Friday, June 3, 2016

Homeschool Geography: The Geography of the California Coast

I'm sure that California children study this in much more detail, just as they learn about all those missions and dutifully perform earthquake drills.

My little land-locked Indiana girls, however, needed just a brief romp through the geography of the California coast so that they can better orient themselves on their California vacation with their grandparents. I mean, how can you have fun on the beach if you don't have the direction of the prevailing winds memorized, and you don't know if you're playing on a bay or a cape, and you don't understand how your specific location affected the history of shipping and sailing in the state?

I based this particular week's unit on the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, which is one of the places that the children will probably visit on their trip. They completed all the parts of their Junior Ranger books that they were able to do at home (I'm keeping a manila envelope of all of their partly-completed Junior Ranger books that they can take with them to California), and then we set off on the really fun activities, all inspired by the national park's curriculum materials.

Can I just stop for a second and say that the curriculum materials provided by national parks are AMAZING?!? So many of our activities in this California unit are using them, and they're cross-curricular, engaging, and academically rich. I highly recommend checking them out.

In our first activity, I gave the kids a big road map of California (courtesy of AAA) and asked them to highlight all of the place names that had the words "bay," "harbor," "cape," or "point" in them. You can see that they quickly zeroed in on the coastline, and found plenty of names to highlight there:

They found so many that this one staged a protest at all the highlighting, sigh:
See? She's dying because I'm working her too hard, the poor little lamb.
I asked them to visually describe what a bay, harbor, cape, or point might be, based on the geography of the places that were named after them (hint: we focused on the specialized language of "sticky-outy" or "sticky-inny."). We discussed these geographical features for a while, and then I gave the kids a research/building challenge to build a LEGO model of a bay, a harbor, a cape, and a point, each on its own baseplate, and to label each with a one-sentence definition. They hit the internet, divided the work amongst themselves, and then got building!

While they built, we discussed the history of sailing and shipping around California, and how the coastal geography affected that. The main take-away that I wanted them to retain is that the prevailing winds along the California coast are from the northwest, so in a storm with heavy winds, this was a great danger to ships, as it could easily drive them onto the rocks or into the many cliffs that are there. Capes and points stick out, and so are extra dangerous, but bays and harbors are sheltered spots where a ship can escape dangerous weather.

Don't believe me? Let's test it!

The kids fussed at my specific requirements that they build their geographical features to a certain height and on individual baseplates, but I made them do that because I had a secret special activity planned! I hauled a large, flat clear bin out onto the deck, had the kids collect some rocks, and fetched a couple of corks and a couple of straws. The kids filled the bin with enough water to float the corks, then put in a LEGO model and weighed it down with rocks.

And then they tested it!

One kid is the storm and the other kid is the sailor. The sailor has to sail her ships around the cape or point or into the harbor or bay while the storm blows against her. We began with the storm only allowed to blow from one stationary point in the northwest, for better accuracy, don't you know, but as things do, well... they got a little chaotic:

The sailor will likely find that sailing around the cape or point is hard going, and so is aiming for the bay and harbor, but once her ships are in the bay or harbor, they should be well protected from the storm (if the storm isn't cheating, which of course the storm is).

The kids loved this activity, and I was pretty pleased, myself, with how it involved research, memorization, modeling, experimentation, and plenty of hands-on, creative play in the water. I've been sad and stressed lately, and so it was nice to simply sit on the deck in the twilight and watch the kids play and bicker. And yes, I know it sounds strange to say that I enjoyed watching them bicker, but frankly, if they weren't bickering with each other then I might not recognize them!

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