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VALLEY WEEKEND | FOR THE KIDS

Mapping Out a Strategy to Widen Their World

School's out and the Olympics are on. Now is a great time to teach geography using beach ball globes and car compasses.

July 25, 1996|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The middle of summer probably seems like an odd time to be thinking about geography lessons. But if your family has been watching the Olympics or paying any attention to the debate about splitting Los Angeles into two or more cities, you're already right in the middle of some ongoing geography lessons.

The most obvious one at the moment is on our TV screens as we try to keep straight all the new places being represented in Atlanta. In the parade of the Olympians, why does the athlete from Palau march under the American flag? Where is Gabon? Are Macedonia and Moldova ex-USSR or ex-Yugoslavia countries--and which one, by the way, has U.S. troops helping to protect its independence?

Gail Hobbs, a Pierce College geography teacher, has a one-stop-shopping tip for you: "It's a good idea to go to the toy store and get an inflatable beach-ball globe with all the countries on it and put it on top of the TV."

A national leader in the geography profession (president-designate of the National Council for Geographic Education), Hobbs is full of interesting suggestions for spiffing up a kid's mental map of the world and even his or her neighborhood.

"Families don't have any idea what's north or south," she said. "But if you go to the auto parts store and get a little compass for the car--plus pick up a local map--you can at least find out what's north or south in the Valley." And the summer season is a good time to do this, since families tend to spend more daylight hours together in the car than is the case during the school year.

"If you ask somebody for directions or to look at a map, they don't want to hear north and south, they want to hear turn left or right," Hobbs said. "But if they never learn things like north and south and then get lost because they are just depending on left and right, they're really lost."

Brian Draper, owner of Geographia, a map and travel bookstore in Burbank, had an interesting suggestion for decorating the wall of a kid's room: a colorful topographical map of the neighborhood as compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, which sells for $5.50.

"Some of these maps are so detailed that they show your house," Draper said. "We have individual maps for Van Nuys, Canoga Park, Calabasas, Burbank, Granada Hills, San Fernando city and Sunland."

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And kids' geographic literacy would get a boost if they took a highlighter pen and marked a map--any Valley map--with the routes they use to get to the mall or to a friend's house, Hobbs suggested.

By the way, some people believe that Sunland isn't really in the San Fernando Valley. William J. Warren, who is president of the California Map Society and lives in Pasadena, said, "Everybody knows about the Valley, except geographically." Sunland, he pointed out, is separated from the Valley by a mountain ridge.

OK, maybe geologically that's true, but any kid cruising the Internet and landing at www.sfvalley.org will find that the various chambers of commerce around here--and the city government of Los Angeles--consider Sunland to be in the area that may be part of the Valley's secessionist movement.

Warren predicts that everybody's attitude toward maps may soon change. "Within five years, every new automobile will be equipped with a dashboard mapping system," he said. And, he added, "most people won't know what to do with it, and they will have to learn quickly."

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Dotted lines, mountain ridges and national flags aren't the only things that determine geography in the Valley or in the world. This week, kids can see examples of something called "cultural geography."

A group of fifth-grade kids from majority-Chinese and majority-Mexican ethnic communities in the area researched their own families' histories and culture and put the results on display in the Showcase Gallery at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Griffith Park.

The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 5, 1997, and is called "Connecting Our Lives," makes the point that even though people live in close geographic proximity, they can have culturally distinct identities. But, ultimately, they are all part of the same city.

Meanwhile, an opportunity to combine time travel with geographic exploration can be found at the San Fernando Valley Fair. It's happening today through Sunday at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, 480 Riverside Drive in Burbank. The fair opens at 4 p.m. today, noon on Friday and 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, closing each evening at 10:30 p.m.

Fair spokesman Sal Bucciere said that "we are showcasing things that used to be part of the Valley--like the sheep ranches and the wheat fields. There are still spots in the Valley that maintain this heritage."

Kids are always surprised, he said, to see the photos on display of the agricultural activity here before the arrival of suburbia--even before the orange groves. The fair itself is, and has been for 50 years, focused on local crops and animal husbandry.

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