The Christopherus Geography Curriculum
by Donna Simmons
From one point of view, you could say that a study of geography is the heart of the Waldorf curriculum—it is the discipline that connects and enlivens much of the rest of the curriculum. History, science and literature to name but three examples, are all rooted in place. And place is what geography is about.
The first geography lessons take place in fourth grade. The gesture is one of reaching out, of looking beyond one’s immediate self. For this to truly resonate with the developmental stage of the child, such a gesture needs to take place only after the 9 year change. This hugely significant developmental watershed signals that the child is starting to separate from her parents; is learning consciously to consider who she is; is aware of herself as a Self. Only when one is cognizant of ‘I’ can one then empathetically consider ‘the Other’.
Of course fourth grade geography is not about self development or how to relate to other people—yet if one penetrates beneath its surface, in a profound way it is just that. Similar to how immersion in the stories, myths and legends from cultures around the world create a common bond of ‘our stories’, so growing in understanding of the world we live in—its plants and animals, its peoples and history—forges a bond of common interest.
We begin fourth grade geography with a study of the child’s immediate surroundings. A gesture that moves outward needs to start at the heart—and for a child (perhaps for all of us) this is the home. Where do I live? What is my neighborhood like? What is my town like? All of this is familiar to the child—but now she is bringing consciousness to this familiarity.
Echoing the step into Selfhood of children of this age, the fourth grade curriculum challenges the child to draw maps. One has to have the ability to step out of one’s surroundings in order to be able to draw and understand maps. The trick here– which will be worked with again and again in upcoming years—is to cultivate detachment without sliding into alienation; and at the same time, connection without becoming subsumed. As with any subject truly worth studying, geography carries profound lessons.
Our Christopherus fourth grade curriculum engages the child with a number of bird’s eye view mapping exercises which many children—and adults! — find incredibly difficult. It is well worth persevering, however, because it is a remarkable achievement for a child to be able to step out of herself in order to fulfill this task. Other mapping projects include making relief maps of one’s locality.
Because Waldorf is a holistic form of education which springs entirely from the needs of the developing child, the fourth grade math curriculum, for example, extends these experiences by having a focus on area and perimeter. In our Christopherus curriculum we also include quilt making which picks up on the theme of ‘our stories’, the heart of geography explorations in both fourth and then fifth grade. Our yearly collection of cooking lessons are also tied in with geography.
In most Waldorf schools, a study of one’s country usually does not occur until 5th grade but we felt that this leaves way too much to the middle grades and that modern children also have a more encompassing consciousness than children of a few generations ago. We encourage you to take steps from ‘my neighborhood’ to ‘my town’; from ‘my state’ to ‘my region’; and then to ‘my country’. All these studies are focused on the land, the plants, animals and peoples and their stories. History and politics don’t come into play for a number of years.
For Christopherus, 5th grade geography is focused on ‘Our Neighbors’. From the US perspective, that’s Canada, the countries of the Caribbean, and Mexico. Too many American children grow up with an appalling lack of appreciation and knowledge of their immediate neighbors and we hope to take a step in addressing this!
Especially with geography studies, it quickly becomes apparent to what extent one must individualize one’s approach to Waldorf homeschooling and we hope that Christopherus makes that abundantly clear and is at the same time able to help people find their way. Geography thus depends on where you are! So if you are in Australia, your neighbors are New Zealand and Indonesia and perhaps some of the islands far out in the Pacific.
If you are in Australia, to return to our earlier example, this would be the year you studied North America, perhaps picking up on some of the Native American stories you might or might not have used in our Third Grade Syllabus.
Geography in the middle grades has to do with giving the child an appreciation of the land and its features (including human beings) in a way that ensures that as your child’s history studies progress, she never, ever gets the idea that, for instance, there was no one there or nothing happened there –where ever ‘there’ might be—before Europeans arrived.Thus while the study of Roman history is crucial to sixth grade, it would be a very good idea to ensure it follows a geography block focused on Europe (what’s so special about those Alps that Hannibal crossed?), North Africa, and parts of Asia. If you are working with Christopherus, then you will have had a block on China in fifth grade—so although this is a little backwards, it might be good to include China in your geography studies this year. You will certainly include China in your history program as you move through the centuries into the modern era and so it would be good to pause and look at it in the course of geography studies as well.
The Renaissance and the need to explore the world echo the developmental stage of the 7th grader. History is largely focused on European expansion—but again, it is vital that studies of Africa and South America should come first. The city-state of Zimbabwe, the salt trading routes, the spread of Islam north of the equator all are topics of great interest and can help your child see that not all cultural impulses in our world arise from Europe–or, later, America. Other fascinating studies can focus on, for instance, the travels of Islamic scholars (see Christopherus’ A Year of Astronomy available early 2018) and China’s steps toward world exploration and subsequent stifling of this impulse.
Eighth grade has the challenge to bring the child into the modern world. A study which takes you and your child around the world could be called for (click here to read about the 8th grade world geography block I taught in a Waldorf school). Themes touched upon during sixth grade earth science (Christopherus Earth Science available Fall 2017) such as biomes can be briefly revisited. Furth studies could focus on a country or a region where you go into more depth than in past years of study regarding its culture, history, literature, art and, of course, geography. If your family has a cultural connection to, say, the Middle East or to Russia, this could be a good time to really delve into a study of that part of the world and to formalize what might have been a backdrop to your family life and history.
Here is an outline of our Geography Curriculum through the years.