––he would be better employed in watching the progress of a fly across the window-pane.

But, you will say, geography has a further use than this strictly educative one; everybody wants the sort of information which the geography lesson should afford. That is true, and is to be borne in mind in the schoolroom; the child’s geography lesson should furnish just the sort of information which grown-up people care to possess. Now, do think how unreasonable we are in this matter; nothing will persuade us to read a book of travel unless it be interesting, graphic, with a spice of personal adventure. Even when we are going about with Murray in hand, we skip the dry facts and figures, and read the suggestive pictorial scraps; these are the sorts of things we like to know, and remember with ease. But none of this pleasant padding for the poor child, if you please; do not let him have little pictorial sentences that he may dream over; facts and names and figures––these are the pabulum for him!

Geography Should Be Interesting

But, you say, this sort of knowledge, though it may be a labour to the child to acquire it, is useful in after life. Not a bit of it; and for this reason––it has never been really received by the brain at all; has never got further than the floating nebulae of mere verbal memory of which I have already had occasion to speak. Most of us have gone through a good deal of drudgery in the way of ‘geography’ lessons, but how much do we remember? Just the pleasant bits we heard from travelled friends, about the Rhine, or Paris, or Venice, or bits from The Voyages of Captain Cook, or other pleasant tales of travel and adventure. We begin to see the lines we must go upon in teaching geography: for educative purposes, the child must learn such geography, and in such a way, that his mind shall thereby be stored with ideas, his imagination with images; for practical purposes he must learn such geography only as, the nature of his mind considered, he will be able to remember; in other words, he must learn what interests him. The educative and the practical run in one groove, and the geography lesson becomes the most charming occupation of the child’s day.

How to Begin

But, how to begin? In the first place, the child gets his rudimentary notions of geography as he gets his first notions of natural science, in those long hours out of doors of which we have already seen the importance. A pool fed by a mere cutting in the fields will explain the nature of a lake, will carry the child to the lovely lakes of the Alps, to Livingstone’s great African lake, in which he delighted to see his children ‘paidling’––”his own children ‘paidling’ in his own lake.” In this connection will come in a great deal of pleasant talk about places, ‘pictorial geography,’ until the child knows by name and nature the great rivers and mountains, deserts and plains, the cities and countries of the world. At the same time, he gets his first notions of a map from a rude sketch, a mere few lines and dots, done with pencil and paper, or, better still, with a stick in the sand or gravel. ‘This crooked line is the Rhine; but you must imagine the rafts, and the island with the Mouse Tower, and the Nuns’ Island, and the rest. Here are the hills, with their ruined castles––now on this side, now on that. This dot is Cologne,’ etc. Especially, let these talks cover all the home scenery and interests you are acquainted with, so that, by-and-by, when he looks at the map of England, he finds a score of familiar names which suggest landscapes to him––places where ‘mother has been,’––the woody, flowery islets of the Thames; the smooth Sussex downs, delightful to run and roll upon, with soft carpet of turf and nodding harebells; the York or Devon moors, with bilberries and heather:––and always give him a rough sketch-map of the route you took in a given journey.

What Next?

Give him next intimate knowledge, with the fullest details, of any country or region of the world, any county or district of his own country. It is not necessary that he should learn at this stage what is called the ‘geography’ of the countries of Europe, the continents of the world—mere strings of names for the most part: he may learn these, but it is tolerably certain that he will not remember them. But let him be at home in any single region; let him see, with the mind’s eye, the people at their work and at their play, the flowers and fruits in their seasons, the beasts, each in its habitat; and let him see all sympathetically, that is, let him follow the adventures of a traveler; and he knows more, is better furnished with ideas, than if he had learnt all the names on all the maps. The ‘way’ of this kind of teaching is very simple and obvious; read to him, or read for him, that is, read bit by bit, and tell as you read, Hartwig’s Tropical World, the same author’s Polar World, Livingstone’s missionary travels, Mrs. Bishop’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan––in fact, any interesting, well-written book of travel. It may be necessary to leave out a good deal, but every illustrative anecdote, every bit of description, is so much towards the child’s education. Here, as elsewhere, the question is, not how many things does he know, but how much does he know about each thing.


Maps must be carefully used in this type of work,––a sketch-map following the traveler’s progress, to be compared finally with a complete map of the region; and the teacher will exact a description of such and such a town, and such and such a district, marked on the map, by way of testing and confirming the child’s exact knowledge. In this way, too, he gets intelligent notions of physical geography; in the course of his readings he falls in with a description of a volcano, a glacier, a [canyon], a hurricane; he hears all about, and asks and learns the how and the why, of such phenomena at the moment when his interest is excited. In other words, he learns as his elders elect to learn for themselves, though they rarely allow the children to tread in paths so pleasant.

