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Geography's Themes

Before the National Standards were developed, the Geographic Education National Implementation Project (1987) developed Five Geography Themes for teaching geography. The following is based on the elaboration on the themes by Richard Boehm and James Peterson (1994) offers an excellent combination of Information and Procedural Knowledge.


Position on the Earth’s Surface

Location is the most basic of the fundamental themes. Every geographical feature has a unique location—its global address. A number of geographic factors give significance to a location. A rich geography lies beyond location, yet the concept of location is crucial to geographical understanding. Location is a basic prerequisite to higher-level geography, just as addition and subtraction are basic prerequisites to advanced mathematical understanding and competency.

Absolute Location

Absolute site has a fixed location on the planet. The most common way of identifying its location is by longitude and latitude coordinates.

Using Grids Every site has a unique location on planet Earth (or in space). Location can be defined in relation to a reference grid, such as longitude and latitude, or perhaps an alphanumeric grid.

Different Types of Maps and Globes Maps and globes can be used to find location, but they also show other geographic elements such as pattern and process. Thematic maps provide the location and distribution of a factor: population, economic systems, climate zones, political divisions, and settlement patterns. Road maps and navigational charts show the routes for travel from one location to another.

Map Projections Map projections are necessary to transfer information from a spherical Earth to a two-dimensional map sheet. The process of map projection often leads to distortion in distance (size), direction, or shape.

Earth-Sun Relations The Earth’s movement and position relative to the Sun is important in determining climate, seasons, and time zones. Key concepts include solstices, equinoxes, tilt of the axis, daily rotation, and annual revolution.

Relative Location

Relative location is a way of expressing a location in relation to another site. For example, Peoria, Illinois, is 125 miles southwest of Chicago, or Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, or the Rocky Mountains are between Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah, or Canada is north of the United States.

Locations Have Geographical Explanations Why are certain features or places located where they are? Relative location can be explained in terms of locational factors of history, economics, or other physical or human factors.

The Importance of a Location Can Change with History Even though the absolute location has not changed, its relative importance may have increased or decreased because of its changing role in local, national, or world affairs.


Physical and Human Characteristics

Location tells us where, and place tells us what is there. All places have a set of distinctive characteristics, the features that make them different from or similar to other places. Geographers often divide these characteristics into physical and human phenomena that are spatial and can be mapped. Characteristics of place often can be explained by the human and physical processes that define the geographic patterns of our planet. The geography of a place is a mosaic of factors, including the patterns and processes that define the three remaining fundamental themes: human-environmental relations, movement, and regions

Physical Characteristics

Landforms Landforms and the processes that shape the landscape: erosion and deposition by rivers, waves, glaciers, and wind; mountain building, volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics.

Climate Patterns of temperature, humidity and rainfall, cells of air pressure, wind and ocean circulation: the climate of a place affects landform processes, soils, water availability, vegetation, and animal life.

Soils Natural fertility, suitability to agriculture types and crops, and relations to climate are all important factors of soil.

Natural Vegetation (Flora) Type of environment: desert, tropical rainforest, tundra, or savanna, and the relationship to factors of soil and climate.

Animal Life (Fauna) Relationship to environment, climate, soils, and vegetation.

Water Water bodies, the hydrological cycle, availability of fresh water, areas of water deficit and surplus

Human Characteristics

Religion Human belief systems and their imprints on places.

Languages Human communication and its imprint on places: names of places and features are often geographically descriptive in their original language.

Population Factors Description, distributions, density, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, and economic structures, rates of birth, death, and population growth.

Settlement Patterns Urban, rural, suburban, wilderness areas, and the form of settlements.

Economic Activities How people make a living, including agriculture, industry, forestry, fishing, and providing services, the imprint of an economic system on the landscape.

Human-Environmental Relations

Relationships within Places

Spatial patterns and processes develop from the complex interactions and relationships that occur between humans and their physical environments. The geography of our planet is a dynamic system of interacting environmental factors, affected by both natural and human processes.

All environments offer geographical advantages and disadvantages as habitats for humans. How humans behave according to the advantages and limitations that an environment offers can greatly affect a landscape. Key subthemes include

The Earth as an Environmental System

Interrelationships between Humans and Environments Physical and human environments are interconnected, woven together by their interactions and influences. Change in one almost certainly involves change in the other.

The Role of Technology Humans apply technology to modify their environment. Modification of the environment occurs through agriculture, industry, settlement, lifestyles, and other forms of human activity.

The Problems of Technology The application of technology can create problems as well as benefits. Air and water pollution, waste disposal, toxic materials.

Environmental Hazards Humans often cope with hazardous environmental conditions. Environmental hazards can result from either natural or human factors, although both are usually involved to some extent. Examples may be natural, such as

  • ◆ Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, tsunamis; or human induced
  • ◆ Nuclear disasters, oil spills, heat pollution of water bodies
Environmental Limits All environments have limiting factors, such as availability of water, land, and other natural resources, management of environments (coastal zones and lands).

