Geography, Nature, Science/Math

Creating your own compass

Do-it-yourself compass

Our favorite nonfiction picture books include related, hands-on activities. I think these are a great way for children to learn and expand upon the information in the book itself. As I mentioned previously, I’m working on a navigation picture book. Along the way, I’ve collected some wayfinding activities I hope to include at the end of the book.

Of course I would never include an activity I hadn’t tested myself. Today’s task: make a compass.

Steve Spangler Science has a good version of this activity. He uses wax paper as the float. I sliced a thing piece of cork, about 1/4 inch. Also, I used a common household magnet, rather than one with a north/south designation. This meant I had to calibrate my compass with the known directions.

I wouldn’t recommend taking this sloshing compass with you on your next camping trip, but it’s fun to try at home. Let me know if you do and whether it works for you!

Geography, History, Homeschool

Armchair Archaeologist

From National Geographic's "Forbidden Tomb of Genghis Khan"

Do you have Indiana Jones aspirations?

I recently stumbled upon a UC San Diego Research project, called Valley of the Khans, that  involves thousands of armchair archaeologists around the world. The research team uses non-invasive tools, like satellite mapping, unmanned aerial vehicles and remote sensing, in its efforts to find the tomb of Genghis Khan. These techniques minimize digging and respect local culture and traditions. Because there is so much satellite imagery to analyze, the team, led by Dr. Albert Lin, has asked average citizens to log onto the site and tag satellite data.

I’m still getting my feet wet as a “level 1 novice.” Using the video on the site, I’ve learned to tag roads, rivers, ancient and modern structures, which the team will explore. In this early phase, I am honing my technique as I get feedback on each map I tag.

While the subject of Genghis Khan is far too violent for early elementary students — he was a pretty nasty fellow, after all — I can certainly see upper elementary, middle school and high school students finding this to be a fascinating effort. The rich Web site contains history of Genghis Khan as well as the science behind the exploration. In November, National Geographic aired “The Forbidden Tomb of Genghis Khan,” and video clips are available on the program Web site.

Education, Geography, Homeschool, Nature, Science/Math

Reindeer Investigation

I thought it would be fun to investigate reindeer, or caribou as they’re called in most of the world. Everything the boys know about reindeer to date has come from their Christmas books, and according to their stories, reindeer fly and occasionally have red noses. Of course this is true of Santa’s reindeer, who are magic, but not all reindeer.

To begin the activity, I asked the boys what they know about reindeer. Answers included that they fly and live at the North Pole with Santa. Then I asked what they wanted to know about reindeer. Here are some of their answers:

  • Can reindeer fly upside down or just right side up?
  • Can they do loop de loops in the sky?
  • Are they ectotherms?
  • Do they live anywhere else besides the North Pole? Do they live in the East, West and South?
  • How big are their families?
  • What do they eat?
  • Can they go fast or slow?
  • What kind of noise do they make?

Next, I asked them where they thought we could find information about reindeer. We talked about looking in books, observing reindeer at the zoo and using the computer. For today, the easiest source was the computer. Here are a few reliable Web sites that should help you and your children answer questions about reindeer.

Geography, Holidays, Homeschool, Nature, Outside, Science/Math

How cold is it at the North Pole?

My eldest, Cooper, is fascinated by temperature and weather. We’ve enjoyed some great books on the subject, including “Temperature: Heating Up and Cooling Down” by Darlene Stille and “What’s the Weather” by Melissa Stewart. I have a whole host of experiments on the “to do” list, including making our own thermometer (stay tuned!)

So, when Busy Teacher Monthly suggested graphing temperatures at the North Pole, I couldn’t help myself. To begin the activity, we talked about weather. I asked Cooper if he thought it was hot or cold at the North Pole and why. We looked at our globe, and I showed him how the sun’s rays hit the North Pole less directly compared to the equator, so it’s not as warm. We discussed what freezing means (32 degrees Farenheit at which point water will start to turn into a solid). Cooper predicted whether the North Pole was generally hotter or colder than where we lived.

Then, using, we looked up the average temperatures for the North Pole for each month of the year. (The Web site will give you the average high and low; we went with the average high.) Using a piece of graph paper, we graphed the temperatures using a line graph. Monthly teacher recommends a bar graph, and in retrospect, I think this would have been more age appropriate for early elementary school students.

After we completed our graph, we talked about it. We observed that the average high temperature is below freezing for six months out of the year! We talked about what freezing feels like, comparing it to the freezer at the grocery store. (Brrrr.) And we discussed what kind of clothes Santa wears and why. (No wonder everything is fur trimmed!) And we talked about how the reindeer might keep warm. We’ll be studying reindeer later in the week, so this was a nice lead-in.

Field Trip Ideas, Geography, Outside, Science/Math

Field Trip Ideas: Scavenger Hunt

My friend Nanda recently reminded me of a fun way to make field trips more entertaining — scavenger hunts! For our trip to a local air park last week, Nanda had pulled together descriptions of several airplanes we would see at the park. The children had to find the planes described, for example a silver plane with red seats or a plane with a star. Once they checked all the boxes, they turned their paper into Nanda, who had brought little gliders as prizes. Brilliant!

The next day, I took my boys to a local zoo. I decided to try another scavenger hunt. Because my three-year-old doesn’t read yet, I decided to use pictures of the various animals we would see for the scavenger hunt. I found these easily on the internet and pasted them into a Word document.  I also left space for us to write down the animals’ names and where they could be found, so we could use our globe when we got home to find their habitats.

The boys definitely paid more attention to the animals when we were forced to read the information and look carefully for the various animals. Hooray for scavenger hunts!

Education, Geography, Homeschool, Travel

Business Trip Geography


My husband is spending a few weeks flying over Antarctica as part of a NASA mission to study ice in the area. This has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to learn about the Antarctic, southern Chile and penguins.

We bought an inexpensive globe at Barnes and Noble for about $30 so we can show the boys where "Daddy" is. We've been lucky, as NASA has online tracking resources so we can track "Daddy's" route over the area when he's flying:

However, the Web site will let you track conventional airline flights anywhere in the world.

No matter where we are traveling, National Geographic's Web site provides a host of resources, some tailored just for kids. We learned about Italy from the site earlier in the year, when my husband had a business trip there (which we missed, sadly).

We'll be learning more about Antarctica from this National Geographic site later this morning. Anarctica:

You don't have to go to the South Pole to get your kids excited about new places, though cute penguins help. A destination two hours away may be just as exciting to young minds. So, buy a globe, get online and learn about our world.