What are Continent Boxes?
Continent Boxes are a Montessori teaching tool used to teach children geography. They are boxes (bags, baskets, etc.) full of items from a continent including books, pictures, representative objects, maps, and really whatever you can think of to help a child learn about the culture and geography of a continent. I wanted to use this idea with the children I teach at church to help them learn about the missionaries we support as a church.
In Montessori, a different color is used to designate each continent. This is helpful for children to learn what each continent looks like by color and makes it easier to remember even before they are able to read.
For our Missions Continent boxes, I decided to only make six boxes and left out Antarctica since our learning focus was on missions and well…we don’t have any missionaries in Antarctica.
Choosing your Boxes
When making continent boxes, any type or size of box is acceptable. You can also use trays, baskets or bags. The idea is simply to find a way to separate the materials and make them inviting to children so they are interested in what is inside. You want something big enough to fit your materials, but you may also want to think about how you will store the boxes so you can reuse the materials again and again.
I used cardboard shipping boxes shown in the picture below since I ended up with quite a bit of materials, but photo storage boxes or plastic boxes with lids would be spectacular!
There is no need to start with a lot of materials or a large box…something smaller would be great. You can repeat this activity and add to your boxes over time.
Someone donated a great puzzle book with a puzzle for each of the continents, but the puzzles were too complicated for the age of children I was working with. I ended up copying the pages from the book and using them to label my continent boxes.
You can use continent cards like the ones found here at Montessori Print shop to label your boxes.
What do I put in my continent boxes?
Part of the fun of this activity is seeing what you can find to put inside your boxes. Your boxes will end up looking very different from mine based on what you have available.
The first thing I did to prepare the continent boxes was collect materials. I started looking in our thrift shop a couple of months before and found a ton of random objects to go in these boxes. I have traveled a bit and had several pictures and durable items to contribute, and then I asked the church to get involved. Many people in our congregation donated items for our continent boxes.
After that I did a little shopping to add to our boxes that didn’t have as much stuff in them. Here are some examples of what I was looking for:
- Animals (plastic or stuffed)
- Pictures of landmarks, people, etc.
- Trinkets and toys
- Food items
Here’s a peek at some of the items we put in our boxes…
We actually had quite a bit more than what is shown in these pictures in each box. I need to learn to anticipate what pictures I will want to have when I share about our projects!
For some reason when I took this picture it looks like I only have items from London. I did have items from other parts of Europe as well. I also had to make a decision about what to do about Russia which apparently can be classified as both a European and an Asian country and the people associate with one or the other depending on where they live. I put the items I had from Russia in the Europe box simply because that box had more space.
Australia and Oceania
So, one thing I realized as I put these boxes together is how much I needed a refresher course on geography. As I put together the box on Australia and Oceania…I realized (and I am embarrassed to admit this) I didn’t know Oceania was a real thing…I totally thought it was something from the TV show Lost. So funny….
Adding a Missions Focus to the Continent Boxes
Because we did this as part of a lessons series on Service and Missions, I added pictures of the missionaries our church supports and placed them in the corresponding continent box.
On the backside of each Missionary’s picture or prayer card, I put a picture of the country where they serve, a map showing where that country in relationship to the continent, and a picture of their country’s flag.
Many of our missionaries serve in restricted access countries, so I am not showing their pictures in this post.
I contacted each of our missionaries and asked them to send a short video, letter, or some other correspondence to share with the children so the children could learn a little more about them. We had a great response and even had a couple of videos from the missionary kids sharing what life is like in another country.
We had missionaries serving in most of the continents, but if you don’t know of missionaries from each continent, you could either just focus on the continents where you know of missionaries serving or you could look up missionaries from your denomination. You may also enjoy the resources from WMU which focuses on helping children learn about missions or the Missions Explorers Video Series from KidstalkaboutGod.org
Where to look for materials:
Montessori printables online
Here are links to what I used for my continent boxes. These are either free or very affordable. I printed them on cardstock and laminated them for durability.
World Landmark Cards from Beautiful Sun Montessori
Country Flag Cards from Homeschool creations. I also printed pictures of several flags and made them into two piece puzzles. I kept these separate from the continent boxes as another activity option.
Thrift store/ garage sales
You never know what you will find when you start to look for teaching items at the thrift store. I visit our thrift store almost every week (right after they put our new stuff). Even though this lesson series is over, I keep buying more stuff so i will have it when we use these boxes again. I look for items that are interesting and durable and of course the right size to fit in the box you are storing your materials in.
I couldn’t resist some of the larger items which is why I had to use big boxes!
One word about garage sales…I found an awesome world puzzle that was perfect fo the young children I work with. When I mentioned what I would be using the puzzle for, the lady giving the garage sale donated the puzzle. It never hurts to ask, right?!?
Donations from others
We have several former missionaries in our church and a lot of people who are well traveled. When I put out the word that I would be teaching the kids about missions and what kind of items I was hoping to collect, people were very generous to the cause and even let me keep most of the items.
I checked out several books from the library. I tried to find a book from each of the countries where we have a missionary that was heavy on pictures and interesting to flip through. These pictures will give you a good idea of what we included. Our library also has educational toys that could be used in the boxes as long as you can remember to return them to the library. I am a very irresponsible library patron and rack up more fines than any functioning adult should!
If you have the budget, you may find just the right item on Amazon faster than you can find it from any of these other sources. I visited India several years ago, and I wanted to include some items from India, but couldn’t find any from the sources above. I also wanted to buy some items from around the world that I thought the kids would really enjoy. I splurged on the items below.
Using the Continent Boxes to teach about Missions
We used these boxes in two ways:
First, the boxes were available for the children to explore on their own. They were allowed to take the objects out and ask questions about them and just play. The boxes were available during our entire eight-week lesson series and even a couple weeks after.
Second, each week during our lesson time, we focused on a different continent. I work with preschoolers so we literally put our arms out and pretended to fly around the world each week. As we “flew” we reviewed where we had already been before finally landing on our focus continent.
I simply showed the items in the boxes laying them out on our world map. The children talked about the items if they knew what they were and I added a bit of narrative. I saved the picture of our missionary for last and showed the children the picture and pointed out the country where the missionary serves on the map.
We had videos and letters from the missionaries, so at this point I shared that information. On the week we talked about Africa, we didn’t focus on a missionary. Instead, one of the children’s families is in the process of adopting from Ethiopia, so we talked about Ethiopia.
We kept it fun and simple and very hands on. The value in this type of learning really comes from repeating it with the same children again and we hope to do that soon.
This post is part of our series on Service and Missions….check out my other posts in this series…
- Preschool Missions Activities
- Servanthood | Teaching Kids Empathy
- Nesting Box Missions Craft for Kids
What ideas do you have to teach children about missions and missionaries? How do you engage children’s natural curiosity about the world to help them understand that all people need Jesus?