Category Archives for Geography

6 Atlases Worth Drooling Over

Books with maps in them are the best kind of books. I still recall the maps from My Father’s Dragon, Moominland, Redwall, and (of course) anything by Tolkien. Some of them are hanging on my wall at home, directly opposite a large map of the (real) world. But a step better than books with maps are books of maps.

When I was six years old I made my first atlas. It was a small collection of maps I had traced from our world atlas consisting only of coastlines, country boarders, and country names. If I remember rightly, it was a grand total of seven pages long — just enough space for each continent to make an appearance. At the time, I could barely read most of the words I was tracing. After tracing for several days (or maybe an hour, time’s tricky when you’re six) I took my pages, stapled them together with all the care an elementary school child can muster, and presented it, beaming, to my dad for father’s day. Thus began my life-long love affair with Atlases.

Growing up, I spent hours making maps of places both real and imagined. I would never have guessed that this pastime would culminate in a project like WonderMaps, although I think my parents suspected as much. They were always happy to provide atlases and maps for me to peruse. We had some wonderful reference atlases and a few good historical atlases on hand. However, it wasn’t until I was writing North Star Geography that I discovered how many different kinds of atlases there are. In this post, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my favorite kinds of atlases in hopes that you, like my parents, can use them to foster your child’s love of geography, and really their whole love of learning. Continue reading

Choosing the Right Atlas

There are so many types of atlases that it can be hard knowing what it the right choice for your homeschool library. Here are things to consider plus some of my top picks.


1. The Age of the Atlas

Please don’t use a grossly out-of-date atlas for your studies. If you bought one at a yard sale for 50 cents, but it was printed in 1985, well, you got what you paid for. Country names and borders change frequently. Digital atlases usually update frequently enough that this isn’t a problem, but paper atlases either need to be replaced, or you can draw in new borders or write in changed names yourself.

2. Atlases and Age of Student

It is important to match, as best as possible, the right atlas for the student’s age. The level of detail in an atlas is usually a good indicator of its usability. The older the student, the more information can be put on a map and still be useable. The younger the student, the more important it is to keep the maps clean and simple for easy readability. Too many place names will be unreadable for younger kids, while insufficient detail will frustrate older students who can’t find what they need.

Also consider the use of color, if it includes any almanac-esque information, if it includes topography or just political information, and if it’s visually appealing for your student.

3. Atlases: Modern Versus Historical and/or Biblical

I believe a good home library will have all three! Why? Current or modern atlases show you the world today. Historical and Biblical atlases show you the world yesterday. Need to find Thebes, the extent of the Holy Roman Empire, or where Paul’s Missionary Journeys took place? Then you would look in a historical or Biblical atlases.

Most mainstream historical atlases will have few, if any, maps showing biblical history. That’s why we also recommend having a good Bible Atlas on hand as well—especially when studying ancient civilizations. Bible Atlases are great for both history class and Bible study, although they’re a bit too specialized to be your only historical atlas. You won’t find the Inca Empire or the Han Dynasty in a Bible atlas. So the reality is that all types of atlases are important when studying history.


Top Picks:


[Shameless Plug:] I designed WonderMaps with all three of these considerations in mind.

  1. I do my best to stay on top of changes to political geography and periodically updates the WonderMaps software. Free updates are included in your purchase so that you always have up-to-date maps.
  2. WonderMaps allows you to select what features to show on your printable maps, whether you want bare outlines or the whole kitchen sink.
  3. With WonderMaps, you get modern, historical, and Biblical maps in a single product. You can easily search for what you want and print out the maps you need.
[/Shameless Plug]

Besides WonderMaps, I suggest these excellent print resources. Links will take you to the Bright Ideas Press store:

The Student Bible Atlas

This book is our favorite, inexpensive Bible atlas. We find it easy for younger students to use while being compelling enough for adults.

Then and Now Bible Atlas

This atlas adds a wow! factor with cool overlays showing modern borders over ancient sites.

Rand McNally Atlas of World Geography

This modern atlas is for secondary students from grades 6-12.

Rand McNally Historical Atlas of the World

This historical atlas is for secondary students from grades 6-12.

Schoolhouse Illustrated U.S.A Atlas

This modern USA atlas is for grades K-6.

Schoolhouse Illustrated World Atlas

This modern world atlas is for grades K-6.

Today I learned: Sudan was eager

Voters celebrate with the flag of south Sudan during the first day of voting for the independence referendum in the South Sudan capital of Juba January 9, 2011. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On July 9th, 2011 South Sudan left Sudan and declared its independence. Oddly enough, Sudan recognized South Sudan’s independence on July 8th — one day early.

