Organize a Country Study


Geography lessons come to life when you narrow your focus to a single country. Let’s use Italy as an example. One great way to organize a country study is with the Five Themes of Geography — and when you’ve applied them to one country, your students will understand the five themes so they can apply them to other places in the the future.


Italian street corner


The 5 Themes of Geography

  1. Location, both absolute and relative, is about finding places in the world and knowing where they are.
  2. Place is about the human and physical characteristics of a place, telling us the kind of place it is.
  3. Interaction is about how the people of a place affect the place, and how the place affects the people.
  4. Movement is about how people, goods, and ideas move from one place to another with imports, exports, and migration.
  5. Region is about ways in which a place is similar to the places around it, in terms of language, function, and culture.


Absolute location tells us where in the world a place is: its latitude and longitude, the hemisphere it’s in, and other information that allows us to find it on the map. Use your classroom globe or map to find the country you’re studying, or fly in with Google Earth.

Italy on the map

We can find Italy in Europe. Relative location tells us where a country is in comparison to other places. For example, Italy is a neighbor of France and Switzerland, but we can also see that it’s close to Africa. Italy is in the Northern Hemisphere with the United States, but a thousand miles away. Compared with the towns where we live, Italy is Northeast.

Fnd your country on a map, determine its distance from your school, and create a signpost showing the distance. Don’t forget to point it in the right direction!

Ways for students to work on location during your country study:

  • Make a salt dough map. For our Italy study, we’ll make them in pizza boxes — the maps will be protected, too. Draw a grid over a map of Italy and a grid on the inside bottom of the pizza box. Use the grids to guide you while you draw the map outline. To make salt dough, just mix a cup of salt and a cup of water with two cups of flour. Mix and knead the ingredients into a dough and form a map with your hands, making sure to create hills and valleys. Paint the map after it dries.
  • Turn off the labels and boundaries layer in Google Earth and find Italy by its shape. Note the lattitude and longitude. Turn the labels back on and see the precise edges.
  • Make a booklet for your country study, and use a blank world map for the cover. Color in Italy.


Once we know where our country is, we can think about the things that distinguish it as a place, both in terms of physical and human geography. Italy is almost surrounded by sea and ocean, it has hills and mountains and rivers, and it has a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and mild winters. There are few large animals living wild in Italy now, and it has no jungles or other areas where plants grow abundantly. Adding and labeling these details to the location map students have created will help them develop a sense of the place.

Josepha in Rome

The idea of place also include human geography: the characteristics, language, and culture of the people who live there, as well as the political boundaries of the country. Print out a basic map and have students use it to organize their research as they learn more about the country they’re studying.

The study of place can include an enormous range of topics:pasta with artichokes

  • sports
  • economy
  • religion
  • food
  • ethnic makeup of the population
  • language
  • history
  • arts
  • political system
  • folklore
  • clothing
  • manners and customs
  • transportation
  • technology
  • science

Consider dividing students into groups with specific topics to research, and having them report their findings to the class. This is also a good time to work on the idea of narrowing a topic, having each student begin with the very large topic of Italian human geography and using mind maps to work down to a specific topic for a report.


The interaction between people and their environment brings up interesting topics ranging from the way people adapt to challenges created by weather or terrain to the environmental problems people create in their country.

Italy environment

This photo shows dramatically the effects of air pollution in Italy: the section of the Colosseum in the left of the photo has not been cleaned.

Have students use a variety of news sources to identify environmental issues of concern to the country you’re studying, or adaptations to the environment people have come up with in order to live in the place you’re studying. This is a great time for a cause and effect essay or a photo gallery showing what students have learned. Photobucket, Picasa, and Pixlr are just a few of the many free tools available for creating online photo galleries. Remember — you can use photos from the web freely for class assignments, but you mustn’t publish other people’s images without permission.


Imports and exports are an obvious kind of movement from one country to another. You can find products made in the country you’re studying, and seek out the products your own state or country sends to the nation you’re studying. Discover where people from the country you’re studying came from and where they’ve emigrated to, as well. Don’t forget the ideas that have traveled from and to your country.

Italy on the map

We know that Rome is the source of a lot of important ideas for all of Western civilization, from town meetings to pizza. Italy has also been an important source of immigrants to the United States, including specific populations in the towns where we live. When we were in Rome, though, we also saw a lot of American products, and a lot of English words.

Here are some activities for studying the theme of movement:

  • Find words in English that came from the country you’re studying. Italian words in English include a lot of words about food (artichoke, macaroni), music (arpeggio, soprano) and also some words like “influenza” and “extravaganza.”
  • Learn about the people from the country who have immigrated to the United States. Millions of Italians immigrated to the U.S. — more than from any other European country. Have students identify important people from the immigrant group, or people on their own family trees.
  • Identify patterns of populaton movement within the country, including movement from the country to the city or migrations from one part of the country to another.
  • See how ideas and goods from different parts of the country spread. We learned that pizza is a native dish of Naples, but we saw it everywhere we went in Rome — and everywhere we went in the United States as well. Different types of pasta are associated with different areas in Italy, so we made placemarks for them in Google Earth.

Italy on the map


Italy is a Mediterranean nation, sharing some characteristics with countries like France and Greece. There are also 20 regions within Italy. Venn diagrams are a good way to help students visualize regions within the country they’re studying and the nation’s place in regions of the world.

Use Google Earth to zoom in on internal regions, and to zoom out to see the relationship between Italy and surrounding nations.

Often when we study a country, we choose  a few topics or activities for our classroom focus. Using the five themes of geography can encourage us to take a more thorough approach. You may still want to pick some representative topics, though. Here are some of our lessons:

  • Ancient Rome looks at the early history of what is now Italy.
  • Pinocchio is an Italian story.
  • Snow White, though it is found in other countries as well, is an Italian story.
  • La Befana is an Italian traditional figure.
  • Pizza is a traditional Italian food.
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