As a college student I was shocked by how many students at BYU were uncertain about the location of my home state, Oregon. I frequently heard, "is that the state north of California, or is it up by Canada? " I guess I can't really blame them, until a couple of years ago I only had a vague notion about the location of many states, and my understanding of latitude and longitude was a little fuzzy. Rote memorization is a big no-no in our house so I've found some other fun ways for the kids (and myself) to learn geography.
We stumbled on our first game by accident. One summer the boys developed a bit of an obsession with finding out-of-state license plates. Everywhere we went they searched for vehicles from far- away places. They needed a way to keep track of which states they had found so I printed off a map of the United States for each of them, and then when they found a state they would color it in. It didn't take them long to realize that the smaller a state is and the farther away, the harder it is to find! (We did eventually find the elusive Hawaii and Rhode Island plates!)
My boys also like to collect state quarters. I got them each a map to display their collections. Not only have they pored over the maps countless times, checking to see which ones are still missing but they've learned a little bit about each state based on the engravings. I've found that learning about a place is the very best way to remember its location. Besides the quarters we spend a good deal of time talking about each of the states.
We talked about the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock and then we looked at the outcropping of Massachusetts, making it easier to remember which state it is. We've talk about being able to see the Statue of Liberty from both New York and New Jersey, about Mississippi being next to the Mississippi river and about the Pioneers traveling across the Missouri River. Small, simple amounts of information give the names of places meaning and improve recollection. Sometimes we can't think of a good bit of information to "hook" a state name on, then we try to remember something about the shape of the state. We used to confuse Indiana and Illinois until we decided Illinois looked like a swollen nose, which reminded us of "ill".
Our favorite geography games are the "10 Days" series. There is a different game for each continent; the object of the game is to collect 10 country cards that you can place in the right order to take a 10 day journey. As each card is drawn we study the map to find its location and see if we can work it into our game strategy. Often when we're done playing the game the kids like to just play with the cards, planning out all kinds of long exotic trips across the planet.
Another favorite in our house is a game we like to call, "Where in the World is Uncle Ryan?" My brother, Ryan, travels extensively and it's always fun to look up his location on the map, learn something about where he is, and hear about his adventures when he gets back. Even if you don't have an immediate family member who travels, friends, neighbors, and missionaries are excellent sources of information about different places around the world.
Geography is literally all around us. Now that it has become more than a memorization exercise, it is one of our families' favorite subjects!