Groundhog Day

Every year on February 2, millions of people ask themselves “What does the groundhog say?” as Punxsutawney Phil tries to forecast the weather for the next six weeks. Why do we trust a rodent to predict the weather? How accurate is he? What’s so special about February 2? And why does he have such a funky name?

(Photo by Aaron Silvers)

First, where did this bizarre tradition come from? The short answer is Germany, where local legend indicated that if February 2 was cloudy, spring was imminent, but if the skies were clear, you could expect a long winter. Somehow this merged with other local traditions involving badgers and morphed. Sunny skies resulted in the badger casting a shadow; cloudy days meant no shadow. When some Germans emigrated to Pennsylvania, they brought the legend with them—but due to a badger shortage, they substituted groundhogs. Frankly, there is no meteorological basis for the legend. Phil’s predictions over the years are right about 30% of the time—no better than guessing. February 2 sits right between the winter solstice (midwinter, the shortest day of the year) and the vernal equinox (a day with equal lengths of day and night). So, by February 2, daylight has started to make significant gains against the long nights of winter. It’s also the date of Candlemas—a celebration of Jesus’ presentation at the temple 40 days after his birth.

(Image from

These days, the “official” groundhog is a rodent named Punxsutawney Phil, named after Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania Punxsutawney Phil has been making official predictions from a hill called Gobbler’s Knob since 1887. He lives under the care of the Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club, who, in addition to interpreting his annual prediction from “groundhogese” to English, gives him a swig of the “Groundhog Elixir” which keeps him alive for yet another year. (I can’t think of a better reason why the same groundhog has supposedly been alive for over 100 years.) He is also said to be named after King Philip—and though it’s not clear which King Philip, my best guess is King Philip II, who was the husband of Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) and later attempted to attack the English with his ill-fated Spanish Armada. Perhaps they named him after this king due to the role adverse weather played in the Armada’s defeat. If you want to celebrate, you can:

  • Visit Punxsutawney for the official prediction.
  • Have the prediction emailedto you on February 2.
  • Find your own groundhog and . . . on second thought, never mind. Leave your local rodents alone.
  • You can also find some fun printables, games, and lesson plan ideas at

How To Travel The World (From The Comfort Of Your Home)

I love to travel. Aside from the derailment of my schedule, the expense, the hassle of airport security with three kids, the planning, the food (or rather, my gut’s reactions to it), not speaking the native language, getting a house sitter, and all that other stuff that travel often involves, it’s great. Visiting historical sites, exploring museums, soaking up local culture, and buying souvenirs are all awesome. However, I am here to tell you that you can have all the awesomeness and none of the headaches using one simple tool: the Internet.

How to Take a Virtual Vacation

Prep Work:

    • Decide where you want to visit. You can pick anywhere in the world, but realize that some places are going to have a lot more information available online. For example, Venice or Paris might be easier than, say, Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan.
    • Plan the sights you want to see. Travel guides and blogs would be great places to begin looking for ideas. Museums, monuments, and famous landmarks are good places to start. Once you have a list, look for websites that have good information and lots of pictures! You might even start a Pinterest board for your trip to help keep track of your links. And don’t forget to check your local library for any good books they might have on hand. If you’re looking for some good websites to start gathering information for a virtual trip, you might try:
    • Ask good questions. “Why is this famous?” “When was this built?” “Who is this named after?” etc. Write down your questions—you don’t have to know the answers (yet).

Taking the Trip:

      • Introduce your kids to the location. Tell them about it, and give them some initial reading (online or in a book).
      • Read, look, talk, and play. Show your kids the websites, your Pinterest board, books you checked out, etc. Discuss them, point out great pictures, and have fun.
      • Have an information scavenger hunt. Bring out your list of questions, and let your kids add to them. Answer as many as you can. You might even make a little competition to see how answers many each kid can find!

Relive It:

        • Make a notebook. Treat it like a vacation scrapbook. Include things like a map of your (imagined) travel route; homemade “tickets” for your plane, train, or bus trip; printed photos of the locations you visit; notes, quotes, trivia, and stories; coins, stamps, and collectibles from the country; anything else you think would be fun or interesting. Bonus points if you send a Flat Stanley or find a pen pal in your chosen location.
        • Slideshow time! OK, you don’t have to invite people over to look at slides of your vacation for an hour and a half, but do give your kids a chance to share what they’ve learned. A informal oral report will do the trick. Grab Dad after dinner and show off their notebook, laugh at the funny Photoshopped picture of Kris climbing the Eiffel Tower, and talk about the cool things they discovered along the way.

Happy Travels!