What General Knowledge a Child of Nine Should Have

Supposing that between the child’s sixth and his ninth year half a dozen well-chosen standard books of travel have been read with him in this way, he has gained distinct ideas of the contours, the productions, and the manners of the people, of every great region of the world; has laid up a store of reliable, valuable knowledge, that will last his lifetime; and besides, has done something to acquire a taste for books and the habit of reading. Such books as Lady Brassey’s Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’ should be avoided, as covering too much ground, and likely to breed some confusion of ideas.

Particular Knowledge

But we are considering lessons as ‘Instruments of Education;’ and the sort of knowledge of the world I have indicated will be conveyed rather by readings in the ‘Children’s Hour’ and at other times than by way of lessons. I know of nothing so good as the old-fashioned World at Home by Mary and Elizabeth Kirby (for lessons) for children between six and seven. As they hear, they wonder, admire, imagine, and can even ‘play at’ a hundred situations. The first ideas of geography, the lessons on place, which should make a child observant of local geography, of the features of his own neighbourhood, its heights and hollows, and level lands, its streams and ponds, should be gained, as we have seen, out of doors, and should prepare him for a certain amount of generalisation––that is, he should be able to discover definitions of river, island, lake, and so on, and should make these for himself in a tray of sand, or draw them on the blackboard.


But definitions should come in the way of recording his experiences. Before he is taught what a river is, he must have watched a stream and observed that it flows; and so on with the rest.

Children easily simulate knowledge, and at this point the teacher will have to be careful that nothing which the child receives is mere verbiage, but that every generalisation is worked out somewhat in this way:––The child observes a fact, as, for example, a wide stretch of flat ground; the teacher amplifies. He reads in his book about Pampas, the flat countries of the north-west of Europe, the Holland of our own eastern coast, and, by degrees, he is prepared to receive the idea of a plain, and to show it on his tray of sand.

Fundamental Ideas

By the time he is seven, or before, he finds himself in need of further knowledge. He has read of hot countries and cold countries, has observed the seasons and the rising and setting of the sun, has said to himself––

     “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
      How I wonder what you are!”––

Knows something of ocean and sea, has watched the tide come in and go out, has seen many rough sketch-maps made and has made some for himself, and has, no doubt, noticed the criss-cross lines on a ‘proper’ map; that is to say, his mind is prepared for knowledge in various directions; there are a number of things concerned with geography which he really wants to know.

The shape and motions of the earth are fundamental ideas, however difficult to grasp, but the difficulty is of a kind which increases with years. The principle in each case is simple enough, and a child does not concern himself, as do his elders, with the enormous magnitude of the scale upon which operations in space are carried on. It is probable that a child’s vivid imagination puts him on a level with the mathematician in dealing with the planetary system, with the behaviour and character of Earth, with the causes of the seasons, and much besides.

Meaning of a Map

Then, again, geography should be learned chiefly from maps. Pictorial readings and talks introduce him to the subject, but so soon as his geography lessons become definite they are to be learned, in the first place, from the map. This is an important principle to bear in mind. The child who gets no ideas from considering the map, say of Italy or of Russia, has no knowledge of geography, however many facts about places he may be able to produce. Therefore he should begin this study by learning the meaning of a map and how to use it. He must learn to draw a plan of his schoolroom, etc., according to scale, go on to the plan of a field, consider how to make the plan of his town, and be carried gradually from the idea of a plan to that of a map; always beginning with the notion of an explorer who finds the land and measures it, and by means of sun and stars, is able to record just where it is on the earth’s surface, east or west, north or south.
Now he will arrive at the meaning of the lines of latitude and longitude. He will learn how sea and land are shown on a map, how rivers and mountains are represented; and having learned his points of direction and the use of his compass, and knowing that maps are always made as if the beholder were looking to the north, he will be able to tell a good deal about situation, direction, and the like, in very early days.

The fundamental ideas of geography and the meaning of a map are subjects well fitted to form an attractive introduction to the study. Some of them should awaken the delightful interest which attaches in a child’s mind to that which is wonderful, incomprehensible, while the map lessons should lead to mechanical efforts equally delightful. It is only when presented to the child for the first time in the form of stale knowledge and foregone conclusions that the facts taught in such lessons appear dry and repulsive to him. An effort should be made to treat the subject with the sort of sympathetic interest and freshness which attracts children to a new study.

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