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Remember thumbing through an atlas or encyclopedia as a child, imagining yourself as a world traveler on a safari in Africa, or boating up the Mississippi River, climbing the peaks of the Himalayas, visiting ancient cathedrals and castles of Europe, the Great Wall of China? We do. The world seemed full of faraway, exotic, and wonderful places that we wanted to know more about.

Today, we would like to believe that youngsters are growing up similarly inquisitive about the world. Perhaps they are, but recent studies and reports indicate that, if such imaginings are stirring in our youngsters, they're not being translated into knowledge. Not that there ever was a "golden age" when all our young and all our citizens were conversant about the peoples and places of the globe. Still, there is considerable evidence that such knowledge among young Americans has dipped to an alarming low.

Young Americans knew measurably less geography than Americans 25 years of age and over. Only in the United States did 18- to 24-year-olds know less than people 55 years old and over; in all eight other nations, young adults knew more than the older ones.

No less disturbing was the fact that our young adults, when compared with young adults in other countries, came in last place in a 1980 Gallup Poll. Our 18- to 24-year-olds knew less about geography than their age-mates in every other participating nation. But it shouldn't surprise us. Youngsters in other countries study more geography. In England, Canada,and the Soviet Union, geography is considered one of the basic academic subjects and is required of most secondary students; in the United States, only one in seven students takes a high school geography course.

You'd think that our students learn at least some geography, though, in their world history classes. Those who take world history probably do. But that's only 44 percent of our high school graduates. More than half of our high school students are graduating without studying world history.

If youngsters are to acquire an appreciation of geography and ultimately learn to think geographically, parents and communities must insist that local schools restore it to prominence in the curriculum. They should insist that geography be studied and learned, in one form or another, through several years of the primary and secondary curriculum.

Learning should not be restricted to the classroom. Parents are a child's first teachers and can do much to advance a youngster's geographic knowledge.

It is based on a fundamental assumption: that children generally learn what adults around them value. The significance attached to geography at home or at school can be estimated in a glance at the walls and bookshelves.

Simply put, youngsters who grow up around maps and atlases are more likely to get the "map habit" than youngsters who do not. Where there are maps, atlases, and globes, discussions of world events (at whatever intellectual level) are more likely to include at least a passing glance at their physical location. Turning to maps and atlases frequently leads youngsters to fashion, over time, their own "mental maps" of the world--maps that serve not only to organize in their minds the peoples, places, and things they see and hear about in the news, but also to suggest why certain events unfold in particular places.

Helping every child develop his or her ability to use maps and to develop mental maps of the world ought to become a priority in our homes and schools. For, as we all know, our lives are becoming an ever tighter weave of interactions with people around the world. If our businesses are to fare well in tomorrow's world markets, if our national policies are to achieve our aims in the future, and if our relationships with other peoples are to grow resilient and mutually enriching, our children must grow to know what in the world is where.

To help young children learn location, make sure they know the color and style of the building in which they live, the name of their town, and their street address. Then, when you talk about other places, they have something of their own with which to compare.

* Children need to understand positional words. Teach children words like "above" and "below" in a natural way when you talk with them or give them directions. When picking up toys to put away, say, "Please put your toy
into the basket on the right" or, "Put the green washcloth into the drawer." Right and left are as much directional terms as north, south, east, and west. Other words that describe such features as color, size, and shape are also important.

* Show your children north, south, east, and west by using your home as a reference point. Perhaps you can see the sun rising in the morning through a bedroom window that faces east and setting at night through the westerly kitchen window:

* Reinforce their knowledge by playing games. Once children have their directional bearings, you can hide an object, for example, then give them directions to its location:
"two steps to the north, three steps west ...."

* Use pictures from books and magazines to help your children associate words with visual images. A picture of a desert can stimulate conversation about the features of a desert--arid and barren. Work with your children to develop more complex descriptions of different natural and
cultural features.

Maps

Put your child's natural curiosity to work. Even small children can learn to read simple maps of their school, neighborhood, and community. Here are some simple map activities you can do with your children.

* Go on a walk and collect natural materials such as acorns and leaves to use for an art project. Map the location where you found those items.

* Create a treasure map for children to find hidden treats in the back yard or inside your home. Treasure maps work especially well for birthday parties.

* Look for your city or town on a map. If you live in a large city or town, you may even be able to find your street. Point out where your relatives or your children's best friends live.

* Find the nearest park, lake, mountain, or other cultural or physical feature on a map. Then, talk about how these features affect your child's life. Living near the ocean may make your climate moderate, prairies may provide an open path for high winds, and mountains may block some
weather fronts.

* By looking at a map, your children may learn why they go to a particular school. Perhaps the next nearest school is on the other side of a park, a busy street, or a large hill. Maps teach us about our surroundings by portraying
them in relation to other places.



* Before taking a trip, show your children a map of where you are going and how you plan to get there. Look for other ways you could go, and talk about why you decided to use a particular route. Maybe they can suggest other routes.

* Encourage your children to make their own maps using legends with symbols. Older children can draw a layout of their street, or they can illustrate places or journeys they have read about. Some books, like Winnie-the-Pooh and
The Wizard of Oz, contain fanciful maps. These can be models for children to create and plot their own stories.

* Keep a globe and a map of the United States near the television and use them to locate places talked about on television programs, or to follow the travels of your favorite sports team.