An Introduction to U.S. Geography inspired by folktales

We begin our U.S. studies with a gentle and general overview to the geography of the country, especially the major land forms that have developed.

Before we jump in to our lessons about American history, I wanted to make sure my daughter had a general understanding of the geography of the USA. The United States of America would be nothing without the land. Before we study the people who live here, we need to understand where “here” is! Our introduction to U.S. geography focused on the major landforms that make up North America: the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon, to name a few. We learned the geography of these major American landmarks by reading the folk tales about Paul Bunyan!

About the Introductory Lesson Objective

Each lesson I suggest will include a lesson objective. It may be one sentence and it may be a short paragraph. These are the general ideas that the books and activities relate to. It is the main theme that I hope the lesson will convey to the activities and books read and experienced together over the course of the lesson week. When I started this with my son as a kindergartner, we used part of this objective as a copywork assignment. (This was before I realized how painful and discouraging handwriting was for him.) The end result was supposed to be a notebook of illustrations and/or sentences about the land we live in. For those who can write, this would be a fun year-long project to do!

Introduction to U.S. History (Geography) Lesson Objective: There are mountains, rivers and lakes, and other interesting landmarks in America. The land stays the same, even as the people who live here change.

A great book to discuss the changing people but the ways the land stays the same is An Oak Tree Grows by Brian Karas. In this book, over two hundred years pass, and the tree just grows older while the people and homes around it change. The Big Rock by Bruce Hiscock likewise follows a certain place over many years, this time thousands of years, following the rock’s life cycle. Not all children will be able to comprehend thousands of years of change, but some may be fascinated to consider a rock’s history of such an expanse of time.

American Geography Books

We begin by reading some great picture books. I love to read the easy-to-read Wonders of America “Ready to Read” books about the natural landforms. They have clear illustrations and few words per page to distract the young reader.

After we read about some of these U.S. landforms, we found the Mississippi River and The Grand Canyon on a map of the United States. We also found real photos of these amazing places. It makes things more real. (Some day I want to go to the Grand Canyon!)

Put photos of U.S. land forms on a map of the country to learn about U.S. geography.
These photo cards are included in my Paul Bunyan’s America product.

Other books that are great for learning about the geography of America books about America the Beautiful. My favorite is America the Beautiful: Together We Stand, which shares the words of Katherine Lee Bates and is illustrated by ten different picture book illustrators, including Bryan Collier and Jon Muth.

The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller is also a lot of fun.  While there is little need for young children to memorize the states and/or capitals, Scrambled States is a fun book for a gentle introduction to the fact that there are 50 different states. Kids will laugh as they find their own state and watch them all switch places!

Geography of America Activities

Paul Bunyan geography lessons were my next step for my daughter. We had so much fun as we read Paul Bunyan by Stephen Kellogg and The Bunyans by Audrey Wood. These books talk about various places in the USA but in a hilarious context.

If you are unfamiliar, the Paul Bunyan tradition is a folktale. That is, it is a story to explain some historical or natural event. Paul Bunyan is a giant who accidentally created the land forms in the USA, including the Great Lakes, the flat Great Plains, and the deep canyon in Arizona. Thus, according to these legends, Paul Bunyan is the one who created the U.S. landforms we’re learning about!

I like to use these to discuss where the mentioned landmarks are: “Where did Paul Bunyan drop his ax and dig the Grand Canyon? Let’d find it on a map!” We read the picture books as well as my simple version from my Paul Bunyan’s Geography.

As we read the tall tales about Paul Bunyan (and his family!) we find the places where he traveled and the landmarks that he "created."

The product I’ve created to go along with this gentle introduction to U.S. geography also includes some science extension ideas for learning how the natural features of the USA were formed, such as creating our own “rivers” in sand to demonstrate and learn about erosion.

More Hands-on U.S. Geography Ideas

Paper Mache USA: Learn about U.S. landforms (mountains, rivers, lakes) and geography with a 3-dimensional paper mache map.
Paper Mache USA: Learn about U.S. landforms (mountains, rivers, lakes) and geography with a 3-dimensional paper mache map.

Here are more hands-on ideas for a nice introduction to U.S. geography and learning about American landforms!

Learn about US geography with these hands-on ideas and activities.

See the 10 Days of Early American History for Elementary to find the next lesson!

201707 early american history

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