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Books, computers and maps can help children see the world

OK, parents, get on your thinking caps and try this geography quiz: which state has the 15 highest mountains in the United States?

If you guessed Colorado, as I did, you're wrong. The answer is Alaska, which also happens to be home to Mount McKinley, the " highest peak in North America.

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Do you know -- without looking at a map -- which state in the lower 48 states borders just one other state? It's Maine.

Don't feel too badly if you got stumped by the questions from the children's mystery geography game "Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?"

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"No one knows all the answers," says Mike Libbee, a geography professor at Central Michigan University and a leader in encouraging parents to teach children geography. "Geography is something you can keep learning all your life. Besides, parents probably know more geography than they think -- plenty to share with the kids."

There's no better time than the holidays, when so many families are traveling and everyone is buying gifts, Mr. Libbee and other geographers say, to show that there's a lot more to geography -- and that it can be a lot more fun -- than memorizing state capitals or learning the names of the continents.

Parents might learn a few things in the bargain.

Mr. Libbee is so enthusiastic about families exploring geography together that he's leading a new National Geographic Society-sponsored effort for families around the country to try at home. (For more information about the Family Geography Challenge, call [517] 774-3723.)

His tip for teaching geography-on-the-road: Ask children why restaurants, roads, farms, exits and hotels are located where they are. How are places similar and different? Can they guess how far away a mile is?

"Geography is understanding places and the relationship between places, society and the environment," explains Ruth Shirey, a college professor and executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education. "We live in such an interdependent world," she adds. "It's terribly important for children to learn about other places."

Educators across the board certainly think so. The new National Geography Standards for teaching geography from kindergarten through high school have just been announced, the result of an unprecedented two-year collaborative effort by the American Geographical Society, the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and the National Geographic Society.

The project was partially spurred by an international Gallup Poll in the late 1980s that revealed young Americans' collective geography IQ was the lowest in the world.

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Now, for first time, students, parents and teachers will know exactly what they are expected to learn about the subject.

Can your fourth- grader tell a story about what it's like to live in another part of the country or world? Does your eighth-grader know enough to describe places mentioned in the news? Could your high school senior name three local spots that are polluted and explain how it affects the people there? They'll learn that and more. (The 276-page "Geography for Life: National Geography Standards" can be ordered for $9 and the 32-page Executive Summary for $6 from the National Geographic Society, [800] 638-4077.)

Travel, meanwhile, is still a sure bet to teach children about new places. This Christmas, buy a family atlas, a globe or books about the regions you plan to visit next summer.

Debbie Robertson's sixth-graders in College Station, Texas, love tossing around beach-ball globes and talking about different places. "The trick is it all has to be hands-on and fun and then they eat it up," says Ms. Robertson, herself the mother of two teen-agers.

This Hanukkah and Christmas season, there's never been more to choose from -- everything from fast-paced CD-ROM computer games, board games, videos, card games, puzzles, beach-ball globes, pillow globes, junior atlases and magazines all aimed at helping children and parents have a good time learning more about the world around them.

Debbie Robertson always keeps a world puzzle going in her classroom. For jigsaw lovers, the American Map Corp. offers a 500-piece world, the United States and the planet for $11.95 that should keep everyone busy on winter nights. (Call Hagstrom Map and Travel at [212] 398-1222 to order.)

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The National Geographic Society devotes one-third of its holiday catalog to products aimed at children. A top seller this year is the $24.95 jewelry making kit inspired by different cultures from China to Egypt. Another is the National Geographic World magazine that's filled with hip graphics, plenty of brain teasers and weird facts.

The Rand McNally stores also have plenty for children, whether they're traveling or learning about places at home. There's a new "First Atlas" ($7.95), "The World of Flags" ($12.95) and an entertaining series of $3.95 activity "Backseat Books."

One best seller highly recommended by teachers despite its $99.95 price tag is the award-winning GeoSafari and GeoSafari Jr. electronic game by Educational Insights and used in schools across the country to teach geography. (Call Rand McNally at [800] 333-0136, Ext. 2111.)

Another sure winner this year, judging by my game-testers and others: the CD-ROM versions of the popular "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?", "Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?" and the Junior Detective version of the popular "Where in the World" games -- also good bets for holiday gifts.

The computer and board games all are designed to allow gumshoes to track Carmen and her V.I.L.E. henchmen from exotic locales to familiar territory. Luckily for parents not up on their geography, the computer games come with first-rate atlases. From Broderbund, they retail for roughly $50.

Beware: Children won't want to leave the computer to go anywhere.

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No matter, Ms. Robertson says, "They don't even know they're learning."


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