Adaptation Humans have many ways of adapting to various environments. People in deserts live differently than people in humid tropics or the polar regions. The influence of the environment: ways of making a living, house types, ways of life, and the appearance of the human landscape

Ethics and Values

Environmental protection or stewardship can conflict with economic development. Do we want bigger and faster cars or expanded industrial capability, or do we want clean air enough to pay the cost?

Different Cultural Attitudes about the Environment and Its Resources Cultures often have different attitudes toward use and conservation of the environment. One use of the environment may be detrimental to other uses of the same resource.


Humans Interacting on the Earth

Regions and places are connected by movement or human interactions. Humans are increasing their levels of interaction in communication, travel, and foreign exchange. Technology has allowed us to shrink space and distance. People migrate and travel out of curiosity, or of economic or social need, as a response to environmental change, or because they have been forced to move for other reasons. Physical processes are also expressions of movement, such as traveling weather patterns, ocean and wind currents, flowing water, plate tectonics, and volcanism

Movement: Its Form and Stimulus

Transportation Modes Private transportation (air, rail, bus, auto, other); public transportation (air, rail, bus, auto, other); freight transportation (air, rail, truck, barge, ship, pipeline, other).

Movement in Everyday Life Individual travel behavior, such as journey to work or school, shopping trips. Networks of communication, flows of ideas, diffusion of culture. Spatial organization of society. Spatial efficiency within market areas in the public and private sectors.

History of Movement Movement is an important theme in both history and geography. Migration, history of settlements, frontiers. Voyages (and expeditions) of discovery and exploration. Economic stimulus for movements: Economic factors can often stimulate or influence movement. Colonization, mercantilism, current migrations.

Energy and Mass-Induced Movements Movements associated with the hydro­logic cycle (including weather, wind, and ocean currents); tectonic movements (including folding, faulting, and warping); movements associated with volcanism; mass movements such as landslides and soil creep; and movements within ecosystems.

Global Interdependence

The economies of the world are interrelated, and nations depend on each other for

Movement of Goods, Services, and Ideas Where do raw materials come from, where are they shipped to? Where do certain products (technologies, services, or ideas) come from? Why?

Foreign Trade Trade partner countries, tariffs, hinterlands, ports.

Common Markets Shared labor, markets, production facilities.

Models of Human Interaction

These simplifications help us analyze how humans interact over space and make rational predictions for how similar interactions will occur in the future. Examples include Gravity Models Interactions, based on the size of places and distance; Central Place Theory Size and spacing of urban areas and the relationship of cities to the surrounding region (hinterlands or trade areas)


How They Form and Change

Regions are geographical tools. They are mental constructs designed to help us understand and organize the spatial characteristics of our planet. Regions may be larger than a continent or smaller than your neighborhood.

Regions can have sharp boundaries that are well defined (such as a state, e.g., California or Illinois), or may have gradational or indistinct boundaries (such as the Pacific Basin, the Great Plains, Silicon Valley, or the Kalahari Desert).

Many regions are familiar to us because of television or the newspapers, or because they are related to other subjects that we study. For the geographer, regions represent a core element of the discipline and are of fundamental importance.

We define our regions by stating criteria and then drawing boundaries. Regions may be based upon crops, types of agriculture, climate, landforms, vegetation, political boundaries, soils, religions, languages, cultures, and economic characteristics. Subthemes include

Uniform Region

Uniform regions are defined by some uniform cultural or physical characteristic. Examples include the Wheat Belt, Latin America, the Gulf-Atlantic Coastal Plain, the Bible Belt, the Sun Belt, New England, the Rocky Mountains, or a country, county, parish, or township, or Cajun country in Louisiana

Functional Region

A functional region has a focal point (often a city) and is the organized space surrounding that central location. Examples would be a metropolitan area, such as greater New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, or the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bureau of the Census calls these functional regions Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Other functional regions include market areas served by a particular store and districts around schools.

Cultural Diversity

Understanding regions can lead to understanding human diversity. Regions are an excellent means for illustrating the cultural differences and similarities between areas of the world and groups of people. Examining and analyzing the cultural characteristics of places and regions lead students to understand the rich diversity of people and the ways they live. Such understanding will lead to more compassionate and nonjudgmental attitudes toward other cultures. Students will also understand ways in which national, racial, or ethnic groups interact with each other in a local, national, or regional context.

Source:Source: Teaching Elementary Social Studies: Strategies, Standards, and Internet Resources by James A. Duplass, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2008, from Boehm, R.C., and Peterson, J.F. (1994). An elaboaratio of the fundamental themse in geogparhy, Social Educaiotn 58(4): 211-218

WEB Resources

National Geographic
Ideas for Applying the Five Themes



Assignment SSE Geography Themes 1.1
After reading the above information, go to and take the quiz as a self assessment.

Assignment SSE Geography Themes 1.2

  1. Go to and select any middle grades lesson plan.
  2. Review the lesson plan and consider how you would adapt it for your student (s)
  3. Be prepared to submit a typed paper that includes:
    • The SSS Strand and Benchmarks it achieves
    • What themes would be used to develop the content with students.





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