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Reference Materials #4: Atlases #1: Atlases

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Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students learn how to use a children’s world atlas.

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



Learn what an atlas is and how to use a world atlas to identify countries, capital cities, and political boundaries.

Suggested Time:

40-50 minutes

Success Criteria:

Each student will successfully use a National Geographic Kids World Atlas to locate continents, countries, capital cities, and political boundaries.  Students will understand that an atlas is a book of maps.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Show the students a copy of the National Geographic Kids World Atlas.   It looks like a book, but it is not just any book.  This is a special book!   At first glance, what can we notice about this book?

  • It has a lot of maps
  • It has a lot of pictures
  • It has games and a flag section at the back

The big idea here is that an atlas is a book of maps.

2. Main:

Teach how to use the atlas.  I usually teach about the atlas with a series of exercises and games:

Continent Review:   Ask students to turn to the table of contents, which is found immediately after the title page.  Ask the kids to look at the pictures of the globes above each colored column.  There are seven globes and seven columns.  What do they represent?  (Answer:  Continents).

Review the names of all seven continents together.  Example:  Which continent’s maps start on page 68?  (Answer:  South America.)  Which continent is represented by the color brown?  (Answer:  Africa.)   Which continent is represented by penguins?  (Answer:  Antarctica.)  Be sure that the kids are comfortable with the seven continents before you continue.

I’m Thinking of a Country:   Help the children learn some of the names of countries in our world by asking questions that continue to narrow their choices.

Example:  I’m thinking of a country in Europe.  (Give them a few seconds to find Europe in the Table of Contents).  I’m thinking of a country in Eastern Europe.  (Another pause so that they can find the subsection of Europe labeled “Eastern Europe”.)  I’m thinking of a country that starts with the letter “S”!  What is my country?  (Answer:  Slovakia.)

Once the children figure out which country you are referring to, have them turn to the correct page and find it on the map.  Do this several times until they can navigate the Table of Contents with confidence.

What is the Capital City?  Repeat the “I’m Thinking of a Country” exercise.  However, once children find the country on the map, ask them to locate the capital city.  Every country’s capital city is always marked with a black star in a small circle.  Example:  If the children are looking at Canada on page 61, they need to be able to find the star to determine that the city of Ottawa is Canada’s national capital.  Repeat this exercise several times for several capital cities.

Which Countries Are My Neighbors?  Repeat the “I’m Thinking of a Country” exercise.   However, once the students find the country, have them identify the countries that border the one they just found.  Example: On page 115, students should be able to work out that Turkey’s closest neighboring countries are Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, and Bulgaria.

Where Are You From?  Ask students to find their home countries and show a neighbor.

How Do You Get from Here to There?  Ask students whether they can figure out which countries they have traveled through or over on one of their trips.  If your students have not crossed national boundaries, have them use a country map within the atlas to show some of their regional travels.  If your students do not have much experience traveling, ask them to point out a country or two that they would like to visit and ask them how they would have to travel to get there.

3. Conclusion:

Pull the kids together for just a moment to go over the basics:  An atlas is a book of maps and atlases can be used for locating countries, cities, and borders.  Thank the students for their work and express your confidence that they will now be able to independently explore the National Geographic Kids World Atlas.


A class set of the National Geographic Kids World Atlas. You can substitute another atlas if you prefer, but the lesson is written specifically for the National Geographic Kids World Atlas.


I have taught this lesson many times, and each time it is a kid-pleaser.  The children love finding places in the atlas!  They love making their own discoveries.  They will want to keep the atlases, and they will want to take them home that day to show their families.  In one of my schools, kids were so enthusiastic that I used most of our book fair credits to purchase and place copies of the National Geographic Kids World Atlas in each classroom for Grades 3 to 5.  Once they know how to use the atlas, they’ll be off and running with their own inquiries and discoveries.  Teaching the atlas is just one of the reasons that I love working with reference materials in a PYP program.

I do have a strong preference for the National Geographic Kids World Atlas.  I’ve seen other children’s atlases, and none of them compares in quality, vibrancy, or content with the National Geographic.  Plan ahead and be sure to have enough copies of the atlas for this lesson.  I typically keep a class set in the library reference section, then put 5-8 copies in each classroom.  That is a lot of atlases, but students will use them if they have access to them.

Recommended books for this lesson: 

National Geographic Kids World Atlas, Fourth Edition, published by National Geographic.

Key Terms:

Atlases, Maps, Geography, Continents, Capitals, Boundaries, Flags, Landforms